Justin Harter is an artistic entrepreneur living in Rockaway Beach. He holds a degree in marketing from Fordham University, though his career path has never been as traditional as his degree. From creating healthy beachside treats to an innovative service app, Justin has his sights set on quite a bit in this life.
Q: To begin, what inspired the idea behind CITYSTICKS?
A: During my time as restaurant manager at Tom Colicchio's Riverpark, while passing out ice pops for an event, I saw how happy people became upon receiving the frozen treat. It was that feeling that reminded me why I worked in the service industry. The reactions from guests were different than if serving them alcoholic drinks or a great meal. It took them back to childhood and it was as if I could see their memories through their smiles. It was very special. So, I thought, why not take this newly acquired bar knowledge and create better crafted "frozen drinks on a stick." I pitched the idea to my friend Maribel... The rest is history.
Q: How did you take that idea and make it into the five-location set up you have today?
A: Determination. Never giving up. Asking for help. I was lucky enough to have had great mentors--one of which was my former boss Robin, of Me&Ro--teach me how to operate a business and create a brand from the ground up. Then it was telling as many people as humanly possible what I set out to do and how they might be able to help. Having worked in a number of notable establishments in the city among a few industries, my networking skills were put to the test. I'm a people person, so it was also a lot of fun. And as an artist, I believe you have to get your ideas out or at least try! In my experience, I start to go stir crazy otherwise.
Q: What makes your "ice pops with personality" stand out?
A: CITYSTICKS are well-balanced, modern creations that are rooted in flavors that most people are familiar with and enjoy. It's taking what we already know and making it better. I'm not reinventing the wheel, I'm paving the street for a better ride.
Q: When did you start getting involved at Edgemere Farm?
A: As soon as Edgemere began doing dinners, Matt [Blance-Stephany] and I were approached about hosting our own. We hadn't had the opportunity to use the produce for business purposes (though we were getting our CSA!) so this was a cool path we could explore. Up to this point, we were just the dessert guys.
Q: How has working with the farm changed your perspective on food?
A: Seven years ago when I opened Riverpark, I was drawn to the project because of the farm element. At the time, Brooklyn Grange and rooftop farming was all the rage. And I should mention, I'm from Ohio--where my family still grows their own veggies--and I remember selling a baker's dozen ears of corn on the corner of my street as a kid (for $2 by the way!). I learned very quickly that farm fresh food was possible in an urban environment, we just needed to continue to educate ourselves about how to make it work, and try to make a business out of it, or at least break even. I learned from Zach Pickens, founder of Rooftop Ready Seeds, that you need a crop that is hearty enough to survive the NYC air and water. From there, all dots started to reconnect again; from childhood to "fancy Manhattan farming" now to Rockaway. What's incredible about Edgemere is because of its location and business structure, they can provide much-needed food to a community that wants and needs alternatives to bodegas and supermarkets. Food is essential, its meant to be enjoyed because of the love that is put into its preparation, from the planting of the seed to the charring on the grill. It doesn't need to be fancy, just fresh. That's something that everyone can relate to.
Q: Tell us about one of your favorite events CITYSTICKS has treated.
A: One story that sticks out in my mind is getting into Vogue.com! They were doing a shoot at the concession and everyone was losing their minds because this was the second year after Hurricane Sandy and the area was finally seeing success again and the press certainly was helping. One of the PA's came over to the shop and ordered a bunch of waters. I politely asked what was going on and she told me, "Vogue." So I thought hey, here's an opportunity, it's a beautiful day, give them a bunch of pops! So I gave her a bunch of pops to take back, and not even ten minutes went by until her producer came over with her and said something to the effect of, "These are amazing, can we buy ten more," and, "Do you have a card? We'll give you credit in the magazine if we use a shot with the pop in it." About a month later, my friend texts me a picture... "You're in Vogue!" It's hilarious... "Givenchy sweater $300, citysticks ice pop $3." I love the juxtaposition in clever crediting. They were awesome and even shouted out Citysticks on Instagram. That was cool.
Q: What are some of the new ideas you're pursuing as a result of CITYSTICKS?
A:Combrr, my beach delivery app, was a direct result of CITYSTICKS. I began by beach hawking, aka walking up and down the beach selling pops from a cooler bag like you'd see in stadiums, while dancing to disco and chatting with the locals. I always wanted to get a fleet of people down on the sand, but finding the staff and getting all the permits is a nightmare in this city. Thus birthed Combrr. Combrr is an app that allows customers to place orders, check out with a selfie and have their goods delivered to them directly on the sand! It's my favorite new project. I also leverage the pops to throw parties. I mean, who doesn't like to suck on an ice pop while dancing at a nightclub? I began FEMME earlier this year, born out of a need to express inclusiveness in the party scene. It's a monthly LGBTQA party blurring lines of sexual norms that is open to everyone featuring killer DJs, go-gos, drag characters & live shows. FEMME returns to Manhattan for the highly acclaimed opening of Club Cumming with Alan Cumming on Sunday, September 17.
Q: Any plans to bring Combrr to other beach locales?
A: YES! We'll be fundraising this fall/winter and can't wait to expand into other markets.
Q: Finally, as someone who's been very involved in the Rockaway community, what's one element about New York City or Rockaway that has inspired you or your work the most?
A: It's the typical big fish small pond story... When I came to NYC, I was frightened; I was sheltered, naive and not honest with myself about my sexuality. New York City helped me understand the world from different eyes. I've met people from all over the world with a multitude of backgrounds and socio-economic positions. But I never felt like I could make a difference in NYC proper; it was too cluttered, and finance bros started ruining the city. Rockaway has allowed me to be myself, to continue to find myself and make a difference that is visible, tangible and real. I wake up knowing I can make a difference. That's really special and important because we have to take care of each other. And whatever I've given, I know I'm getting in return.
Find out more about Justin Harter in the second episode of The Six Pack, presented by Coors Light.
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