In the sea of Mesa strip malls that seem to extend endlessly into the Arizona desert, the one that’s now home to Pop’s Exotic is perhaps best known for having as a tenant one of those places where people on probation go to submit urine tests.
In fact, that’s how Pop’s Exotic owner Michael Minnis ended up there in the first place.
“I sold drugs my whole life, honestly,” Minnis says. “I got indicted on nine counts of conspiracy and was on probation. I had to piss at the TASC [Treatment Assessment Screening Center] office next door, and I saw this building for rent.”
When he opened the shop, in 2018, he called it The Soda Pop Stop. His plan was to sell sodas and water and snacks to people coming or going from the TASC location. (It’s now operated by Averhealth.) But this was also around the time that a Houston company called Exotic Pops caught fire on social media, popularized by famous rappers like Lil Pump, DaBaby, and Travis Scott. In hip-hop and beyond, rare and hard-to-find sodas and snacks — Crystal Pepsi, say, or Canadian ketchup-flavored Lays — were becoming something of a cultural phenomenon.
“I kept asking the customers, ‘What do y’all want to see here?’” Minnis says, “and they kept telling me to get exotics.”
After a few local TV stations around Phoenix ran segments on him, Minnis received a cease-and-desist from a California shop with the same name. So he rebranded to Pop’s Exotic Sodas and Snacks. “Everybody was already calling me Pops by then, anyway.”
Business remained steady until this past December. Then things “blew up overnight,” Minnis says. Why?
“I started a TikTok a week before Christmas,” he says.
On the shop’s account, Minnis posts updates on new products, business-building tips, and videos of his miniature pit bull, Cookie, garnering thousands of likes from people all over the country. As of this writing, @popsexotics has more than 40,000 followers.
“I’ve been on Instagram two and a half years, but TikTok has done more for me than Insta or even all the social media platforms put together,” Minnis says.
Minnis has since debuted the $40 mystery box: All in-store purchases come with a ticket, and every Friday he holds a raffle, with the winner getting $40 worth of sodas and snacks in the form of a mystery box. Customers often post their mystery boxes on TikTok or Instagram, hoping to get reposted on the Pop’s Exotic page, thereby creating a kind of virtuous cycle of social media marketing for the shop.
The clientele at Pop’s Exotic isn’t as young as all this talk of hip-hop and TikTok might lead you to believe, though. In addition to exotics, Minnis also carries what he calls “nostalgics”: Sixlets, Clark Bars, Chick-o-Sticks.
“You’d be surprised,” says Minnis’ right-hand man, a guy named Aaron who didn’t want his last name used. “We get all different ages. Kids to old ladies. There’s people who come in here to buy stuff they haven’t seen since they were kids.”
As for the biggest exotic sellers? Honey Chili Doritos from South Korea. Squid-flavored Lays from Thailand. Barbecue Cheetos from Japan.
“Anything that’s a recognizable brand here, but has flavors that are only available somewhere else,” Minnis says. He also has a refrigerator full of different flavors of Fanta from all over the world, including a Shikuwasa-flavored version that’s only sold on Okinawa Island. (The exotic need not be from far away, either: One local product Pop’s Exotic carries is Jasmine’s Sweet Treats, a gummy candy made here in Mesa.)
Minnis says things are looking good for the rest of the year, especially if he’s able to keep riding the TikTok wave. He’s glad to have been able to turn his life around through the shop.
“They wouldn’t let me sell weed no more,” he says, “so I needed to sell something.”
Pop’s Exotic is located at 423 North Country Club Drive, Suite 41, in Mesa.
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