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The majority of my work is helping ice cream entrepreneurs start their journey into a growing and profitable ice cream or frozen dessert business. Sure, we do a lot of work with already established businesses, but I think I get the most joy out of seeing someone with a dream of opening an ice cream business, start down the road of making that dream a reality.
Let me share with you the typical story of how someone gets into the ice cream business and some of the sales channels that they are taking. They are emerging and changing in this new decade.
An Ice Cream Entrepreneur’s Journey
An ice cream entrepreneur’s journey obviously starts with a love of ice cream. You probably can recall great memories with family and friends, perhaps very early childhood memories of sharing frozen treats with family and friends. Maybe it was churning ice cream with grandma or Pop Pop on the back porch. Perhaps they let you lick the dasher. There is really nothing like experiencing freshly made ice cream made the old-fashioned way. Every passionate ice cream or frozen dessert business owner has a driving force behind him or her that is rooted in the love of frozen treats and the memories that sharing them provide.
Next, many individuals start the process of dabbling with ice cream at home. With the advent of relatively cheap home ice cream makers, nearly everyone can try making their own frozen treats and concoctions at home. In fact, the explosion of television and cable shows like the Food Network have brought unique food recipes and processes right into peoples homes.
Many current ice cream newbies have purchased a small ice cream maker, either a “frozen bowl” type or one with a small compressor and have been dabbling in traditional and unique ice cream recipes in their spare time. After the first 20 batches or so, the home ice cream guru is now making ice cream for dinner parties and gatherings at their home. Their reputation for great ice cream is starting to spread around their family and friends, and soon they are asked to bring ice cream to dinner parties or kids birthdays.
Once our friendly ice cream novice starts to get some compliments and attention from others outside the family who are not obligated to compliment the quality out of pity or to “Keep dad happy”, its drives him or her to think more about taking the next step in his or her ice cream journey.
Enter You Tube.
The University of You Tube has many graduates around the world. Many “would be” mechanics, plumbers, electricians, guitarists, horticulturalists and any other career or hobby you can think of, usually starts with an intense you tube research session, and many more after that.
May I suggest that if you haven’t stumbled across the Scoop School You Tube Channel, you are missing out. There are over 200 videos there on the process of opening and growing your own ice cream business. I am biased, but I think there is a lot of great information there for both the novice and the experienced ice cream business owner.
The Path Forward
Next step might be a low-key catering gig. A family friend is having a reunion, or a cousin getting married has asked you to put on a “dessert table” at the reception. You jump at the chance to achieve your first “paid gig”. Its not big bucks but you can feel pretty good about yourself and your ice cream “cred”, that someone is willing to pay for your ice cream products and concoctions.
Now at this stage, you probably should be in some form of shared or commercial kitchen, but you forge on, clearing out the kitchen benches and freezer space to build up some inventory for your next “customer order”
Next comes a few comments from individuals that they would like to pay you for your ice cream. Perhaps in a subscription program where you provide 5 or 6 pints or quarts per month to a growing passionate customer base. This is a big feather in the cap of new ice cream maker. When people you know, and perhaps people that you do not, start putting their hard-earned money down to buy your ice cream products. Now you are making a little money, not a lot, but enough to fund your passion and encourage you that this idea and comcept has some legs.
When you get to the point when you are making ice cream in your home kitchen about once a week for your paying customers, then you really should be looking for a more appropriate place to start making and packaging your frozen desserts. Food safety did not seem like such a big thing when you were making ice cream for the kids and the neighbors, but now that you have paying customers, its time to think “food safe”. That means that you should be making ice cream and frozen desserts in a kitchen that has been certified by a local health department.
If one of your paying customers comes down with food poisoning, or even worse, a bacterial infection as a result of your ice cream products, it can bring your whole dream crashing down.
Most cities now have companies that you can lease kitchen space from. These spaces are mostly shared, so you may be utilizing prep tables, fridges and freezers with other foodies chasing down their dreams. Be careful about cross contamination. Your buckets of ice cream sitting on the top shelf of the shared walk in freezer are susceptible to absorbing the odors of the peperoni pizza bites and the tuna salad stored on the shelves under you. When you vanilla bean ice cream smells more like a fish market, it may be time to invest in your own private frozen storage solution.
Some of this shared equipment may work well for you and other pieces you will have to bring in. There aren’t too many kitchens around that have an ice cream batch freezer sitting in the corner for general use.
Now comes the first major investment in your ice cream dreams – your first batch freezer. Unfortunately, there is a huge price jump between your $300 small compressor countertop ice cream unit and a commercial batch freezer. Most smaller batch freezer units, in the 6 to 12-quart variety are going to set you back more than ten grand. That can be a “big sell” to your spouse or partner, but sooner or later, if you are serious about pushing forward with this project, you are going to have to invest, both time, effort, and money.
You can look on some classified sites and try and get a used model to get you going, but remember, you get what you pay for, and any piece of ice cream equipment that comes with a price tag that is too good to be true, may let you down late on a Friday night before your big day at the markets the next day.
Finding Your Market
Speaking of markets, now you may start to look at some sales channels to start getting the word and your product to a wider audience. Farmers markets and similar community sales events are a great place to start. You will need to get a health permit from your local health department, and you may also need a dipping or freezer cabinet and some transportation to get you there and back, but this is a relatively inexpensive way to start selling you frozen treats to a wider audience and really prove your concept.
Hopefully by now you have a business name, a logo, a banner, and some online visibility. A Facebook page and an Instagram account are probably all that is needed to start off. People will be asking where they can find you online. Remember that ice cream and frozen dessert images can be very evocative and visually dazzling so make sure you make good use of these mediums.
Most markets will charge you anywhere between $25 and $75 per event, and as long you are selling safe and delicious product you can get quite the following and foundation at these events. Most will have some kind of power source that you can hook a dipping cabinet up to, but you soon may be invited to events that require you to provide your own power source such as a small generator. Business cards and catering menus are a must, as this is where you will get people asking your availability to cater work event, church gatherings and other social events.
Can you see how this is growing?
It seems that not long ago you were just experimenting with a few batches of vanilla in your kitchen. Now you have a line of 15 people waiting to buy your traditional and unique ice cream flavors either in scooped form, or in pints or other take away containers. That’s a great feeling to see people queue up to buy your product. And maybe that is enough for you. The ice cream business may not be enough of a draw for you to leave your day job, and these catering events and markets may be enough to wet your appetite for the ice cream business and give you a little spending money and the self-gratification that you are getting paid for what you love to do.
Then again, maybe you are only getting started. The markets or your “bridge events” have really excited you about the prospect of taking your business to the next level. Next step might be looking at something that had a little more permanency to it. Maybe a food truck or a brick and mortar location.
The Next Step: Brick & Mortar or Food Truck?
Now this step may need a little more thought, planning and funding. You have proven your concept, people love your product, but the next step may involve a significant investment of you time and money. You Tube may only take you so far. It may be time to take a commercial ice cream course, or get a coach or consultant to help you fine tune your concept and steer you towards industry suppliers and manufacturers that can help you get the most out of your business plans. The ice cream and frozen dessert market, like the food service industry in general, can be filled with pitfalls and challenges. Gaining more education in areas of food and labor costs, business operations, employee management, flavor and menu development and marketing and promotion will only help your get more out of your business venture and avoid some commonly seen mistakes that can cost time and money.
Food trucks and trailers used to be relatively cheap in get into 10 or 15 years ago, however since this sales avenue has become more popular, health departments have “upped” the standard of mobile food vendors and you have easily spend $30,000 and upward on a very basic food truck or trailer.
Its still cheaper than building out a full store, but remember the revenue isn’t as regular. Its up to you as to how many events and markets you choose to do to pay off your loan and keep the “headlights” on. I guess that is the pro and the con of a food truck. You can keep it parked in the driveway this weekend because you want a break and spend some time with the family. Or you could search out events all over the city and sell your treats at two or three events a week.
Brick & Mortar
Getting into a brick and mortar location used to be the pinnacle for many who aspire to get into the ice cream business, and it still is for a lot of people. Food trucks are now popular and mainstream enough that that business model can be enough for many ice cream entrepreneurs.
That being said, you can really make a great contribution to your community and to a lot of families and individuals by owning your own brick and mortar ice cream or frozen dessert business. Having your batch freezers, your frozen storage, your employees, and your customers all under one roof is certainly very convenient. It’s also a much larger investment. Most ice cream businesses located in strip center, stand-alone building or duplex are costing north of $100,000 to set up. Sure, you can get in a little cheaper than that.
When people ask me “how much is it to open and ice cream shop” I usually reply with “How long is a piece of string?” Your location, build out, equipment costs and initial inventory can all greatly vary depending on the size and location of your business.
Remember that when buy a building and are making a mortgage or a lease payment on a rented space, that monthly expense just doesn’t stop. Its not like the ice cream van you can keep in the driveway this weekend rather that hit the streets. Your customers and your lender or landlord want you to trade daily and continue to be in and grow your business. Ehen you have your own full-time premises you can also grow others aspects of your revenue. Remember pay rent 24 hours a day and not just during the times you are open for trading. So, after your regular hours are over, you could have an ice cream maker come in at midnight to make product for your growing catering or wholesale business.
In your own premises, you are your own little manufacturing facility that can make as much ice cream and frozen dessert as you like to grow sales in these other areas.
As a final thought, remember this business is also an evening and weekend driven sales industry. Its hard work: perhaps some of the hardest work you will ever do. I remember at the end of my third day in working in our first ice cream shop, I would thinking to myself, “What have I done?”
It was harder work than I have ever done in the previous 13 years as a police officer.
That being said, in my opinion, there is not greater reward than being an influence for good in your community, your employees and your customers lives. Ice cream and frozen desserts have picked people up during their heaviest times and helped celebrate the most joyous occasions. And just like your earliest memories of that hand cranked ice cream on Pop Pops back porch, you are now helping to make new ice cream memories for a whole new generation.
For more articles from Scoop School and Steve Christensen, visit Scoop School White Papers in our blog section!
Steve Christensen is a retail frozen dessert professional focused on helping operators and “would-be” store owners solve the complex challenges and decisions facing their frozen desserts concepts today. Steve has helped literally hundreds of clients to maintain and achieve successful businesses with their ice cream or frozen dessert concepts .