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Ice-Cream Producer

Who doesn't want an ice-cream cone on a hot summer day? It's a popular treat for young and old alike. Whether it's a simple vanilla cone or something more exotic, self-employed ice-cream producers are picking up on the trend.

Ice cream has been satisfying discriminating palates for almost 200 years. Its humble beginnings carve a sweet niche in food history. In 1813, Dolly Madison, wife of former-president James Madison, served ice cream at her husband's inaugural ball. Thirty years later, the hand-cranked ice cream freezer was developed. Ice-cream production became a viable industry.

Scooping the Big Guys

Major multinational ice-cream companies -- like Ben and Jerry's, Breyers and Nestle -- have the advantage of wide distribution and name recognition. You can buy these brands at any major supermarket. But what these products don't have is freshness and quality.

"The big guys don't run their own shops, so that leaves lots of room for people to get into the market with a shop in a good location and ice cream made on site or close by," says Doug Goff, of the University of Guelph's dairy science and technology program.

Discriminating ice-cream palates crave fresh ingredients and a homemade taste. Multinational brands are shipped, warehoused and sold. Fresh ice cream is very fresh -- possibly made that day. Freshness and quality are the two key concepts, and music to the ears of an ice-cream producer.

The Small Frys

Guy Fry, owner of Bay City Ice Cream in Bellingham, Washington, is happily capitalizing on the trend. Fry is a restaurant industry veteran. "I've been in this industry since 1963. My first promotion was from silverware sorter to dishwasher!"

Although he already owned a restaurant, Fry jumped at the chance to buy a local ice-cream store. The previous owner gave Fry the ice-cream recipes, taught him the ropes, and turned him loose. Compared to the restaurant business, ice cream was a snap.

"This is our retirement! Everyone that comes in is in a good mood. They're ready to indulge themselves. They're in a 'treat' mood."

Fry works seven days a week during the summer, and he anticipates working six days a week in the winter to build his already flourishing business. The schedule sounds grueling, but it's an industry necessity.

Take a Dip

Lynda Utterback, publisher of National Dipper magazine, has some advice. "You need to work in the store as an owner-manager. Customers expect you to be there all the time." Being there all the time ensures a commitment to quality.

But Fry does admit some flexibility during the slower winter months. "I'm going to take some time off this winter, but I have no expectation of taking time off during the summer. Our target market is local. We can't compete with the big chains, because we can't ship our product without it losing quality."

Ice cream oxidizes and gets dark as it ages. While a larger chain can successfully sell their ice cream on volume alone, smaller vendors that use fresh ingredients have to keep a sharp eye on freshness and the bottom line. What's not eaten at the end of the day is usually thrown away.

Local stores can carefully track consumption trends and produce only what's needed. This reduces waste and ensures each scoop of ice cream gets a happy home. Commitment pays off.

Know Your Ice Cream Inside Out

And education is a sweet deal. "Both marketing and technical skills are critical for getting into this business," says Goff. "You need both. One without the other is doomed to fail." Goff recommends a bachelor's degree in food science (which multinational chains prefer), or a degree in business or marketing.

Fry recommends future entrepreneurs receive a degree in hotel and restaurant management. "Restaurant school teaches you specific information for running your own business," he explains. From there, intern for a local ice-cream producer or go to an ice-cream school for assistance. Formal schooling and specific industry training will soundly prepare you for this career.

When you can make ice cream in your sleep, pool your money and buy equipment. "Expect an investment of about $50,000 for equipment and fixtures," says Fry. You'll also be paying rent on your retail space, so that expense must be factored in.

A high-traffic location may be costly, but it's essential for success. "If you're thinking of your own shop, location is everything," Goff explains. Fry is located in the downtown core, directly across from a weekend farmer's market.

Skimming the Cream

Ice cream producers can look forward to good profits. "Ice cream is fairly profitable," Fry admits. Although a first-year entrepreneur may not net a huge amount -- due to start-up and marketing costs -- there's light at the end of the cone. Fry estimates that business-savvy ice-cream producers can expect $50,000 in profits a year.

What's next for Fry? He's planning to develop a frozen ice-cream treat. Goff applauds the move, saying that diversification is a cool way to increase profits: "Innovation is a big key for success." Diversification can mean anything from a new flavor, a new confection, or a brilliant marketing idea. Get ready to try every flavor.


National Ice Cream Retailers Association
Trade organization for independent ice-cream producers

The Ice Cream Alliance
Get the inside scoop on the industry

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