I own a vegan ice cream shop. Each winter, I catalog my business’s techniques, ingredients, and financial numbers, bind them up as a book, and open the doors to my factory for 5 days to entrepreneurs around the world who want to start an ice cream shop. Cool School is a veritable Ask Me Anything about the in’s and out’s of running a business: the struggles, the surprises, and the things you never knew were going to be part of your dream business package.
I remember once, getting a pint of vegan ice cream at a grocery store and then eating it in the parking lot. This was not the substitution for the sweet ritual I sought.
Why ice cream? For many of us, going out for ice cream is a way to mark special occasions. As a kid, getting an A+ on a report card meant a trip to the froyo shop. A school play on opening night was sure to end up with a visit to the neighborhood scoop shop. When I stopped eating dairy at the age of 25, I felt a sudden loss. How was I going to reward myself for accomplishments? While everyone else celebrated, was I really stuck ordering lemon sorbet or some other dairy-free afterthought? I remember once, getting a pint of vegan ice cream at a grocery store and then eating it in the parking lot. This was not the substitution for the sweet ritual I sought.
When I moved to Austin, Texas in 2008, it took only two months from landing a job at a vegan cafe-bakery to making dairy-free soft serve from scratch as my full time job. The result was an instant hit, and I went from selling products out of a toy shop to eventually starting Sweet Ritual with my business partner Valerie in 2010. As the popularity of our line of vegan soft serve flavors, shakes, and sundaes grew, so did the struggles in running a business.
We felt alone in navigating some of the curve balls of business. When the Milk and Dairy board informed us that our vegan business would be paying a fee as well as being inspected monthly, I was befuddled. When we finally perfected our dream ingredients for our ideal ice cream, the distributor list was 15 suppliers long! How would I streamline this? We needed people to work the shop — but we needed the right people. How do I create a company with a culture, and not just a couple of jobs for people to scoop ice cream part time?
When it seemed that we had more questions than answers, we wished someone was there to advise us, or help point us in the right direction. If only there was a solution! Little did I know, I was about to create it.
In 2014, I got a phone call from Chris, an entrepreneur in Vancouver, Canada. “I heard you guys make the best vegan ice cream in the world!” Chris exclaimed when I picked up the phone. “I’m traveling to New Jersey for a 3-day ice cream course that covers non-dairy basics and food science. Afterward, can I come down and work for you for a week? I really want to open up my own shop.”
Valerie and I decided that we would like to take the course as well. All of us attended this class in a suburban basement that had been turned into a mini ice cream production kitchen. Malcolm Stogo, the teacher, had owned an ice cream shop in the 80’s and had gone on to advise many ice cream greats in his career. We learned the basics of food science of how to make non-dairy ice cream, along with how to use an Italian batch freezer and blast freezer. After class, we students would take the train to Manhattan and try all of the different ice cream shops, often three each evening. That week left us with such a different view of how we could make ice cream. Trying all the different flavors and shops throughout the city it was clear there were still many stones left unturned in this new frontier.
A few weeks later, Chris flew to Austin to work with us for a revelatory week. There were so many things we had learned from just 3 years in business that we were able to pass on to him: who his customers would be, how to hire employees, how to manage them, how to price for labor and ingredients, how to defrost an ice cream dip freezer. Armed with the knowledge that there was so much more to an ice cream shop other than making good ice cream, Chris went back to Vancouver and several months later, opened Nice Vice Creamery. We were so proud!
Rather than franchising, we thought it would be best to arm dreamy would-bes with a real-life scenario of what they would be up against, and thus be able to create an ice cream shop that would serve their own unique communities.
Soon after, Karen and Chris from Providence, Rhode Island got in touch. They had a successful vegan ice cream truck using a pre-made soft serve mix, but they knew they wanted to move eventually to open up a brick and mortar store. They had met us a few times before on their travels to Austin and asked if we would be willing to set up a formal class for them to take. With our combined backgrounds in teaching (Valerie travels the world teaching improv, I have a Masters Degree in Education), we set about creating “Cool School,” a 5 day master class in vegan ice cream that covers building out the science, the ingredients, the finances, and the staffing of an ice cream shop.
With two successful sessions, we set about creating a course to help plucky entrepreneurs lay the groundwork for success on their own vegan ice cream concepts. Rather than franchising, we thought it would be best to arm dreamy would-bes with a real-life scenario of what they would be up against, and thus be able to create an ice cream shop that would serve their own unique communities.
In Cool School, we keep sessions small — nine students is the most that we teach at a time. On the Sunday before class starts, we all gather for dinner at our production kitchen, so that the students can view the facilities, get to know me and Valerie, and get to know their fellow students. The school sessions are held from Monday — Friday, 9am-4pm, with a break at noon for a catered vegan dinner from different area restaurants (meal included in tuition).
On days one and two, we work extensively in the production facility discussing the science of ice cream, working on commercial equipment in the kitchen, and talking about business. We cover how to get a loan, how to choose a location, how to source ingredients, and how to structure a restaurant.
Day three is a favorite of all students — it’s Make Your Own Flavor Day! We group students into teams, and each team dreams up their own twist on what we have taught them in the first two days of school. Here, students experiment with aquafaba (bean water), alternative sugars like coconut or piloncillo, or making oat milk from scratch.
On day four, we meet at our scoop shop. We go over all of the nitty-gritty: how to work with a contractor, how to train employees, how to scoop and serve ice creams, and how to take photographs for social media. We end the day with a discussion of company culture, how to provide health care, time off, and how to achieve a work-life balance as busy entrepreneurs.
On the last day of the course, we tie up any loose ends that the students may have. We emphasize how vegan businesses can operate as a community-oriented and collaborative way, and detail how we work with local vegan non-profits, festivals, and other vegan businesses to go in on ingredient sourcing, business owner meetings, and ice cream crawls.
It’s up to us to support one another and create our own peer groups. United, we can change our food system for the better!
In the 4 years that we have held Cool School, we have taught 71 students from 52 businesses and can count 19 business alumni shops that are currently open, making and selling non-dairy ice cream. If you have visited Cocobella Creamery in LA, Awesome Bites Co. in Houston, Ajae’s Scoops in Dallas, and as far away as Nieve d’Olla in Mexico City, and Ambassador Ice cream in Manilla, Philippines — those are just a handful of our students who now own and operate 100% vegan ice cream shops.
As veganism grows, so will the demand and opportunity for mom-and-pop vegan restaurants. It’s up to us to support one another and create our own peer groups. United, we can change our food system for the better!