Palo Alto Software recently moved headquarters offices to the heart of downtown Eugene, OR. Our staff immediately hit the streets of our new neighborhood to find the best local spots for bagels, coffee, French/Vietnamese fusion sandwiches, doughnuts, corned beef, cupcakes–you get the idea. And then we saw them, like a dream, a food cart, an ice cream food cart: Red Wagon Creamery. To our utter joy, it turned out they were planning to open a brick and mortar shop right in our neighborhood. Also to our joy, we found out that they used, and were fans of, LivePlan. We had to get to know these awesome people better. Our interview with Stuart and Emily Phillips, the husband/wife visionaries behind Red Wagon Creamery, follows.
Emily had been a chef for eleven years and she was tired of working for other people. We decided we would put on our entrepreneurial hats. After six months of brainstorming, we decided on a food cart but still weren’t sure what kind of food to sell. We looked around at the local market, and at national trends, and realized that artisan ice cream was a growing market, but no one locally was making it. Since Emily had always loved making homemade ice cream as a chef, we decided, “Let’s try ice cream.”
Our first day of sales was a rainy April day in downtown Eugene. Two months in, we quit our jobs and started doing it full time. We anticipated it would be three years before we opened a brick and mortar shop, but the business grew so quickly that midway through year two, we began laying plans, and now we’re moving into a storefront a year ahead of schedule.
I have three pieces of advice:
- Do something you really like.
- Plan, plan, plan.
- Don’t give up.
Selling ice cream from a food cart in a city like Eugene, with the cold and the rain, we went into it realizing that we’re not going to sell out every day. Still, you can’t let the slower days stop you. Even the Ritz-Carlton will have days where they’re not full. To succeed, you have to keep plugging away and get back in there the next day. Plan for the slow days, because they are bound to happen, but don’t give up.
That’s not to say to rely on optimism. You have to plan from top to bottom. For example, in a lot of businesses you have to plan for things like government requirements before you get started. Our business is heavily regulated by both the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture, so we had to do a lot of research ahead of time. Businesses that require inspections and licenses can cost a lot more to fix if they’re launched wrong, than they take to build correctly in the first place. We worked hard to avoid that.
Any other advice?
Reach out and ask people who are already successfully doing what you’re setting out to do. People — more of them than you’d think — are willing to help out and serve as mentors. To do it, find people in your market segment, but not your exact demographic or specific geographic region. That way, you aren’t coming to them as a competitor trying to impact their market share.
For us, farmers have also been a great resource. We make all of our ice cream with fresh, local ingredients, and have a seasonal menu that changes all the time. As far as the ingredients go, you can’t look at a chart a year ahead of time and know what’s going to be in season on a certain date. Since we don’t use frozen fruit or berries, we consult with local farmers to get an idea of when they expect certain crops to come in, based on the actual growing season and the current weather.
Right now, Emily is planning our summer flavors, but even with planning, we know that any flavor that involves a fruit or berry may only have a window of a few weeks. For example, one of our most popular ice creams is called Little Almond Annie; it’s orange ice cream with cherries and smoked almonds. The first year we had it, it was around for a month and we sold out every day. It would have been nice to be able to count on that annually, but the next year the cherries split, so the season was only 2 weeks instead of a month. We had to plan ahead for that, and consulting the local cherry farmers was key for us to know what to expect and evolve our menu.
Our biggest hurdle has been meeting production demands.
That’s a nice problem to have.
Ha, yeah. Until now, we have rented kitchen space for production. However, we can only use the kitchen after 9 pm, so we can only make a certain amount of ice cream. That’s been hard. It actually forced us into opening a store about a year earlier than we’d anticipated. We bought 2 small commercial ice cream machines for our store and since we’ll have our own space, that means we’ll be able to make small batches all day long.
Increasing the quantity of ice cream we’re making is a big benefit of our new place. We bought our own pasteurizer, and with our certification as a micro-dairy processor we’ll be able to sell wholesale to grocery stores, restaurants, and other scoop shops, something we haven’t been able to do up til now.
And your biggest success?
As a business, that we’re a full year ahead of our business plan.
From a personal standpoint, it’s the number of people who like our products and support the way we’re doing it–emphasizing local, fresh, handcrafted items that change with the seasons.
Has writing a business plan helped you in your venture?
To get the funding to open the store we had to go to multiple sources. We used LivePlan to create our business plan for the applications. One loan officer said it was the best business plan he’d seen in years. The format steers you to really think about things. We used the software and then did a lot of research and used a lot of outside resources to help us create the plan. I started with Business Plans for Dummies then looked at industry-specific books and resources — about financing a restaurant, business planning for a restaurant, and the like. True, the books weren’t all good but you learn to take away the nuggets that will work for your business.