Franchising | November 2016 | By Alex Dixon

3 Steps to Running a Successful Ice Cream Franchise

After spending a career in corporate finance, Rob West discovered a love for ice cream and the chemistry behind it.
Franchisee Rob West makes chemistry cool with ice cream demos at local schools. image used with permission.

On a trip to Boise, Idaho, Rob West tasted his first Sub Zero Ice Cream.

The flavor was Dr Pepper—with cherries and marshmallows mixed in—and it was frozen right in front of him with liquid nitrogen. He was spellbound by the process, which allowed customers to create their own ice creams from scratch.

West’s experience at Sub Zero was so inspirational that he left his 30-plus-year career in corporate finance six years ago to bring the brand to California. Back then it was in three states with about a dozen stores, but today, Sub Zero pushes 60 locations. West has had a location in Simi Valley for four years, and has new stores planned in three more counties in Southern California.

With his finance background and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, West explains how he has used his business knowledge to grow the Sub Zero brand in his area and make the Simi Valley store successful through the brand’s science education outreach, catering, and proprietary process.

1. Showcase your most colorful elements

A competitive advantage for Sub Zero is how nitrogen can be utilized; we can do a lot of catering. We also have the process patent on how we make the ice cream. By virtue of that, we have the ability to do catering in an office tower, weddings, bar mitzvahs, the whole nine yards. That’s very unique. Up to this point, any type of dessert ice cream was prepackaged stuff or the big bins that you scoop out, but there was a lot of waste involved and it involved a lot of machinery. You had to have electricity or really good dry-ice coolers or something like that. It’s not showy. It’s not fun. It’s just scoop and serve. Sub Zero has come along and made catering entertaining, custom, and fun.

The third competitive advantage, which has never been done before, is the science education with ice cream. We traditionally go into a school with about a 100 eighth graders and have this show teaching some core concepts. It’s very fast paced. It’s high energy. Kids are screaming and hollering and bringing the house down, and then we finish the show in about 40 minutes.

The rest of the time is devoted to letting them see the ice cream being made and serving it. Dollar for dollar, it’s probably the best marketing one can have. You can imagine 100 eighth graders sitting on a floor having a great educational experience, but then having the ice cream with the branded cups is amazing from a franchisee’s perspective. Here in Simi Valley, we have a population of about 130,000, so it’s a large community, and we’ve done a lot of schools. The kids now say, “Hey Mom, I want to go where that fog is.”

2. Stay cool during new challenges

Nobody had done any franchising with Sub Zero, so this franchisee up in Boise was one of the first ones. The lightbulb went on, and I said, “Well, instead of just a store, let’s think a little bit bigger here.” Over time, we negotiated buying the rights to Southern California.

With my MBA experience, I was used to challenges, and this was the same. I never thought of any of it as insurmountable, probably because I knew there were other stores in the country, although this was the first in California. As you can well imagine, California is a different animal.

The health department, the fire department, the city-planning department, none of them had ever seen anything like this; it was a brand new concept. It was a lot of education. We had to provide documentation about the steel and the insulation and the piping and the liquid nitrogen. It took months for us to go back through the hoops and educate them and cross all the t’s, dot all the i’s. It finally worked, and we now have this huge 7-foot tank in the store. It’s part of the show, if you will—part of the illusion.

3. Sprinkle in passion

The fun thing about franchising from a franchisor’s perspective is you get a lot of [franchisees] with different backgrounds, and that’s really cool. The company can draw upon a lot of these backgrounds. [Sub Zero has] engineers, accountants, MBAs, lawyers, and all sorts of technical backgrounds, and that’s very helpful.

New franchisees looking at our brand really need to have a passion for this. They need to be active in the store for a while before they can build the business. With some brands, if you have the money, you can be a shadow over the store. But at Sub Zero, you probably have to be owner-operator for a while, so we want people to have that passion. There’s really a need for this kind of business and this competitive advantage for school education. Unfortunately, the schools in our country, especially middle schools, are really falling behind in science. These students know more about Lady Gaga than they do Galileo. Sub Zero fills a really important niche to get that student interest, and hopefully it will bear fruit in the years to come. It’s very gratifying to be able to do that.

Besides having a passion for the brand, franchisees have to be really interested in the numbers. I think that is a failing for a lot of franchisees no matter what brand: They’re so interested in the top line—selling and revenues, or getting a paycheck—that they forget about all the little numbers in between that really tell you where the business is going.

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