In the summer of 2011, when Brian Smith opened the first Ample Hills Creamery ice cream shop in Brooklyn, he actually ended up losing 25 pounds. That’s what happens when you work 14 hours a day turning buckets of milk and cream into zany ice cream flavours like “Salted Crack Caramel.”
“I’d never done a day’s work of manual labour in my life,” the former horror movie screenwriter tells Business Insider. But now he had a new type of blockbuster hit on his hands, and was working himself to exhaustion trying to sustain it.
Ample Hills became a runaway success right out of the gate. The shop was written up in the New York Times and had a line out the door its first weekend. Smith ended up having to shut down the shop for a week after being open just four days. He simply ran out of ice cream.
“We were definitely unprepared for that level of success,” Smith says. “We were psychologically prepared for failure. We had plan B’s in mind, but we hadn’t really planned for success.”
Since that summer in 2011, Ample Hills’ success has only grown. Smith and his wife Jackie Cuscuna, a high school teacher who joined the business full time in December, now operate 5 shops total (including kiosks), and have raised $US4 million from prominent tech investors to open a factory in Brooklyn.
The factory, which will span 15,000 square feet and employ between 25 and 50 people, is the centrepiece of a new expansion plan for Ample Hills.
The model going forward, Smith explains, starts with their first shop on Vanderbilt avenue.
“The Vanderbilt shop makes only one ice cream flavour on-site,” he says. “It’s called ‘The Commodore’ because that was Cornelius Vanderbilt’s nickname,” and it’s a flavour inspired by his life.
Every new Ample Hills shop will have one flavour you can only get at that specific location, and which you can see being made in front of you. The rest of the flavours will be made in Ample Hills’ new factory.
Smith hopes this will be a way to keep the homemade feel that drew people to the original shop, while allowing the company to grow — first in New York City, then into the rest of the US.
“A big differentiator for us was that we were making everything on site, from beginning to end. People would come and stand in line and they would see me mixing eggs and milk, and chopping cookie dough up into pieces and putting it in the ice cream. You don’t often see the process,” he says.
For Smith, it added a bit of story to the whole endeavour — a narrative. This was central for Smith. Before opening Ample Hills, he had primarily written horror movie scripts.
“I made bad monster movies for TV,” he chuckles. “Ones with giant killer birds and aliens on a runaway train.” His favourite is “Beneath,” a movie which had a short theatrical run and features kids on a rowboat in a lake feeding each other to a monster.
Smith points out that while the kid-friendly aesthetic of Ample Hills could not be further from this “mean-spirited teen horror film,” when he set about raising money from venture capitalists for Ample Hills he felt like he was back pitching a screenplay.
“It forced my wife and I to nail down what it is that makes Ample Hills special,” Smith says.
This round of investment is led by Charlie O’Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, and includes Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Red Sea Ventures, the founders of Seamless, and a syndicate headed by the cofounder of Brooklyn Brewery.
So what did they love about Ample Hills?
“A lot of excitement for the tech people was around there being so many business models. There isn’t only one trajectory and one thing.”
Smith will use the money on a three-pronged strategy. The first piece is opening more brick-and-mortar shops, but the second is getting Ample Hills ice cream into grocery stores (now at about 20), and the third is expanding direct shipments to customers.
“I think the ‘e-commerce aspect’ [of selling directly to customers] is what intrigued them. That’s an untapped model and not a lot of people are doing it.”
Ample Hills ships to people around the country using dry ice and Styrofoam containers. Right now, that is a very small portion of the business, at only roughly 3%. And Smith says the heart of Ample Hills will always be brick-and-mortar. But the tech investors think direct shipping could be an important step, according to Smith.
Whatever direction Ample Hills goes, it has already made the transition from “mid-life crisis” to neighbourhood favourite. Now we’ll see whether the rest of the US will get as hooked on Ample Hills as Brooklyn is.
Disclosure: Lerer Hippeau Ventures Managing Partner Ken Lerer is an early investor in Business Insider and currently sits on the board.
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