Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff, the founders of popular food business Big Gay Ice Cream, discovered early on that the customers who connect with your vision from the outset can become an invaluable resource down the road.
At a recent panel sponsored by the American Express U.S. Small Merchants Group, they explained how an army of devoted customers propelled Big Gay Ice Cream from a fun hobby to an acclaimed franchise in just a few years.
The business started in the summer of 2009 as a way to pick up some extra cash. Quint, a trained classical bassoon player, decided to rent a used Mister Softee ice-cream truck because he needed a second job to afford living in New York City. He was tired of travelling with orchestras and wanted to take advantage of the weirdest business opportunity he could find. His musician friend Andrea Fisher got him the ice-cream truck, which he slapped a rainbow-cone logo on. Petroff, his boyfriend, was working in human resources for a clothing retailer, and figured it would be fun to come up with a unique menu.
Quint told Gothamist that he relished the idea that people would talk under their breath about a middle-aged white gay man driving an ice-cream truck, and he wanted to make the joke before they could — and so the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was born.
Rather than devising a business plan — which he has yet to do — Quint decided to connect with each customer on a personal level and give them a product they couldn’t get anywhere else. Soon there was a cult following for the beat-up truck with a gay-pride logo selling ice cream topped with ingredients like wasabi powder and curried coconut, along with creations like the Salty Pimp cone (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and chocolate dip).
The food-truck trend and New York City’s open culture gave them a boost, but their success wasn’t just a matter of luck or having a good gimmick. Quint said he worked hard to earn each customer’s few dollars while he manned the truck, making the desserts and engaging locals. “I worked my arse off that summer!” he said. Gourmet magazine named him “the friendliest street vendor of all time.”
Quint found that giving people a quality, personalised experience was turning them into more than customers. He remembered thinking “those first hundred people are going to be the ones that will have your back forever.”
“They’re really your first employees,” said Petroff, referring to a startup’s initial brand advocates. They’re “your marketing team, your PR company.”
“They were the ones online telling their friends to come and see us. They were the ones in line telling other people to come get in line, and they’re still the ones on our Facebook,” said Quint.
He and Petroff developed their Facebook and Twitter presence by taking time to interact with fans and potential customers. “People liked that we had an online personality,” Quint told Business Insider.
By 2011, success driven by their hardcore fans compelled Quint and Petroff to dedicate themselves to the brand full-time and open a shop in New York’s East Village, followed by another in the West Village in 2012. In May 2013, USA Today named Big Gay Ice Cream the fifth-best ice-cream parlor in the world and ranked it No. 1 in the U.S.
Quint and Petroff are about to open a third parlor in Los Angeles and have plans for expansion.
Quint said the customers who were telling their friends that they should line up at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck five years ago are still curators of the company’s culture.
“If somebody new writes us a question on Facebook, I don’t answer the question right away, because [those loyal customers are] the ones who step up and answer it,” said Quint.
“We built this little freakazoid army early on,” he said of Big Gay Ice Cream’s incredibly passionate brand advocates — “and, yeah, they’d do anything for us.”
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