HOW A PROSPECT HEIGHTS LAUNCHED HUSBAND AND WIFE ICE CREAM BUSINESS ROSE THROUGH THE RANKS, AND MAY EVEN BE POISED TO TAKE ON A CERTAIN VERMONT-BASED BEHEMOTH
BY CHRISTINE SIRACUSA • PHOTOS BY LUCY SCHAEFFER
Entrepreneurs, take note. If you don’t start your business with plans for achieving world domination, it can still happen. Exhibit A: Brian Smith and his wife, Jackie Cuscuna, who started Ample Hills Creamery in 2011 with little vision beyond making a splash in its original Prospect Heights location. “My goal was basically to buy myself a job,” said Smith, who added that his three “obsessions” were then, and remain, movies, old fashioned radio plays, and ice cream.
This screenwriter and producer of radio plays for NPR (as well as audiobooks) decided that, with the new enterprise, it was time to turn to number three on the list. And he was familiar with the craft, having been making ice cream at home since his teen years. He was also well versed at storytelling and knew the narrative he wanted to tell with his product, but the business side of things was less clear.
So, Smith enrolled in an eight week small business course, run by the city, that stressed market research. His wife was working full time as a teacher and he had one daughter in grammar school, so every day he would pack up his then six month old son and head to a different ice cream joint.
They visited stores all over the tri-state area. Smith would sit, take notes, watch the customers, watch the staff, and definitely sample the wares…all the while looking for his place in the market. After compiling research, Smith was ready to jump in. But, whereas he is a self-described “diver,” his wife is more a “wader,” who cautioned that they should do a test run first. “She was concerned that maybe no one would like the ice cream, or that I wouldn’t like making it for a living,” he recalled.
After a period of negotiation, the wader won. They bought a pushcart and set up shop at the Celebrate Brooklyn outdoor performing arts festival for a summer. The crowds loved the ice cream, Smith loved making it, and they made a plan to move forward with a brick and mortar store. And by the time they did open up the Prospect Heights location, the business already had name recognition, which was helpful in drawing a crowd.
Here the story moves into the issue of space, a central tenet of Ample Hills’ philosophy and one of its major differentiating factors. The average ice cream shop is content to open up in a 300 to 400 square foot floor plan, especially in this city and among its premium retail rents. But Ample Hills needed more room than that for two reasons. First, the business plan was to pasteurize its own milk and make all of its ice cream and mix ins in house. Second, the couple’s wish was to actually enjoy building a community around the product. Today, Smith explained, most ice cream shops are grab and go, but in the 1950s and ’60s, they were woven into people’s social lives. Ample Hills aimed to create a culture around enjoying ice cream, similar to what Starbucks did with coffee a place where you get quality food and the perfect atmosphere to enjoy it in.
It’s working, because the customers keep coming, and so do the stores. Ample Hills will soon be opening a 15,000 square foot facility in Red Hook, along with a store in Astoria and another at 192 Prospect Park West near the former Pavilion Theater. It has also expanded beyond the city; the business has locations in New Jersey and Florida and is opening another in Los Angeles later this year. The Food Network has called it the “Best Ice Cream Shop in America” and it even made Zagat’s “Top Rated Ice Cream in New York City” list. Each new store has a unique flavor, too, available only at that location one that reflects its surrounding community. For example, Smith mentioned that the Astoria store will carry a flavor that will include some sort of Greek pastry, though the jury’s still out on which one.
And it is, indeed, a jury. New flavors used to pop out of Smith’s mind and onto the menu, but expansion has brought with it collaboration, and some systemization. Toward these ends, Ample Hills’ recently hired Ice Cream Plant Manager has designed what the company terms a “creative see-saw.” When a new flavor idea comes to the table, the team uses it to weigh factors like cost, taste, and brand value. New flavors are, of course, a big piece of the puzzle; they create buzz among loyal customers and keep people coming back. Having the space and the staff to generate and produce these new flavors is key to continued success.
As Ample Hills expands, Smith explained, too, that hiring well becomes more and more crucial. Currently, most of its managers started as scoopers, and most of those started as customers. The trick becomes keeping that level of fandom among the staff. Because, he added, “that’s what makes it a fun place to be and makes customers want to hang out.”
While physical space and culture are important, the quality of the product is obviously even more so. The only things not produced on site are the sugar, the eggs, and the milk, and that hands on attention to each step of the process comes through in taste and texture. That said, as Smith indicates on the business’s site, “Though we are serious about our craft, we do not make serious ice cream. Our flavors are playful and creative and always fun.” They are careful, he explained, to refer to their ice cream as “house made,” which has an entirely different vibe from “handmade” and even further from “artisanal.”
There has been much made in the press of late about Ample Hills vying for a top spot in the national ice cream industry, and the product clearly has nationwide appeal. Flavors are in some supermarkets (with plans for more), ship across the country, and at least this humble editorial tasting crew would like to see someone give Ben & Jerry’s a run for its money. Although, selfishly, we’d like to see them come to Ditmas Park first.
Ample Hills Creamery
In Brooklyn at 623 Vanderbilt Avenue. 305 Nevins Street, Dekalb Market Hall,
and Brooklyn Bridge Park / amplehills.com