Episode 6 January 5, 2004

Hello and Happy New Year to you.    Hope the holidays treated you well.  If they treated you too well, and you’re looking for some support for your New Year’s resolutions you’ve come to the wrong place.  I think it’s safe to say that stories of 14% butterfat ice cream, chocolate-covered cherries,  and penuche fudge won’t be very good influences on your new year’s health kick, but I feel pretty confident in saying that reading this won’t actually make you gain weight.   Speaking of weight, one of the favorite quotes I recently overheard in the shop was from a woman who nervously walked in, looked around, and said with a sigh, “just being in here makes me gain weight.”  Oh well, I’m in the business of making people happy, loosen your belt at the door.   Or as I like to say, ‘Life’s short.  Eat ice cream.’

It’s been a little while since my last entry, so let’s get right to it.    Despite the arrival of old man winter, things are going pretty well here in the valley ofEasthampton.   The dipping cabinets are fully stocked with 28 flavors of my own (ok, it’s still mostly Dad’s) ice cream, sugar-free ice cream, and frozen yogurt.   And I’ve got another freezer full of ice cream cakes and wicked good ice cream sandwiches made with homemade brownies just like Mom used to make (well actually, she did make them) and filled with Vanilla ice cream.   The cakes were fun.   Mom came out to give me a crash course in the art of cake-decorating.    She taught me how to create the toppings and lettering gels, how to frost the cakes, and finally how to decorate them.   All this after I first learned from Dad how to make a cake.   It’s a layer of vanilla ice cream, then a thin layer of broken-up Oreo cookies, and topped off with chocolate ice cream.   Needless to say, I plan to put the adjective ‘handmade’ in bold on my ice cream cake signage.    My cake creations don’t come close to Mom’s yet, but I keep telling myself she’s a professional, and I’ll find my game with practice.   They definitely take some time to make, but they’re a great moneymaker, even while the snow’s flying.

Speaking of winter holidays, the week before Christmas turned out to be tremendous for candy and chocolate sales.  I had customers in the shop nearly continuously during that whole week.   I sold out my entire chocolate cabinet, including about 20 pounds of truffles.   The holiday taught my one good lesson. Owning a small business is even more fun when you make money!  I could have sold more if I had it.   Next time I’ll have it.  I even sold about 100 of my own handmade chocolate reindeer lollipops.   I anticipated Valentine’s day to be big, but definitely underestimated the ‘stocking stuffer factor’ with Christmas.   In fact, the original owner of my shop (before Carl the baker) stopped in a few weeks ago, and she told me Easter was actually the biggest holiday for her.  So it looks like the holidays will be the wood for the fire through the long, cold New England winters.   The best part is the 3 big hitters (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter) all fall during the cold, slower ice cream months.   I know, I become quite the capitalist haven’t I.

With the arrival of my first batch of Mt. Tom’s t-shirts, I now have an official uniform for my crew and me.  So from here on in, it’s jeans and a white Mt.Tom’s t-shirt every day (don’t worry, I have more than one).  Business casual has taken on a whole new meaning.

In the last issue, I mentioned it was time to kick into marketing mode.   Well, as luck would have it, I got a huge marketing boost last week.   It all started the Thursday before Christmas when I decided to run an ad in the area newspaper for that last pre-holiday weekend.   I knew the deadline for the weekend paper was 11 a.m. that day, so I first dashed into the Easthampton office of the Hampshire Gazette, the regional newspaper of choice.   Turned out, I did end up speeding to the main office in Northampton to make the deadline, but the Easthampton office stop turned out to be an excellent twist of fate.   While I was there,  I stirred up some interest from Nicole, the local reporter.    I set-up a time for her (and a news photographer) to come by the shop to hear my story.  So the following Monday, I sat Nicole down with a bowl of my Cashew Turtle ice cream and told her my tale.   From engineer to laid-off engineer, to vagabond, to ice cream-preneur.   I’ve included the link to the on-line version, although I must admit it doesn’t carry the same impact without the photos.   I couldn’t have asked for better ‘placement’.   They ran a color photo on the front page, and a half-page spread with four big color photos from the shop (including my patented gummi worm overhead shot) on the front of the business section.  Combine that great press with a stretch of mild weather between Christmas and New Years, and I’ve actually been doing pretty well in the ice cream department of my store.   Best of all, the article got people talking about their new hometown ice cream shop.  Many people who have been in these past few weeks have mentioned the article, wished me luck, and a few have become regulars, definitely a good sign.   I’m not knocking the root beer kids, they’re cool, but it’s the true ice cream lover who comes in for a pint once a week year-round that makes me happy.

Ice Cream shop shorts…

I had a question for my electrician neighbor the other day.    I was trying to decide whether to sign up for one of those locked-in rate programs with a power company, so I walked over to ask him if the rate I was being quoted was a good one.   He didn’t know the answer, but knew exactly who to call.   He asked his question to the person on the other end of the phone and didn’t say much else after that, except for a few ‘ok’s and ‘ah ha’s’.   At which point, his wife, who was standing next to us, says to me, ‘he’s talking to the Mayor’.    I laugh.    After my electrician friend hangs up, I ask who he was talking to.  He says, ‘that was the Mayor.’   It really was the mayor.   Gotta love small towns.   And my mailman is Don.   I tip him in truffles.

During the holiday rush, there were a few times when people had to wait for service.   It was my first taste of being ‘slammed’.   It was a bit stressful.   But still a lot more fun than today, 10 below wind chill and ice on the windows and only the heartiest of customers, and the across-the-street gas station attendant looking for a coffee, who wander in.

Living upstairs from the shop is cool.   Sometimes I don’t even wear a coat to work.  I know, I’m a wild man.  I set-up Wifi to my shop DSL internet, so I’m connected at home now too, technically for free.   I can’t wait to be on-line while I’m sitting by the pond in the backyard.  Whoops, there’s my dorky side rearing its nerdy head again.   Sorry you had to see that.

During one of the really busy days around the holidays, we got low on dollar bills for the cash register.   So when Betty, my best employee, punched in, I shot over to the bank to load up on ones.   To my surprise and frustration, the bank was closed.   But being the crafty problem-solver that I am, I found a way to get the singles I needed.   I stopped at the two convenience stores between the bank and the shop and bought a pack of gum at each.   I handed over a ten-spot and asked for change in singles.   At the second store, the woman behind the desk, a 22 year old with multi-color hair and more piercings than a porcupine attack victim, gave me a funny look as she was counting out 9 one dollar bills in change.   At which point, I timidly said to her, ‘it’s not what you think’.   She barely raises an eyebrow and  simply says, ‘have a good night’.   Oh well.   It was probably less embarrassing than the time a lady behind the cash register at the supermarket gave me a little wink when she rang up my usual order of 3 cans of whipped cream.  I only wish I had the life these people imagine! (oh boy, Luan, you may have to edit out this paragraph before you forward it)

I went to the Philadelphia Gourmet Candy Conference this past weekend.   I know, it’s not as hip and happenin’ as the tech gadget show in Vegas, but this is my life now, and I’m still pretty low on that learning curve when it comes to confections.  I got to check out all the latest and greatest in the world of chocolate.   It actually was a great chance to see all the major bulk candy, chocolate, and packaging vendors under one roof.  I got to meet some people (It’s all about the network)- make some confection connections, discover a few new bulk candy suppliers (ok, so it’s also all about the supply chain), and see what’s what in chocolate-tempering equipment.  I must admit, though, that it wasn’t as cool as the ice cream conference I attended back in October.   If you can believe it,  someone actually recognized me there!   From the article in the Gazette (and the badge I was wearing).   It was the owner of Richardson’s Candies in Greenfield.   I confided to him that Don, my mailman, likes his truffles better than mine (true story).    He enjoyed hearing that.

Hosted my first kid’s birthday party in the shop today.   Nine, nine year old girls.  As intimidating as that sounds, it actually was a lot of fun, and I think went pretty well.   I made a batch of ice cream (‘Cathy’s Heath Bar Crunch’) named after the birthday girl.   As a historical note, it was actually my first truly solo flight (no pressure there).  The girls played party games and got wired up on ½ a pound of candy and one healthy (ok, healthy is a relative term) sundae of their choosing.

So the folks have left on their annual winter migration to Florida.   I’m officially flying without a net for the next two months.   I think they prepared me well, grasshopper.   I should be ok.    Just in case, Dad promised to bring the cell phone to the pool.

Well, I think my time is up for this installment.   Continued thanks for lending me your ear.   Happy New Year to you and may 2004 be the year for you.

Your buddy,

Jim

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