When Rob Hess of Go! Ice Cream
first began his mad scientist routine of re-creating his favorite ice cream flavors, it wasn’t about the business. That came around the same time as the
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Initially, Hess wanted to come up with the perfect ice cream concoction, a treat that outdid his go-to brands. Flavoring homemade ice cream with actual vanilla beans, peanut butter, real strawberries and peppercorn was more about personal satisfaction than profit. But after friends began to sample his handiwork there was the thought that strangers might just scream – and pay - for his ice cream.
More than anything, Go! Ice Cream - before it even had a name - was about having fun. And after Hess, who is as fanatical about bike riding as he is ice cream, laid eyes on a sweet throwback of a bike at a rummage sale - a 1946 Worksman tricycle
that once rolled around General Motors factory floors- it was Hess’s melting moment: tooling around on an ice cream bike like the old days, selling fresh ice cream with no modern day preservatives and chemicals. Still, he was hesitant to see it as more business than silliness.
Once he realized there was an appreciation for his small batches of handmade ice cream - sans polysyllabic ingredients - he saw a bigger picture emerging. This could be his chance to connect with people while demonstrating his love for the places he lives and works, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. It was also about taking inspiration from local businesses that are churning out pure, tasty, back-to-basics products, businesses like Zingerman's.
"I know I'm totally a different person because I lived in Ann Arbor and experienced Zingerman's sandwiches," he says. Just one example of many.
He hopes his ice cream might have the same effect.
"It can take you on a journey, lead you to new things,” he says. “That's a little heavy for an ice cream company, but if I can do that, make those connections, lead people to those revelations, how amazing would that be?
The last few weeks have been less about ideals and more about the nuts and bolts of rolling out a full-fledged business. Go! Ice Cream will take on-line orders, make home deliveries by bike once a week in Ypsilanti and appear at farmers markets, fairs and special events in Ypsi and, eventually Ann Arbor. The bike can also be rented for parties.
The makings of the business go back to when Hess and his wife Lara Zielin started testing the creamy creations with about 100 friends and family.
Hess, who loved to cook anyway, was "obsessed" with making authentic mint chocolate chip ice cream. This meant figuring out how to get mint out of mint leaves and chocolate chips from chocolate nibs. With that commitment to genuine ingredients in place, the flavor options only increased. Hess started coming home with fewer grocery staples and more of what would go into his next experiment.
"Lara would ask me to go to the store and get vegetables," Hess says. "I'd also get $60 in cream and sugar, saying, 'I need to make jalapeno ice cream!"
Eventually, the beat-up $60 KitchenAid ice cream canisters bought with a 20 percent off coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond began to crowd out the freezer contents. He's since upgraded to an industrial ice cream maker that's about the size of a mini fridge and makes six quarts at a time. "It cost me about the same as a small car," he says.
Rob, a filmmaker and multimedia designer for the College of Literature, Science & the Arts at the University of Michigan, and Lara, editor of LSA Magazine
, began to take the ice cream to the office.
"Quickly we became the most popular people at work," Rob laughs. "Co-workers across campus were scheduling meetings here to be near the ice cream. I've been Film Rob to people for the last 20 years. The minute I brought in ice cream it was all about ice cream. I became Ice Cream Rob."
The positive feedback from family, friends and co-workers – and a big nudge from his wife - convinced him to go commercial.
"I was most resistant to the idea,” Hess says. “It was Lara who would talk me through it. She was like, 'No, people are talking to me about it in the ladies room!' "
He decided to share his experience in learning the difference between handmade ice cream vs. store-bought, premium brand ice creams.
"The moment I made my first ice cream, I tasted the flavors, the textures, the differences compared to what I was eating out there, and suddenly my Breyers and my Haagen-Dazs didn't scratch the itch like they used to. Even the high-end products just couldn't compare, and the more I read, the more I figured out that ice cream is complex. It has to be in the right balance. It became this sort of passion of mine, finding that balance and figuring out how to get the flavors just right."
"I have the world's most chaotic notebooks, with all the different ice cream flavors and notes: 'How does one extract ginger from ginger root?'"
Along with the notebooks is a business plan that calls for keeping the company small and personal. He intends to do all the work himself (with help from Lara) and take on the larger mission of putting ice cream as a dessert in a new light.
"I realized if I was going to enter into the business of providing people with a dessert item, I was going to do it in a different way. Ice cream mostly comes with a lot of ads, images, etc. that want to inspire you to sit on the couch and consume more and more and more.
"I want to let people feel like they're embracing something they love, not that they're reserving ice cream for a time they're being bad….I stopped being hesitant about starting a business when I realized it could be seen as another activity to get out and enjoy."
With the first day of business still weeks away, Facebook and Twitter followers are already letting Hess know they’ll be future customers. It was a tweet from the Ypsi Chamber of Commerce
that churned up social and mainstream media attention and then calls for meetings.
One was with the general manager of the Produce Station
in Ann Arbor, a favorite business of Hess's.
"I went into the meeting thinking we weren't talking about my product. I came up with my list of questions. I treated it as an informational interview," he recalls. "At the end I said, 'You've been so helpful I don't know how I can thank you.' He said, 'What you can do is let us sell your products.' "
"I wanted to kiss him! I couldn't believe that he had reached out to me. It was a super pinch-me moment," Hess recalls.
"was another in a series of dream meetings," he says. The help and guidance the gelato maker gave Hess made Zingerman's as much mentor and advocate as the supplier of the pasteurized cream mixture that will provide the base for the ice cream Hess pedals - and peddles (except the vegan flavors like chocolate sorbet).
"Every person I've run into in the food industry has been extraordinarily cool and giving of their time and just so enthusiastiac. Zingerman's could have been so concerned about someone starting ice cream in their back yard….But they have big back yard. They think the more great ice cream out there the better."
He also saw no fear of competition in the owners of Bona Serra, the downtown Ypsi restaurant where he'll rent kitchen space.
Bona Sera makes its own ice cream and desserts. "They have been amazing. They were in my shoes. They were renting kitchen space," he says. On the days the restaurant is closed he will make his regular menu of ice creams and also test new recipes such as roasted strawberries infused with balsamic vinegar.
Hess is not necessarily interested in pushing the boundaries of funky flavors like juniper berry or elderflower, though he's not above finding out how they taste. His flavors such as salted caramel, vanilla bean, peanut butter cookie dough, mint chocolate chip, are classics.
"I want to make a really good rocky road. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
What Hess ultimately hopes is that he'll sell ice creams that bring back memories, bring out stories, spark conversation.
"The people who have tasted my ice cream, people I didn't know very well, have shared personal stories with me after having it," he says. We have a connection. And it's because of ice cream."