Interview with Ruthie Vishlitzky
By Kathryn Gordon of Food Startup Help
Kathryn: Hi Ruthie, I met you a few months ago in a CAPS ice cream theory class at ICE. Since then, you’ve opened up at the Essex Street Market!
How did you get the idea to open an ice cream business? And where does the name come from?
Ruthie: My co founder, Catherine Oddenino, and I both had very different careers. I was working in health and human services for local government while Catherine was in the corporate world online media. We are both passionate food people with keen , so we started with the idea of making ice cream that was less sweet and playing with flavor combinations that were less readily available, and did a lot of experimentation on nights and weekends. When we got such great feedback from people who are tremendously choosy eaters we knew we had something really worth pursuing. We both left our “day jobs” this spring and have been working to really grow and establish the business since then.
Luca is Catherine’s Maltese terrier, and Bosco is my chocolate Lab!
Kathryn: When did you make your first ice cream?
Ruthie: I made my first ice cream for the first time in October 2011. When started bought a bunch of recipe books and started experimenting, it didn’t take long before we were writing recipes instead of following them to create “our style” of ice cream. We’ve taken ice cream science courses like the one at Penn State that helped us understand a lot more of the food science around freezing temperatures and textures, but ultimately, that course approached ice cream as a very processed food. The Michael Laiskonis CAPS at ICE was great since it covered a lot of the science, but ultimately approached ice cream as a culinary creation. The CAPS course served as a great reminder of some of the core ice cream basics, but I definitely feel like all the course materials will be great to have as a reference when we look to tweak our recipes.
Kathryn: What are your current business goals?
Ruthie: We just opened our first retail location at Essex Street Market, which helps us grow our brand, but we’re still currently producing out of an incubator space hat’s been a great learning experience but definitely impacts and limits what we can do given the fact that we have limited storage and rent the kitchen by the hour. So we’re looking to move into our own kitchen in early 2014 and establish a wholesale business to restaurants, as well as selling pints wholesale to markets/stores.
Kathryn: How do you come up with flavors?
Ruthie: We love to explore flavors, and are frequently inspired by different experiences, meals, travels, and seasons to create different flavors! If anything, we often have to reel ourselves in, since we always need to balance serving up the basics as well as showing people successful though unexpected flavors. Our ice cream is significantly less sweet than others, and we use more milk than cream (so it’s not super high in butterfat). That helps enhance our flavors.
Through the store we learned that we always have to carry more straightforward flavors like chocolate and vanilla, but we’ve been really surprised by our customers’ favorable reactions and also plan to always carry more unusual flavors like honey lavender, aramel with bourbon, and hiskey udge . We both take great joy in watching our customers’ reactions as they taste a sample of a flavor they were slightly skeptical about – & order !
Kathryn: Do you have a business plan?
Ruthie: We have an ever-evolving business plan that we keep updating and editing as we learn our business realities or realize new opportunities. We’re a good example of a business that tries to take advantage of a lot of resources that are already out there. We’ve gone to tons of free workshops, we applied and got into the incubator program at Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) which has given us a lot of support and guidance, and we’ve taken advantage of opportunities working with the City of New York through the Economic Development Corporation which is how we got our space at Essex Street Market with lower rents than usual since it’s operated by the City (we otherwise wouldn’t be in the position to have a location in the Lower East Side).
Our financing so far has ranged from self-funding, credit cards, friends and family loans, small business micro loan and even a Kickstarter crowd sourcing campaign (this is how we raised to purchase our Emory Thompson batch freezer). Funding is definitely a huge ongoing challenge; especially since ice cream equipment is so incredibly expensive and it’s hard to get financing when you’re a startup.
Kathryn: Where are you doing your production?
Ruthie: We’re currently producing our ice cream at the HBK incubator kitchen. At first we used to use dry ice when needing to transport it from place to place, but that has its own issues since then it hardens the ice cream too much, and we had to learn how to properly temper it to feed it to folks.
We bought hardeningfreezer so that we can now have a dedicated for our ice cream (we pay HBK rent for it to sit in their space)! It’s such a relief to now know that no one is opening and closing our freezer (and hence slowly but surely degrading our product). Our freezer is so cold (as low as -30 degrees) that the ice cream now it from East Harlem to the Lower East Side and still too hard to scoop on arrival! So no more need for dry ice for local transport and that’s a huge savings on time and money.
Kathryn: What key lessons have you learned?
Ruthie: I think as an entrepreneur you always have to keep learning and adapting to your realities and opportunities. We always try to make the most out of every situation, whether it’s learning from our mistakes/lessons or forming new relationships that could be helpful for the future.
I think some of my personal surprises/unexpected lessons have been:
1) As someone who was in mid-level management before this business, I definitely took for granted the basic infrastructure in a working organization. As an entrepreneur you have to get involved in a host of tedious and uninteresting topics from payroll, insurance, to your POS system and email addresses. It’s not like prior jobs where there was an IT guy to setup my email, and an office manager to get all my supplies from, someone else to schedule things etc. As an entrepreneur you have to create all of that stuff that take for granted… So much entrepreneurship is unfortunately not about ice cream or food, and consumes a ridiculous amount of time.
2) We really thought we could make a lot of money by participating in events like Smorgasburg or New Amsterdam Market. We initially projected it as a revenue stream in our financial projections, but after a few times at it, we realized that really it’s more of an expense (or break even), but for us is just really good for the marketing/buzz. It was super rewarding getting people’s feedback on our product before we had our space at Essex Street Market. But we learned that there are definitely things that were very different in reality than in concept.
3) Our last reality check was learning that a commercial kitchen, and especially producing a food in a large quantity, is extremely different than cooking in your home kitchen (which is where it all started for us).
We have definitely come a long way in the last couple of years from making ice cream at home, to moving all of our production to a commercial kitchen.
Kathryn: Thanks Ruthie! Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Ruthie: Really the most important thing to us is that we get to make people happy on a daily basis. Seeing that look of surprise and delight on people’s faces when they try a new flavor, or watching a kid gets that perfect scoop with sprinkles is the kind of immediate reward and gratification that either of us rarely got while sitting in front of a computer every day.