Maker Journal #2: The Beta Test
Foodboro’s Maker Journal series, in partnership with Streetlight Ventures, follows the creation of a food business as it happens. This time around, we’re following Burlington, VT – based entrepreneur Neil Goldberg as he starts a plant based ice cream brand called Noix. In Part 1, Neil worked on his logo and attempted to define his brand in advance of his mobile cart launch. Now, he’s taking Noix to the streets and getting some interesting customer feedback.
Making A Plan
I had been playing around making ice cream for about 6 months with the idea that it would appeal to a demographic (vegan and non-dairy) that is largely underserved in Burlington.
Over the winter, I was bringing it into the bar I had been running, and having guests give me feedback. One of those guests ended up offering to fund the venture if I was serious about pursuing it. His offer motivated me to figure out a business plan. I explored some options, and the most cost-effective was to use my friend’s commercial kitchen space to prepare the ice cream. This plan was actually so cost efficient I realized I could self-fund for the summer, and told my potential investor that I wanted to test the waters on my own and would revisit investment after that.
Right now, I’m selling the ice cream out of a cart on the street in front of the place where I make it in downtown Burlington. I’ve been doing weekends and other sunny days. It’s definitely a weather-dependent venture, and largely based on foot traffic. Ice cream is an impulse buy, and we are certainly not an established destination yet!
Highs and Lows
I wasn’t expecting the challenge of actually scooping ice cream. I’ve been in hospitality for much of my life, but I still struggle with the customer service aspect of running the cart. But other parts of entrepreneurship come more naturally.
Being creative, persuasive, independent, and having a high appetite for risk are all things that come naturally to me and make an entrepreneurial venture attractive. But one of the toughest parts is consistently holding myself accountable and managing my mood.
I’ll have days when I’m 100% sure of myself, and then wake up the next day totally sure that the product sucks and I’m not good enough to pull it off. Fighting off those thoughts without having someone else to help balance out the moods, and share the journey, can be really tough for me.
The Wholesale Question
It seems like my natural next step is distribution. I already have 5 or 6 restaurants and bars that have agreed to put it on their menus, mostly from my network of local connections. And a boutique grocer actually approached me about stocking the ice cream after their head buyer had randomly tasted it on the street.
Wholesale would allow for more consistent revenue, and allow me to make money without as much customer service involved. I think pursuing the wholesale opportunities and making a plan to pop up at farmers markets and events in the Burlington area would be the plan after this summer looking forward. We would need to find a commissary space that has a commercial ice cream machine to use, or buy one ourselves, because my current production on the mini-machine isn’t sustainable.
Getting Customer Feedback
So far, we’ve gotten a lot of great customer feedback. This summer isn’t really about turning a profit (which is good, because we likely won’t), but more about proof of concept. Every opinion helps.
At the beginning, I had been making all of the ice cream without chunks. My thinking was that flavors meld better when they’re able to really blend together. People liked the ice cream, but mentioned how they wanted “chunks” in some of them. I was hesitant at first, but I finally gave in because I do get how enjoyable the textural difference was. I still have a few flavors without chunks, which are personally my favorites, but people have responded very positively to the flavors I’ve “chunked” up.
I had someone ask me about making an ice cream for diabetics. I played around with using sugar from Japanese kabocha squash. The idea was good, but the results have been lackluster. I don’t really want to compromise the flavor too much, and frankly, without real sugar it just isn’t an ice cream experience (or I just haven’t been able to pull it off!).
People complained about the one time tasting spoons I was using (even though they were compostable!), so I bought a bunch of mini espresso spoons that I use for tasting and sanitize every day. It’s a little more work, but better for the environment. And now I’m the proud owner of 200 espresso spoons.
Finally, I’ve had a lot of people, mostly vegan or lactose free, actually thank me for making the ice cream and those moments are probably the highlight. It’s validating to know that you were able to do something that made someone else happy. I think that is what really motivates me.