In the not too distant future, thanks to the efforts of a local man by the name of Rob Hess, Ypsilantians, on hot summer days, will be able flag down a vintage bike and purchase an ice cold cone of handmade ice cream. While I’ve yet to sample his work, which I hear is incredible, I did have the occasion yesterday evening to talk with Rob about his budding new venture, Go! Ice Cream. What follows is the transcript of that conversation.
MARK: Let’s start by talking ice cream… How’d you get into that particular line of work? And what makes your ice cream better than what’s currently available in Ypsilanti?
ROB: I’ve been making ice cream for a few years now. It was just kind of a hobby until enough people said, “If you sold this, I would buy truckloads.” My ice creams are all natural, use products I buy at the Co-op and other local places (when possible, and it’s almost always possible), and are made 6 quarts at a time, by hand. I’ve also perfected vegan ice cream, so our non-dairy friends can play along, too… Our mutual friends, Patti and Andy Claydon, have been dubbed my Ice Cream Bike Official Test Vegans… I’ll sell waffle bowls, and sauces, and other handmade accoutrements, too.
MARK: Is your plan eventually to have a storefront somewhere, or are you only interested in bike-service?
ROB: There’s no storefront presence planned for our immediate future. I figure that’s a way to keep the initial operating costs lower, and to make sure that there’s a market for the product before committing to a huge amount of overhead. I can already picture the store in my mind, though, and, of course, Patti, who designed the Go logo, already has idea for the interior design! The plan for now, though, is to sell pints and novelties (sorbet pops, etc.) from the bike, around town, at various events, and then also offer doorstep delivery through the website. We’ll also do birthday parties and other events, and we’ll hopefully be able to sell wholesale at places like the Co-Op, etc.
MARK: Why Ypsi?
ROB: Because I live here, and love it, and I really want to create a product that’s from Ypsilanti. I go out to places like Sidetrack, or Haab’s, or the Corner Brewery, or whatever, and I marvel at the way they’ve established a place that brings the community together, gives you a sense of place, and contributes to the personality of the community, you know? I want to create a place that you can bring friends to Ypsi to visit. I would love it if someone was making plans with friends and said, “Hey, why don’t you come to Ypsi, and we’ll go out to dinner, and then stop by the Go! Ice Cream bike.” The spirit of our town has had a huge impact on me personally, and I want to give something awesome back.
ROB: Immense pressure from Patti and Andy, actually. My wife and I were living in Whitmore Lake at the time, in a house I bought for dirt cheap in my early-20s, and had renovated in hopes of selling it high. We were ready to move somewhere that was a bit less sleepy, and Patti kept insisting we look in Ypsi. Honestly, we were a little afraid of it. We had only ever seen the shadier side of Ypsi, never come to town for any events, or gotten a feel for the community. We knew we didn’t want to live in Ann Arbor because it felt like no one knew their neighbors there, and it was expensive. And, as we looked at the other options, they were all kind of bland. None of them seemed to have any real sense of community, and no real diversity among the people living there. They just weren’t interesting, I guess, is what I am trying to say. So, Patti and Andy kept bringing us to Ypsi for dinner, and inviting us out to Haab’s for happy hour, and sending us real estate listings, and taking us to ElvisFest… and we just fell in love with how quirky and unique Ypsi is. The neighborhoods are quaint, and the houses are affordable, and we fell in love with it pretty hard… and we’ve never fallen out of love with it.
I didn’t know what it felt like to really love the town I live in before I moved to Ypsi. I always defined my sense of place by the house that I lived in, and not the community. Now, that equation is totally flipped.
To me, Ypsi really embraces the unique, and that has had a huge impact on me as a person. It’s really changed how I view myself and what I value. When a city helps you like that, it’s hard to know who to thank. I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to start a business in Ypsi, that says “Ypsi” on the label, that puts Ypsi first, as a way of giving something back to a place that has had, and continues to have, a really profound impact on me.
MARK: Do you see Go as just being a seasonal business?
ROB: I would love to operate year-round. I mean, for me, ice cream has no season. Also, winter always puts me in the mood for baked alaska, and other forms of flaming ice cream! Not that I’d recommend folks play with matches, or anything…
MARK: What flavors should we expect?
ROB: Three Bean Vanilla (featuring high-quality vanilla beans from Madagascar, Uganda and Tahiit), Peanut Butter Cookie Dough, Fresh Mint Cacao Nib (a play on mint chocolate chip, using fresh mint and cacao nibs, which, if you’ve never had them in an ice cream, become like the crunchiest, raddest chocolate chip you’ve ever had), Ypsi Pride Peppercorn (my homage to Ypsi.. it might sound a little weird at first, but once you go there, you can’t wait to go back), Chocolate Sorbet (vegan, dairy free, and approved by the Official Test Vegans), and Vegan Salted Caramel.
We’ll also have waffle bowls in all kinds of flavors, like oatmeal, graham cracker, buckwheat… And we’ll have Chocolate Awesome Shells, Peanut Butter Awesome Shells, and Choco Tacos (a waffle cone taco shell, dark chocolate ice cream, chocolate magic shell, cacao nibs, topped with cinnamon chocolate chipotle sea salt).
I got flavors for days. These are the first flavors that will be available through the website.
I should probably also add, I don’t want to be one of those places that offers up wacky sounding flavors just for the shock value. I want to offer people bold twists on flavors they know and love and then also give them some adventurous new flavors that really surprise and delight them. I once had a honey and roasted garlic ice cream that was just weird. It really offered nothing other than weirdness. It left me feeling flat and wondering why I gave that place five bucks. I never want any of my customers to feel that way.
MARK: How does one become an Official Test Vegan?
ROB: Really, I just have to know you and you have to be vegan. Pretty much everyone I know has gorged on my ice creams for the past year as I work on my technique. Also, there’s a secret handshake.
MARK: If you were given the task of making Vegan-flavored ice cream, how would you go about it? I can picture it in my mind being kind of an anemic pink color, like the “flesh” colored crayons of yesteryear, but I can’t imagine what “vegan” would taste like.
ROB: First I’d sacrifice three virgins. Not sure why. Really though, these are the questions that keep me awake at night. When Lara wants to play a cruel prank on me, she’ll say things like, “what flavor ice cream is President’s Day?” I know it is a joke, I laugh at it as such, and then I can’t not think about that, and only that, from then on. That’s just the brand of disturbed that I am. I figure it out eventually, too. But it takes it’s toll. I don’t yet know what ingredients would go in vegan-flavored ice cream, but I do know a meat grinder would be involved, just for irony. You can expect me to call you at 2:00 AM a few days from now. I’ll be the one shouting, “Eureka! The ingredients are…”
MARK: I imagine, in addition to showing up at local events over the summer, you’ll also try to establish firm hours at a set location or two, so that you can establish a regular clientele. Have you given any thought to where you might do that? Do you have a specific part of town in mind? A specific corner?
ROB: And yes, we are looking at what days we can schedule to show up at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Depot Town. As for regular hours, or a specific part of town that we will frequent, I would love to do that, but I want to get a feel for how the brick and mortar businesses will react to someone else selling dessert on their doorstep. I’d love to cruise through various neighborhoods like an ice cream truck, too, if possible. We plan to have a schedule of our appearances on the website, and we’ll encourage the community to follow us on Twitter so we can update them on where we’ll be, and when. It’s sort of a model that food trucks around the country use. I anticipate the website and the home delivery really driving the bulk of the sales, with the on-bike vending serving almost more as advertising and a fun way to interact with the community.
MARK: I seem to recall seeing something not too long ago about a small-batch ice cream company outfitting a small truck, and selling amid food carts. Is that something that you considered before settling on the bike? If you did consider going the food cart route, why’d you settle on the bike?
ROB: The bike is an old Worksman Tricycle that used to carry foremen up and down the line in a GM plant in Wixom. That same company, Worksman, made the majority of the ice cream and hot dog carts in NYC in the early 1900′s. They are still in business, so I took the tool cabinet off the back of the bike, repainted it, added some chrome, a Worksman ice cream cabinet and an umbrella on the back of it. It’s almost finished, actually working on the last few bits of the renovation this week. So, I’ll use dry ice in the cabinet to keep it cold. It should last about 4 hours. We’ll see how it goes!
An ice cream truck is a far more practical choice from a business perspective. You can cover a larger area, it’s bigger, more visible, all kinds of stuff. But a) I love biking and, much like Kevin Costner felt compelled to build a baseball field, I can’t get the idea of selling ice cream off the back of a bike out of my head. And b) I firmly believe in moderation and balance. I’ve been a heavier dude most of my life, and for a number of years, until I discovered biking, and then learned to love running and working out. And ice cream was a big part of why I was heavier. I love ice cream, I make really great ice cream, but I would never want to sell ice cream in the way most companies sell ice cream. There are a lot of companies out there that wouldn’t be upset if you hooked yourself up to a feed tube of their sub-par, financially viable, moderately carcinogenic product and watched Dancing With the Stars into eternity. That’s why I named the company Go Ice Cream. I think it is important to really go for the things you love, the things you are passionate about. I’d rather espouse that, when someone wants dessert, they eat the best, tastiest, most satisfying dessert they can, and make room for it. I think we’re largely taught to be afraid of dessert. I really was. There were periods of time where I was really afraid to have any ice cream in fridge. I was so afraid that I would just tear into a pint in one mindless, frenzied blur. And, for big parts of my life, I did. Once I learned to embrace my love of ice cream, and to offset it, and fold it in to the rest of my life, ice cream no longer had that sway over me. I have roughly 12 quarts of ice cream in my freezer right now, and, while I know it is mind-bendingly awesome (especially the Irish Cream Ice Cream made with Bushmills and Dark Chocolate), I have no desire to dive-in face first and pull a Leaving Las Vegas style bender.
The bike is a part of all of that for me. Yeah, that’s a bit heavy for an ice cream company, and it’s a little weird to launch a product and say, “now, now… moderation!” But it’s important to me to put a great product out there, in a great city, with the best motivation. Does that make any sense at all?
MARK: Absolutely… Speaking of exercise, can you carry everything you need on the bike? By the time you load up all the shells, cones, ice pops, toppings and ice cream, I’ve got to think that it’ll be pretty heavy. Have you done a test run to see if it’s manageable?
ROB: It is SO heavy. My workouts have been really intense as I prepare for it. We live up near the water tower and I just keep picturing the ride up that hill on Cross. I plan to have bodybuilder thighs. Also, because it’s a trike, you don’t really get much leverage on the pedals like you can with two-wheeled bike by swinging it side to side. For places that are farther away, or when it will take too long to get there by trike, we have a trailer for the car and will just park in the vicinity. So, yeah, if you see a dude on a blue tricycle struggling up the hill on Cross this Summer, be a pal and pull your car in close so I can skitch off your bumper.
ROB: Ha!!! That’s funny. No, I actually haven’t. But I love the idea of online heat. Sounds so exciting. Would you like to dish up some heat, good sir? I think you’ll find that, despite the reputation, us ice cream men are pretty tough. Especially those of us with bodybuilder thighs.
MARK: I’m assuming, since you’re using premium ingredients, that your costs – even though you don’t have much overhead to speak of – are going to be somewhat higher than what folks in Ypsi might be accustomed to. Do you think the people of Ypsilanti are ready for pay for a quality alternative to Dairy Queen? Have you done any kind of market research to verify that, or do you just have a gut feeling, based on what you’re seeing, that now might be the right time for something like this?
ROB: This is all just gut feeling for me. This is looking around and seeing that more people are interested in a backstory with their food, a sense of connection, or of just knowing that Monsanto isn’t poisoning them for profit. It likely isn’t for everyone, but I think it could be. There is a lot about what is going on in food right now that I love, all the stuff in the previous sentence, basically, but there is a lot of preciousness that I think is unnecessary. I think people want food that is awesome, that’s fun, that’s convenient and that is produced with some ethics and humanity behind it. It’s really all just a big dice roll for me, but in the 18 months or so that it has taken me to develop this idea I have met with nothing but positivity and encouragement. Seriously. It has been overwhelming and so reassuring. It’s my hope that it continues in the future, too!
At this point it is all speculation and projection. I think I have come up with a production / distribution method where this is manageable. I think I have a product people will go crazy for. I think I have the savvy and the standards to ensure the best possible customer experience. I have made drinks with all those ingredients before, but I have never quite mixed this particular cocktail before.
As I mentioned, this started out as a hobby for me. I’m just fascinated by the science behind ice cream. It’s a really delicate balance of fats, proteins, sugars and other stuff. So, I just kept making it and tweaking little variables here and there, trying to figure out what made it tick. It got to the point where we would have 2 dozen pints of ice cream in the freezer, and it was encroaching on the space where we store the frozen veggies. I had to get rid of it. My wife and I work in a really fun office at U-M that has about 50 or so people in it, so I started taking it in there. I would send out an e-mail at 9:00 AM that there was ice cream in the freezer, and it would be gone well before noon. I thought they were being nice at first, and that people just love ice cream, but it kept happening. Day in and day out. Pretty soon I would have co-workers stopping me in the hallway to tell me how it reminded them of their childhoods and revealing far more about themselves than they ever had before. I would walk by the kitchen and find them with a spoon in their mouth, eyes closed, moaning. Seriously. Then folks started asking me if I could make bigger quantities and bring it to their parties and it just grew from there. Soon I started getting requests from people to sell it to them. I can’t do that legally, so I have had to turn down a lot of offers and ask people to just hold on until I can get it up and running.
MARK: Are there rules with regard to where you can set up? I know in Ann Arbor there are somewhat restrictive laws concerning where folks can set up food carts, but I imagine that bikes are a somewhat different story… At least I haven’t seen the guy who runs the Roos Roast bike getting hassled by the cops… But I’m not aware of any Ypsi legislation regarding such activities. Are there laws that pertain to what you hope to do? Are you restricted, for instance, from selling in public parks?
ROB: I am right in the middle of the teeming, tumultuous, arduous (wow, two words ending uous!) world of licensing right now. I am hoping to open relatively soon, but it all rides on other people doing things on time, something that doesn’t always happen. People in the community have been really helpful and supportive… I’ll actually be working out of Bona Sera’s kitchen, which is so awesome for me on so many levels because they were in my shoes prior to getting their brick and mortar thing going.
So far I have not had anyone tell me I can’t vend in certain areas. Basically, I will be licensed as a wholesale food processor through the state and then I will be licensed as a food vendor through whatever agency has jurisdiction over the area I want to vend in. I haven’t spoken to anyone in Ann Arbor yet, but the folks I have talked to at Washtenaw Health Department have been really encouraging and say that the process is pretty straightforward. I don’t want to piss off any restaurant owners by parking outside of their windows and drawing their customers away, so we’ll see. I am not exactly sure how one plays nice in that arena but I definitely want to collaborate rather than compete.
I have heard something about not selling parks, but it was just hearsay. I can let you know what I find out when I go in for the licensing at the end of May. If there is an event going on at the park, say Elvisfest, the vending is obviously overseen by the event organizers, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Who knows about just a random Saturday in the park? Man, I would love to bike through Riverside selling ice cream on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
To my knowledge, the vending permit lets me vend wherever I like. I’ve heard tell that, and this make sense to me, it might piss some restaurants off if I do it in the wrong place. I don’t really know yet. I am really excited about selling at the Farmers Market, though, and that process seems really easy. You just pick the dates you want, apply, and pay the money. I am sure they review people to make sure you fit certain guidelines, but I haven’t gone through that process. The street vending part of the business is not really what I envision being the moneymaker for the company. Street vending for me is really more of a way to be more involved with the community, get to meet the customers and watch them take their first taste of our product and, really, advertise. I imagine the online business will be more lucrative and it is also less time-intensive. It’s really all speculation and projection at this point. I have focused on getting the least restrictive licensing (limited wholesale food processor) I can so that I can be flexible and meet the demands of the customers and take the business in the direction that presents itself.
MARK: Will you have employees, or will it just be you?
ROB: At first this will just be a one man operation. My wife, Lara, is helping out a ton with the back end stuff and social media and writing the text and stuff, but I really want to have first-hand experience with all parts of this as it starts up, even if that means I have to keep it smaller at first. I want to make sure that all of the ice cream is up to my personal standard, I want to make sure the customers ge the best experience, I want to make sure the communications through the website are top-notch. I just really want to make sure that I know what the customers want and I want to know firsthand that they are getting it. At some point I hope that I can grow it and trust others with that, but I want to know the business inside and out first.
MARK: Have you decided yet on how you’ll dress? Should we expect to see you in one of those white hats, like the old-timey ice cream men, or will be wearing a logo emblazoned bike helmet?
ROB: That was a big question. For a while I wanted to look like an old-timey soda jerk, but then that felt too precious. I ordered some custom bike jerseys that I’ll sell online and some mountain biking shorts with a padded butt. I do think I will have a custom logo on my helmet, although I have a helmet right now that is kinda reminscent of Evil Knievel’s helmet and I hate to put that on the shelf. There is definitely a little bit of showmanship with the costume. Oh, and I’ll have those fun little biking caps with the semi-circle brims that you can flip up, too. Actually, you’re supposed to wear a hat or hairnet when packagin commercial food products and I wear my biking hat for that. Just ‘cause I keeps it real 24/7.
MARK: Have you settled on pricing?
ROB: Yeah, I’m definitely in a different ballpark than DQ, but it’s also a much different product. For a pint of okay ice cream you pay $3 – $6, give or take. My pints will be $9. The flavors in my ice cream are so dialed up, though, that I think people will pay $9, probably eat smaller portions, and share it with folks. I can easily see a couple who is entertaining another couple getting a pint of my ice cream for dessert and splitting it between 4 people. It’s rich enough that you don’t need as much of it to feel like you really scratched that itch. I can imagine there are probably a lot of business folks who would yell at me to not entice people to consume less of my product, but I believe in giving people the highest quality, most flavorful experience I can, and I care about that far more than I care about moving units. Perhaps my fatal flaw is that I listened to Nevermind one too many times in high school.
That’s also just for pints. The price point for the novelties and things that I will sell off the bike for people to munch on while they walk around, that will be a lot lower. More in the $2-$5 range. If I am selling in a neighborhood, I want some kid to be able to buy a cool version of something they already know they want with whatever money they got from mowing the lawn or whatever, I don’t want to try and sell them on a $9 pint of Cardamom Honeycomb or something.
ROB: Yes sir! This has been a big process for me. The problem is, when you are packing for mass distribution, the State dairy laws require you to have a pre-pasteurized mix of dairy, sugar, and thickening agent, bought in bulk, from an approved dairy processing plant. Every place I went had mixes they would sell, but all of them had this junk in it. Finally, I went to Zingerman’s Creamery and Josh, who is a wonderful, passionate dude, and makes all of their gelato, agreed to do a custom mix for me, using only ingredients I specified. The milk comes from Calder and Guernsey, just down the road, and I get the added bonus of having Josh, who is incredibly knowledgeable about ice cream and the ice cream business, in my corner as I get started. It was a tough search to find products that didn’t compromise my quality standards, but in the end I ended up getting more than I was even looking for.
MARK: So, when can we buy ice cream?
ROB: Late May or early June. The licensing process just takes longer and has more moving parts than I anticipated. I’m going to do a soft-launch in May, inviting friends to place orders through the website and then delivering to them as a way to work the kinks out of the distribution, and make sure we are ready to open our doors. And I want to have a big free ice cream social in Ypsi in early June to kick everything off. I’ll rent some space somewhere and have music and games and stuff and invite families out, and give everyone free ice cream. Doesn’t that sound like fun?