Startup to franchisor: Ice cream concept's success comes from constant branding

Tim and Roy Koons-McGee put everything on the line when they opened their first Comfy Cow location in Louisville, Ky., in 2009 – sacrificing collateral, a friend's collateral, securing some private equity and even cashing in their 401Ks.

"I wouldn't encourage cashing in your 401Ks, but we really believed in this concept and we wanted to show the banks that we were in this 100 percent," Tim said during his presentation "Brand, Open, Duplicate, Expand" at last week's North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio.

Now the premium ice cream shop is on its third location, with a commissary, and growing via a franchising strategy that covers other markets in Kentucky, as well as Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana. Tim outlined how the premium ice cream concept went from startup to franchisor during a tumultuous economy.

Research, financing, operating principals

When the Koons-McGees decided to give up their day jobs (interior designer and nurse) to open an ice cream shop, they knew it would be a big gamble.

"We did as much research and planning as we could. We read Malcolm Stogo's books, attended workshops and courses, went to shows like NAPICS and NICRA (National Ice Cream Retailers Association), Roy went to ice cream retailing school and batch-freezer school and we got really great advice from people who have been in the business for a very long time," Tim said.


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If he has any resonating piece of advice, it is to reach out to other industry operators, most of whom are willing to help. Once the partners knew exactly what they wanted and how to achieve their ideal product, they sought out financing.

"We got six 'no's' before we got a 'yes,'" Tim said. "What got us that 'yes' was having a lot of collateral and a solid business plan."

The Comfy Cow's business plan includes the following principles:

  • Use the best ingredients, including high butterfat content, and toppings made by hand in-house, regardless of how labor intensive and costly it is;
  • Value employees. "We want them to work for us and stay with us," Tim said. "We wear a millions hats and can't do this by ourselves. Great employees are hard to find; get them involved in the business."
  • Cleanliness is stressed in all locations; and
  • Customer service is stressed in all locations. Employees go through training and guests are encouraged to sample as much as they want so they get exactly what they want.

Marketing and branding

Tim admits that they weren't ready for the initial grand opening rushes, which happened even though no official events were held to mark the occasions. The Comfy Cow's fan base is generated through Tim's constant marketing and branding efforts.

"Every decision I make is based on how it affects our brand; it is constant, nonstop branding," he said. Such efforts include:

  • The Comfy Cow mascot. This, Tim said, is the best decision he's ever made. They spent about $3,000 on the mascot, and it shows up to as many local events as possible. Kids love it, he said, and it generates "huge" brand awareness.
  • Social media. The Comfy Cow has an active social media presence, with more than 8,700 Facebook fans.
  • Restaurant presence. The Comfy Cow's products are sold at 25 Louisville-area restaurants. As part of these partnerships, the brand's logo is featured on the restaurants' menus and also on a window sticker that reads: "Proudly serving Comfy Cow."
  • Charitable work. "We do a ton of charitable work and it pays back in spades. We give away a lot of ice cream — not only does it get our name out there, but it's the right thing to do," Tim said.
  • Ice cream truck. The company's delivery truck is "loaded" with The Comfy Cow logos, as well as its partner restaurant logos for cross promotional opportunities.
  • Street festivals/fairs. Tim said they make a lot of money at events such as street fairs and art festivals, and the events also prove to be valuable for branding. "People holding that ice cream cup with our logo on it — that is invaluable," he said.
  • Never saying no. "I try to get our name and that logo out wherever and whenever I can. I never say no to a TV or a radio spot," Tim said. "I wake up in the morning and try to figure out how to get our name out there."

Growth

Part of The Comfy Cow's growth came from its wholesale business, as well as its second location on the University of Louisville's campus, where there is a captive college audience. The business partners had their share of growing pains in getting to No. 3, however.

"We knew our ice cream and knew our brand, but we didn't know how to run multiple stores," Tim said. "We needed to have protocol for when we weren't there and we didn't."

Now the Koons-McGees believe they have it figured out and are ready to dive into franchising. They've set up an advisory board filled with people who know the foodservice and franchising industries, and have provided reasons for people to invest in the brand, including low entry cost, local store marketing guidance, ongoing operational support, training and national recognition (earning multiple awards from the Girl Scouts of America, National Ice Cream Awards, University of Louisville and more). Once the concept grows its footprint in the Midwest, the Koons-McGees will aim for a broader national and maybe even international presence.

"Our top lines are good. We have reinvested what we've made and have put it back into the business. We're hoping someday to have a big pay off," Tim said. "But for now we're making the same salary we did on day one because we so strongly believe in the concept."

Read more about operations management.

Photos provided by The Comfy Cow's Facebook page.

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