2003-2004 I guess the best place to start should be to recap the last few years so that I can get you caught up with where I am today.
Back in 2003 my wife and I had a coffeehouse, we opened it on December 31, 1999 and we put everything on the line for it from credit cards, to loans, to even a second mortgage. Our first son "Rosten" was 11 months old at the time. My wife (Kristen) had worked at Starbucks for years prior and she was very good at what she did, I had total faith that we could do this because of her experience and my entrepreneurial desire.
Our store had a bamboo bar, rich colored walls, leather couch and large chairs you could loose track of time in. We had palm trees and large plants that you could hide around if you wanted some privacy. I think we spent most of our time out in the big chairs socializing with customers... making friends. This is when I met my good friend Ward and his wife CleAnn. Little did I know that we would partner together on such a journey and that our lives would never be the same again.
Kristen and I had been in business for a few years and we were searching for something new to bring in some extra sales. We already served espresso (lattes, mochas, cappuccinos, Americanos), as well as chai, fruit smooties, frappes, italian sodas etc. We also offered monster sandwiches like the "Rhino" and the "Great White", they came on large seasoned focaccia bread that were the size of your plate and a half a pound of meat with lettuce and onion and chipotle mayo..... yes they rocked!
Anyway, we were thinking about adding ice cream, it seemed to be a good add-on for coffee shops because it offered something for the kids and it was a later afternoon sale where as coffee was more for the morning. After looking around at ice cream equipment it seemed that our only choices were soft serve machines or a dipping cabinet and everyone around us that sold ice cream already had one or the other. So how could we stand out or be different with the same equipment as everyone else... we hadn't ever heard of gelato or Cold Stone, we didn't know who or what they even were at the time.
During our process of trying to figure out this dilemma, one of our employees had just came back from a family reunion in Montana. She mentioned that they had made ice cream with liquid nitrogen and it was not only fun and cool but tasted really good. Now, I didn't know what liquid nitrogen even was at that moment but the idea really struck me. I though, what if there was a place you could go and have ice cream made fresh right before your eyes using liquid nitrogen! It just sounded awesome to me!
But I didn't know ANYTHING about this! I had no knowledge or education on liquid nitrogen, it's properties, it's safety, I didn't know if I needed a special license to get it, to use it or even where to get it. I didn't know that it was -320 degrees below zero! I also didn't know the ice cream fundamentals, how to make a great mix, or can we buy it. What do they mean by overrun, butterfat content, emulsifiers or stabilizers? At that moment... I had to have been the most ignorant person alive when it came to liquid nitrogen and ice cream! Don't get me wrong, I knew what ice cream was, I ate plenty.... it's just that I was walking on to a whole new ball field here and I didn't know the rules or how to play.
I felt as though the mother ship had just dropped me off on the wrong planet.... but, I was excited and intrigued by the whole idea and THAT is what pushed me forward! So I gave myself a couple day crash course on liquid nitrogen and ice cream.. at least some basics so I didn't kill myself or others. We found out where to purchase nitrogen and made our own ice cream base from scratch, then I started some hands-on experimenting to see what would happen.
It worked! It was exciting and it tasted great! We had a long way to go yet but we were on the right track. Next, I needed a way to mix the nitrogen and ice cream together rather than by hand in a large bowl with a wooden spoon. By hand, the ice cream lacked that extra touch that it needed to take it from good to great, plus doing it by hand was a lot of work and it took way to long! I believe it was Kristen that mentioned using a mixer. Great idea, let's try it! Now, a long story short the mixer idea worked but we broke a LOT of mixers. They just couldn't handle the freezing of the liquid nitrogen. We tore up metal mixing blades, burnt up motors and broke and mangled gears and housings. We went through $200-$300 mixers like crazy and we were spending a lot of money that we didn't have.
So the only logical idea at the time was to fabricate our own parts that were stronger and fit our application better, and what was my background with fabrication and mechanics? You guessed it... zero! Plus, we're talking about something that doesn't exist yet so I don't have anyone to follow or copy... I can't even go buy the parts I need because 1.they don't exist and 2. I'm not sure what I need! It was about this time that Ward was helping me and I asked him if he wanted to partner with us to help build a store and work on finding a way to make our own liquid nitrogen ice cream machines. We had similar ideas and communicated really well together, we could say a few words and we knew exactly what each other was thinking. We talked about how we'll sell the machines all over the world! We'll be rich! We talked about driving our future Lamborghini's and traveling the world! We were on a high!
With an OK from the landlord, we started to expand and open an ice cream shop next door in the vacant building. It would be grand! We opened the wall between the two shops, and built a Key West theme with a glass covered sand bar, and bright colored buildings along one wall. It was sorta like being outside. Up at the bar we had four modified mixers with copper lines running to each of them from a liquid nitrogen dewar. We could pour in the liquid ice cream base, turn the handle to add nitrogen and with dozens of flavors, fruits, and candies, we were able to create a custom made ice cream just for you in about a minute.
It didn't take long and we knew that we were on to something big. Customers loved it! They loved the quality, the customization, the freshness and the fog show! Schools were coming by for field trips and we even had 76 bikers lined up to get ice cream as they were passing through town. Things were going pretty good with our new concept, and Ward and I were figuring out ways to make parts that worked better to meet our needs. Now the time was coming down to where I was faced with applying for a patent. I learned that you only have a year to apply for a patent once your put your concept out in the public or make money off of it. What did I know about patents? Nothing! So I got an attorney and had most of it done for me. I didn't know what to do.. I didn't even know what I would get a patent on if I were to receive one!
I know that as I tell you about all this and what I didn't know, you may be saying to yourself "this guy doesn't know anything"! But I am a pretty smart guy if I say so myself, I'm good at figuring things out, I can see things before they are built or created and I have a pretty good common scense. The main point that I'm trying to make here is that I didn't know anything about this vision or idea that had been given to me, and for what ever the reason was... it was up to us to bring this concept to life. No matter the challenges, no matter the hurdles, somehow it was all possible if I believed that it was.
Looking back now, I would say probably one of the greatest things of all was that we had no idea the costs, the efforts, or the time frame that lay ahead... if so I doubt that we would have ever made it to this point!