A little luck and a lot of initiative helped launch two Chicago frozen-food companies that are gearing up for a big summer.
Kris Swanberg, a former teacher who lost her job when her Chicago public school closed two years ago, started making ice cream in her spare time. Today, her gourmet Nice Cream sells for $8.99 a pint in 18 local food markets, including two Whole Foods stores in the city.
“There's a lot of luck involved,” she said. “I was very lucky I got an ice cream maker as a wedding present,” which inspired her to try something new.
Swanberg also was fortunate to know the owners of Green Grocer Chicago, a specialty food market near her home.
“I was bringing them ice cream just to be friendly, and they started saying, 'This is so good, you should sell it,'“ Swanberg said. Green Grocer became her first big customer.
Diana's Bananas also started “by accident” at Taste of Chicago 25 years ago, when a worker happened to bring a bunch of bananas to a station selling chocolate-dipped strawberries, said owner Bob Carmody. One thing led to another, and they began selling frozen chocolate-covered bananas.
“We instantly recognized it as something great,” Carmody said. The company now produces 1.5 million frozen Banana Babies each month in Chicago, he said.
“It's seizing the opportunity, but it's more than that too,” said Barry Merkin, clinical professor of management and strategy and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. “It's perceiving the opportunity.”
Swanberg was hardly the only person to receive an ice cream maker as a wedding gift, but she recognized a market opportunity for a high-end product made from natural ingredients, including organic milk and local produce.
Her first break came in August 2008 when a friend encouraged her to sell her ice cream at a bake sale. Swanberg sold out in two hours. By October, she was selling to Green Grocer, making every pint herself, using the freshest ingredients she could find. As demand grew, she bought a small, commercial ice cream maker, leased space in a commercial kitchen and hired two workers.
She limits production to four flavors per season. “I wanted to do unique flavors and change it up,” she said.
Nice Cream is now selling cream cheese ice cream with carrot cake pieces, Earl Grey tea with shortbread cookies, honey pistachio and lavender vanilla bean.
“We try to do what we hope our customers do; buy local and organic ingredients,” she said.
Her instinct to rotate flavors by season turned out to be a good business decision, because sales typically peak during the transition periods, she said.
Consumers like the unusual flavors and high-quality ingredients, said Cassie Green, owner of Green Grocer, which devotes about half of its ice cream case to Nice Cream.
“Once people try it, they come back and buy two, three and four pints,” Green said. “She's the star of our ice cream case.”
Carmody and his wife didn't plan to launch a frozen treat business, but stumbled on the opportunity when Carmody's father-in-law experimented at the Taste of Chicago by putting a banana on dry ice, then dipping it in chocolate.
The first bunch of chocolate-covered frozen bananas sold quickly, so Carmody bought 25,000 bananas at Chicago food stores and sold them at the Taste of Chicago that year, he said.
That wasn't the only aha moment for the Carmodys. At another summer festival, a repeat customer asked if he could buy a coolerful and put them in his freezer for later. That's when the Carmodys saw the opportunity to sell the frozen treats at retail.
Today, Banana Babies, which are covered in dark or milk chocolate from Chicago-based Blommer Chocolate Co., sell for about $5 for a box of five in more than 12,000 stores throughout the United States and internationally, Carmody said. To keep up with growing demand, the company plans to move to a larger, 30,000-square-foot facility in Chicago this fall and likely will hire more workers, he said.
Reflecting on the company's success, Carmody said, “The genesis was just 100 percent luck, but after that it was 100 percent hard work and determination.”