This Franchisee Isn’t Just Selling Ice Cream. He’s Selling K-12 Science. Essay
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Name: Rob West
Franchise: , in Simi Valley and Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Number of years in business/Number of employees: six years / 24 employees
Initial Investment: The average investment is $165,000 to $381,000; West spent $325,000.
As ice cream chains go, Sub Zero's product is a bit of an outlier: Orders are customized — with candy, fruit and nuts — and that's fairly widespread. But what's different about Sub Zero is that the ice cream is then "flash-frozen" in about 30 seconds right in front of the guest.
The tool that accomplishes this is minus-321 degree liquid nitrogen, which ensures that milk molecules stay small, water particles don't become ice crystals and nutrients are preserved to produce the brand's ultra-smooth and creamy product.
The gourmet creamy treat that all that science produces was what convinced Rob West, while visiting a Sub Zero outlet on a family trip to Boise, Idaho, in 2010, to chuck his corporate finance career and go into business for himself.
West remembers that life-changing moment well: "My first Sub Zero ice cream was Dr. Pepper with maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows," he reports by email. "It was so good, I could hardly believe it."
West was also psyched about having his own venture. "All of my life, I had played the 'safe' route," he remembers. "Now it was time to take some personal risks."
All well, and good, but West's notion — encouraged by the company — to open the the first Sub Zero in California, in 2012, in West's hometown of Los Angeles, hit a snag: The state, it turns out, was skeptical about that 400 gallons of liquid nitrogen his retail stores needed at the core of their business. More and more restaurants are serving cryrogenically flash-frozen products. But the liquefied gas used is intensely cold and can cause frostbite or cryogenic burns if not handled properly.
"Our challenge was educating and convincing county health departments, health departments, fire departments and regulators that this concept was safe to the general public," West says. "We spent an exorbitant amount of money on consultants and architects to help us through the process."
En route, his 30-year Fortune 100 track record and the MBA he'd earned from the prestigious Kellogg School at Northwestern came in handy. "My business training taught me how to build proformas. I researched costs, got bids, shopped and observed the competition," West says. "I asked other small-business owners about their experiences, posed questions to the local chamber of commerce and city planning departments and wrote a lengthy business plan to help keep things in focus."
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Personally, he knew the business would work. Not only were his own kids grown, so he felt he could take the risk, but, "The ice cream market is steady and resistant to economic downturns. Everyone loves cream and family budgets make room for it." Besides, Sub Zero's concept was brand new in the retail ice cream space.
Not that that MBA behind his business plan was always the be-all and end-all. West acknowledges a mistake he made initially, opening two stores simultaneously: in Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley. "With great expectations and no historical data in California to go by, we overestimated things we shouldn't have and underestimated things we also should not have," he says. "In the end, that [Valley] store couldn't sustain itself and we had to let it go."
Recently, though, he's purchased an existing Sub Zero store in Laguna Niguel from an operator moving abroad, and, as as an area developer for the brand, plans to help build the L.A. market to at least 100 locations. He's also developed multiple revenue streams, including off-site catering and (paid) school science presentations.
As to the latter: Call him Mr. Science: "With our natural tie-in to nitrogen and, by association, the sciences, Sub Zero has a unique opportunity to perform high-energy, fast-paced, visually appeally, comically entertaining science educational assemblies to a wide student audience," West says. "We want kids to be more aware of the wonders of science and open to pursuing careers in those fields."
Judging from the expressions of the kids in the photo from one teaching session, the young-uns are definitely on board. Besides, Mr. Science always comes prepared to serve them yummy samples of his work and, if they commit to reading 20 minutes a day for 20 days, a "bookmark" that wins them more.