My Humble Beginnings in Paradise

posted in: Ice Cream Business | 47
Neil Williams TurnKey Parlor Ice Cream
Neil Williams (holding door) John Williams (making funny face) - Unloading Airplane - St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands - 1988

The year was 1988. I was in Florida at the time, working for Multi-Vest Options in Ft. Lauderdale, shortly after graduating from Florida State.

The phone rang and my older brother John said…..”Neil, I bought an ice cream delivery truck and just shipped it to St. Thomas. I need help. I’ll pay you $250 a week and give you a share of the business”. At the time, I was clearing about $175 a week, so it didn’t take long for me to quickly blurt out, “I’m in!”

A little history…. We grew up in Puerto Rico. Our father moved there from Chicago in the sixties and started a successful direct marketing business. John did a few years in different stateside colleges but did not graduate. Instead, he took flying lessons and got his pilot’s license. He started a distribution business where he would fly fresh produce from Puerto Rico to the US Virgin Islands, The British Virgin Islands and further down the Lesser Antilles.  My brother was obsessed with perfection and delivering the perfect product. I remember helping him one summer while I was still in college.  We were sorting through cases of apples preparing to fly them to St. Lucia. John made me go through each and every apple in each and every case and remove the bad ones and replace them with good ones. I asked him why he was so worried about an apple having a bruise, especially if it was in the middle of the case. Who would know? He said that the best way to grow your business is to deliver a better than expected product and delight your customer each and every time.  “Over deliver Neil, and they will keep calling you back”. All I could think of at the time was, my back hurts….when do we pack up and hit the beach? Needless to say, word got around fast and more and more customers wanted to buy product from that guy that flies in from Puerto Rico. The business flourished.

But John only had one plane, and he could only carry so much produce. He started looking for a higher profit product. No, not “that”– although drugs were exactly what was going through each and every customs agent John had to face. They found it hard to believe that John was actually trying to build a business around flying produce. As crazy as it seems, he was doing exactly that.

Enter ice cream, a much more profitable product than produce. John noticed that the ice cream on the supermarket shelves and ice cream parlors in these islands was almost always re-frozen. Horrible quality, at a high price. People accepted it and figured that this was the way ice cream was. Icy, grainy, sandy. He saw an opportunity and ran with it. He developed a system of double corrugated cardboard boxes lined with polystyrene (like the inside of your basic foam cooler). While inside the walk in freezer of the ice cream distributor in Puerto Rico, John packed and sealed the boxes to ensure that the tubs and pints remained rock solid. The flight was about an hour long, and John could get about 5 hours out of these boxes before the ice cream began to suffer. The 5 hours would give just enough time to get to the last account and deliver perfect product.

Once done in the walk in freezer, he would pack the  boxes in his van, head for the airport and take off for that day’s island. Upon landing, he would quickly rent a pick up truck, clear customs, load up the boxes and head out to sell his accounts, who had pre-ordered the product. I’m not making this up…..although it seems hard to believe that anyone would try to build a business around this concept.

Once John tired of the constant every day rush to avoid “meltdown” he realized that he needed to buy a truck. That is when I got the

Neil Williams Ice Cream
Neil Williams (holding hand up) Darin Povitz (middle) John Williams carrying box

call and moved to St. Thomas, the island with the most promise.

John continued to fly the product in, but we decided to concentrate on building the business on St. Thomas. The picture at the start of this post is of the two of us, John by the plane and me loading Haagen-Dazs bars into the truck. John would fly back to PR, and I would calmly go out and make deliveries. About a year later, my brother Michael joined the business. We bought another truck and Michael moved to St. Croix, to develop that market. I remember how John would always set goals and break-even points around the number of boxes we could sell in a given week. He would say things like, “when we get to 90 boxes a week, we’ll be making some decent money…..so we need to open some more accounts to get there”. All I can remember was thinking, boxes? Boxes? We need to start thinking in dollars and another way to grow this business. It didn’t take long for John to start thinking in the same terms.

At this point, we were starting to move enough product to start buying it in Florida and shipping frozen containers down to the islands. We built walk in freezers on both St. Thomas and St. Croix. Our suppliers (Haagen-Dazs and Dreyer’s/Edy’s) were very happy with our performance and John was given the rights to distribute the Dreyer’s/Edy’s line for “the big island” – Puerto Rico. He later added Ben & Jerry’s to the mix.

By 1998, we had built a business with over 15 route trucks in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Croix. John and Michael are still actively managing the business today. In 2001, I started to get “island fever” and decided to move my family (wife Amy and two girls, Chelsea and Coco) to North Carolina where I began to develop TurnKeyParlor.com. I still talk with my brothers on a regular basis and frequently bore others with our constant ice cream business conversations.

So, the moral is….I’m really not sure……. No, all kidding aside, the moral is….. work hard, “over deliver” on your promises and good things will come your way.

The goal at TurnkeyParlor.com is to  offer the “best apples” possible to my customers on a daily basis. So far, this approach has helped me build a really solid, rapidly growing business. TurnKeyParlor.com is visited by thousands of prospects a month, many who turn into long term customers.

If you have a story you would like to tell, or would like to comment on my story, please do so. Thanks for reading this post.

Neil

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Neil Williams
President

KeyWord Farm, LLC
www.TurnKeyParlor.com
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47 Responses

  1. Hi Neil,
    I love to read stories about people and their lives. That is a cool plane. We are getting ready soon to open the Los Altos Creamery in Los Altos, California. My son Charles just finished his masters in political science so he promised to come back from Chapel Hill to help me for a few weeks..
    regards,
    Kathy

  2. Thanks Neil for that wonderful story! I am starting my own Italian Ice biz and look forward to relying on your site for help and inspiration!
    My father’s favorite saying was “Necessity is the mother of invention” – that is how I plan to build my biz- although I will have plans I believe the “next step” will always present itself out of necessity. Your story reminded me of this…

  3. Wow! and I thought I was “stepping out” just to buy some used freezers and whatever else it takes to start up an ice cream store last spring.
    Vern
    P.S. The previous owner of said store and I have completed an agreement of sale. I am now the proud owner of Cone Castle.

  4. Loved reading your story and I too believe you have to give the people what they want. I started Sugar Shack in March 2009 with one 8 tub freezer from you. I have picked up 3 other smaller freezers since then and need more (or need to trade them in for another 8 tub freezer from you). We have stayed open thru the winter here and the customers love our service. We want to expand by getting a freezer to take to the local events. All in all we are doing great and thanks to you for our first freezer.

  5. Thanks for the kind words Laura. Great to hear that things are going well for you and that we were able to help you get started with the first dipping cabinet.

    Makes me feel good to hear that hard working folks like yourself are rewarded with a growing business when you give your customers what they’re looking for.

    Keep up the great work! I’ll be sure to hit the Sugar Shack for some great ice cream and excellent service next time I’m in the area!

    Neil

    Neil

  6. Just wondering if you had advice, I am starting a push cart business this coming summer. Its a little confusing about storage, cold plates, plug in, dry ice, or cold packs which do you think the best investment would be to sell ice cream novelties? I have about 1000 start up money. Any advice would be helpful
    thanks,
    Beth

  7. Hi Neil,
    I was supprised to here at the end it was you who wrote this!! You are sooooooo right about customer service. It snowed last night here!! I guess you don’t get that much of it in North Carolina!! But we still sell ice cream. Even the 2ft of snow can’t keep people away!!

  8. Dennis Duquette

    Hey Guys , great story!
    I to opened my own business for the first time only to have it close to due to emergency surgery just under a yr into it. Surgery went well I am scheduled for one more surgery. I have since kept my equipment in storage and have sold most of it. I do however have 4- 6ft dipping cabinets and a small sandwich prep table for sale if anyone is interested. I will probably start up again with another business (maybe back in the ice cream, who knows), its just I cant afford the storgae payments. If you can pass this along to anyone looking, They are in great working condition and i give a very fare price. I know the challenges of starting up from scratch, finding the right equipment ca be challenging…I just want to help make it easier for someone out there looking for pieces to their business puzzle. Thanks for your help and if you need photos, I can supply them as well. Good luck to all and God bless!

    • I might be able to take those items off of your hands. Shoot me an email and let’s talk.
      icecreamkravings@gmail.com

    • Hey Dennis,

      Hope you are doing well, I read your note about your surgery and hope they went great.
      I also notice that you said that you had a prep table that you would like to be taken off your hands. Could you tell me more about it and/or send me some pictures.

      Thanks and have a great day
      Clint

  9. NEIL, THANKS FOR ALL THE HELPFUL INFORMATION YOU HAVE PASSED ON TO ME CONCERNING THE ICE CREAM BUSINESS. I AM SO HAPPY TO HAVE FOUND YOUR COMPANY, IT’S PEOPLE LIKE YOU THAT MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE THROUGH YOUR CARING AND SHARING.

  10. Victor Michael

    Hi Mr Neal great story .Iam from ST Lucia.I left ST Lucia at the age of eighteen years old for St Thomas the Virgin Island April 4/1969 with five dollars in my pocket.I attend night and graduate from Charlotte Amalie High School night.I attended school for five nights a week for four years.I love the Virgin islands i had lots of fun.I took the Penn State ice cream short course and i am trying to start my own ice cream business.I was in ST Lucia about four years ago i started making sorbet it did not work.Victor Micheal

  11. sebastian patane

    Hey Neil great story!I live in Arizona and am tired of woking for other people. Im 58 and if I cant sell icecream or ices in AZ there is something wrong.I am torn between a conssion trailer or a truck.The health dept is very strict and I think starting out in a 18ft trailer is the cheapest way to go. I would like to go with soft icecream and maybe italian ices. Checking on your scratch and dent freezers are a great start. I need to know what size generator I would need to run a 2flavor soft icecream machine, a 6-8 flavor dipping freezer and the specification on the LxWxH. Thank you
    Sebastian

  12. Hi Everyone – we are thinking of pouring our remaining life savings into an ice cream or frozen yogurt shop. Neil’s site and blog(s) are excellent, but I would love to hear from anyone who has hands on experience and is willing to pass on any words of advice. Thanks in advance, hopefully I will be contacting Neil for some equipment! Jennifer

  13. Hey Jennifer,

    I’ve worked in an ice-cream/Italian ice business. What sort of advice are you looking for? Maybe, if I cant answer them; then my uncle who owns the shop can. Feel free to email me with questions. Eg1entertainment@yahoo.com

    Eli

  14. Mrs. Bonita A. Hightower

    Neil, that was a great story. Thank you so very much for the information on the freezer temperatures. I know that it was for me because I was thinking about what ice cream supplier carried Rum Raisin, and there you were talking about it in your information email. I have two near to brand new freezers that I was going to use to get me started in my re-opening of my Ice Cream Cafe, so that information helped in knowing that I can’t wait to long before I purchase my dipping cabinet. I have learned to use what I have until I can get what I truly need. However, I read that you do furnish or have available cabinets correct? If so, would you please furnish me a price list of such item, and maybe I will be able to purchase my first brand new box from you. Thank you again, for that wonderful humble beginning journey of success. It was just what I needed to validate my being on the right track in bringing life, excitement and fulfillment to this community in South Rural Georgia. Blessing, Mrs. Bonita Hightower!!

  15. I’m thinking of opening an ice cream parlour and this your story is very inspiring and soul uplifting. Your story has really boosted my morale and that big things starts with humble beginnings.

    God Bless.

  16. Hi Neal:
    I just started a water ice (that’s what we call Italian ice in Philly) business in a local minor league baseball stadium and am looking to expand the business to start manufacturing our own ice. I wanted to know if you had any suggestions to help us develop a wholesale business for our product and building accounts like you and your brother did?

    Thank you,

    Harvey

  17. Iam in the process of opening a small ice cream parlor in my parlor at my Bed & Breakfast Melodys Place.com I too am looking for a dipping cabinet. Just going through the permitting and town official and board of health hoops unbelievable you would think I was applying to work at the White House. So it will be a nice Victorian style ice cream candy shop in my Victorian pink lady B&B. Just loosing a good piece of the summer with dealing with getting going. Could really use some inspiration and any kind help words or other wise. :) my email melodywhelden@hotmail.com and melodysplace.com Thanks!!! Melody also trying to come up with a good name any thoughts if you look at my place its PINK and cute.

  18. Susan Meeker

    John,
    Not sure you remember me from when I lived in Puerto Rico. Our parents were good friends and your sister Celi was my best friend. Just wanted to say hey! So impressed that you are doing what you are doing.

    Susan Meeker

  19. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for advise, especially on where to locate the business. I nearly accepted a location poor of anchor tenants on my contemplating an ice cream palour. I am now taking more serious the issue of a good spot. Like your brother John I am suffering perctionist attitude. Great story, thanks.

    Sam
    South Africa

  20. Hi Neil,

    I am in a process of opening an ice cream parlour here in Tanzania-Dar es salaam It’s very hot and humid city yet there is no a good gelato place/frozen yoghurt. Your story is very inspiring and thank you sharing. Will be writing to enquire for equipments and shipment.

    Mercy
    Tanzania.

  21. Hi Neil, Thank you so much for all of the information that you have freely provided. I too feel that it was a blessing to find your website. I really wanted to start a take out restaurant but I’m having trouble seeing the possibility financially but ice cream seems more doable. I remember the ice cream parlor at the corner on the street that I grew up up and how successful it was. People came from all around the neighborhood to get ice cream and I can envision it to be the same way in my current neighborhood. I and looking for a location now with high hopes and as soon as I locate and secure a spot I will be contacting you for equipment.

    Thanks again for your great support! Sandra

  22. Hi Neil,
    I am planning to start an ice cream business over here in Nigeria. But my Major problem is how to get the plan/settings for the shop and Equipment/receipt here in Nigeria. please i need your assistance.

  23. can you emails the way set up frozen yogurt store

  24. Simon B.Kunkuta

    Great achievement indeed. wishing you all the best in your business.
    I need you advise, i have been pregnant with the idea of starting an ice cream business, but need more information on start-up capital, set-up,profitability, common challenges and how you are able to maintain your focus dispit the challenges…e.t.c.

    From Zambia

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  40. Morry Potvin

    Love the story and especially the second picture w/ Darin in middle. Looked like an integral part of the business. what a catch. prrrrr.

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