By Nick Woltman
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Wintertime in Minnesota may not seem conducive to ice cream sales, but Ashlee Olds, owner of the St. Paul ice cream startup Sweet Science, says her customers are unfazed.
Olds has courted a cult following in the Twin Cities by offering distinctive flavors, such as Sweet Corn Blueberry and Chai Tea, and holding monthly tasting events around the metro.
After starting small, selling mostly to friends and family, her ice cream will be available at St. Paul grocery stores for the first time beginning in mid-February, when it hits the shelves at Mississippi Market.
“I’m very excited for that,” she said. “We got started in St. Paul, and a lot of our regulars are here, too.”
Olds first broke into the food and beverage industry in the mid-2000s, when she and two friends opened a coffee shop in South St. Paul.
After selling her share of the business to her partners, Olds went to work with Colin Gasko at Rogue Chocolatier in Minneapolis. Although Olds describes herself as “more of a vanilla person,” she was impressed with Gasko’s fanatical dedication to the quality of his “bean-to-bar” chocolate.
“It was in his veins,” she said. “He would work 12 hours a day.”
Not only did he roast his own cocoa beans, he actually flew to South America to buy the beans from local farmers.
When Gasko moved the operation to his native Massachusetts, Olds, in need of a new job, decided to follow his example and find her own passion.
“Being around that was really inspiring,” Olds said. “But chocolate doesn’t speak to me in that way. … I decided, ‘I’m going to figure out what my chocolate is and do that.’ ”
It took a couple of years, cleaning houses to support herself, but she finally found it.
“It was just sort of an epiphany — it’s ice cream,” she said, adding that she saw an opening in the market for locally sourced, “flavor forward” organic ice cream.
In 2011, she enrolled in business classes at Metro State University and signed up for seminars at the Neighborhood Development Center.
With little capital for startup costs, she kept her overhead low. She rented space in Gia Kitchen, a co-working space for food industry entrepreneurs, and paid $3,000 for a small commercial ice cream machine she found on eBay.
Olds determined to buy her organic ingredients from local producers whenever possible. She struck a deal for milk and cream with Castle Rock Organic Dairy in Osseo, Wis. Co-op Partners Warehouse in St. Paul and local farmers markets provide much of the rest. Her sugar travels the farthest, coming from a supplier in Texas.
In lieu of a storefront, Olds decided to hold monthly tasting events, where attendees could sample her ice cream before buying it for $9 a pint.
She launched Sweet Science in August 2011 with her first tasting in a friend’s back yard. The 11 flavors she offered proved a hit.
Although she didn’t advertise, Olds slowly developed a cult following — her tastings were like an ice cream speakeasy that popped up in a different place each month.
“You kind of had to know about it,” she said. “And you had to come out this one day a month.”
Andrew Calkins and his wife Holly Rodin have been Sweet Science regulars since Olds first opened her tastings up to the public.
In addition to its unique flavors and organic ingredients, they were attracted to the underground feel of the tastings.
“The limited availability, I think, made it kind of special,” Calkins said. “You know, you had to do a little planning to get down there and get it.”
Hoping to cultivate a fan base, Olds began collecting names and email addresses from everyone who attended the tastings, sending out a monthly email newsletter. It now reaches more than 2,500 inboxes.
As the brand’s popularity grew, Olds began hiring part-time help and developed new flavors with help from other local food and beverage artisans.
She partnered with Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis for a Stout Oat Crunch flavor, and St. Paul’s Madmoiselle Miel for a Honey flavored ice cream.
ON INTO RETAIL
Olds’ April 2013 tasting event drew a record 700 people, despite cold, drizzly weather.
“It was gross out,” she said. “But people were lined up out the door and into the parking lot.”
She sold her entire stock — 475 pints — in three hours.
She invested her earnings in a bigger ice cream machine. Her little eBay find could only crank out five pints at a time, and she was having trouble keeping up with the growing demand — the new one can do about 40.
That summer, Olds moved in with Verdant Tea at the former Seward co-op building in Minneapolis. Verdant had a big commercial kitchen they didn’t need and rent was no higher there than at Gia Kitchen.
This new location, although a longer commute from her Dayton’s Bluff home, had the added advantage of a storefront, which allowed Olds to sell her ice cream in a traditional retail set-up for the first time.
This caused attendance at tastings to decline, but they’ve evolved into a valuable recruitment tool — about 90 percent of people who turn out are first-timers.
About 160 people attended January’s event at Tin Whiskers Brewing Co. in downtown St. Paul. Next month’s will be held at Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis.
In September 2013, Olds moved Sweet Science and its three part-time employees back to St. Paul. Her new location, another kitchen co-working space at the corner of Ohio and George streets, isn’t glamorous, but she no longer needs a fancy storefront.
Last fall, Olds received Minnesota Department of Agriculture go-ahead to start wholesaling her ice cream.
She’d put off taking this step for more than a year, afraid she would have to buy a $20,000 pasteurizing machine. Instead, Olds is able to pasteurize her product on the stove, heating it to 155 degrees for three minutes.
The Wedge co-op in Minneapolis has been carrying Sweet Science since December, and pints will be available for $10 at Mississippi Market in February.
“That’s what’s going to make us sustainable,” Olds said of wholesaling.
Sweet Science generated about $53,000 in sales last year — roughly the same as in 2013 — but Olds hasn’t drawn a salary for several months, still relying on her house-cleaning business for an income.
The company now boasts about 40 flavors, displayed on the Sweet Science website as a periodic table. In addition to classics like Chocolate and Vanilla, these include more exotic flavors like Egg Nog, Berry Crumble and Blood Orange Cream, although some of them are only available during certain months.
Her best-selling flavor, though, remains Salted Caramel — one of the original 11 she started with.
Next, Olds would like to begin partnering with local restaurants on exclusive flavors for their menus. She’s already in talks with a few of them.
And she has plenty of room to grow.
“We’re definitely not running at capacity,” Olds said. “We can make more ice cream than we can get rid of at this point.”