I consider myself immensely fortunate in the fact that I get to talk to so many cool people in the ice cream industry. I've never really tried interviewing any of them, but I decided to ask Rice Creams President Drew if he could do a little blurb about what it takes to get his product out into the marketplace. Imagine my surprise when I got the detailed response below (it just seemed wrong not to give it it's own post). If you've ever wondered what it takes to get a product to market like I do, then you should find this very interesting.
Big thanks to Drew!
Enjoy the read!
[2016 note: unfortunately it appears that Rice Creams has closed up shop]
My business plan for Rice Creams has somewhat morphed over the last six years, but I've always remained steadfast in getting Rice Creams ice cream sandwiches into consumer's hands.
Rice Creams started off selling to local mom and pop stores, then selling by way of push carts during outdoor street fairs and festivals. The take up rate was slow and it was very time consuming and labor-intensive. However, it did provide us with valued feedback from the public. We also dabbled in some guerilla marketing. This is all part of the grassroots branding process. Now, I develop leads and cultivate prospects, focusing on larger venues where people congregate en masse. This gives us much needed exposure to the many, as we currently have a limited marketing budget and limited regional distribution. First, I research for contact information of the buyers or managers responsible for food purchasing. These include, but are not limited to, ballparks, water parks, amusement parks, stadiums, colleges and universities, public pools, and kid's camps. I then introduce our product by cold calling or emailing the principle responsible. Emailing is a little less intrusive and lets the potential buyer look at the information at their fingertips and at their leisure. They're no-pressure contacts, or soft-sells; simply introducing myself and the Rice Creams ice cream sandwich. Sometimes I pique interest, get a reply, and arrange for a meeting or overnight samples (relatively VERY expensive for ice cream). And, sometimes I strike out, naturally. But it's not like I'm cold-call selling a stock pick. I'm selling ice cream! People tend not to get bent and lend an ear when they're being pitched deliciousness. In addition, I'm always trying to network and reach out through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and our web site, and through online communities. You never know who's watching or reading. You should see who's going to our site and checking us out (competitors) based on their IP address I check on from the back end. Very interesting that "The little ice cream sandwich that could" is being spied on. I'm flattered! I guess you have to know who your competition is, no matter how small. Also, I get requests from bloggers to network television VPs interested in our story which is both great and humbling. For example, I joined the Rutgers University Food Innovation online community and was contacted by the food buyer for Morey's Piers of Wildwood, NJ, the world's largest amusement pier, who is also a member. We hit it off as he is also an entrepreneur in his own right as well as an award-winning chef. Morey's Piers will be reordering for a third season in 2012. We were also contacted by the television show "Today In America" hosted by Terry Bradshaw out of Florida to do a story in the near-future. These are just a couple of examples.
As far as traditional retailing of Rice Creams, we are closely negotiating with a well-known grocery chain in the New York metro area. I made the contact (email), sent our a marketing packet (neat, professional packet via Fed Ex), played phone tag, and landed an appointment at their corporate headquarters. The head dairy buyer sampled our product in his office while we waited seated next to him. He also admired our packaging, a critical facet to product uptake and success. We waited what seemed to be an eternity for his response as he dissected, observed, and tasted. He then remarked verbatim: "We have to get these in here right away." Eureka! So, now we have our inner-door freezer display units ready to go that we purchased. They'll be selling individually in every one of the organization's locations. We will be on hand to sample the sandwiches when the time arises. People will need to see and taste our ice cream sandwiches so that they become aware that we've arrived. We learned from this dairy buyer that it's crucial to let the public sample your product, especially when you're starting out. He offered some sage advice in that, if you don't sample, you'll die a quick death. You have to create awareness, buzz, conversion, and eventually to sales. But it takes someone like this New York food buyer who is willing to take the time, is interested in new products (at least sampling them), and who provides an open door to get the ball rolling. We are truly grateful when this occurs, even if they don't take us on. At least we made them aware. And, maybe somewhere down the road they'll revisit us. You'll find there aren't too many of these people out there as they're mired down in their everyday routines and can't be bothered for the most part. But, they are out there. You just have to look, and then look some more. And then when you're done, look again. It's the only way you'll persevere.
Moving on, I find that most of the larger outdoor venues and ballparks are awash with contracts with the larger ice cream manufactures and distributors. This is nothing new. It provides secure revenue for these larger ice cream manufacturers (who will remain anonymous) and security for the outlets who buy their products by generating advertising dollars and staple, well-known products to their customers. But, at the same time, it curtails innovation and entrepreneurship for companies like Rice Creams, Inc. who get shut out. Many, many buyers who are, or were, interested in carrying our ice cream sandwiches had to forego the process of implementing us into their range because of these exclusivity contracts implemented by these ice cream manufacturers and distribution oligopolists. My solution is to move forward and persuade my prospects that this is something their customers will buy, it's new, it's innovative, and we're competitively priced. We also provide our own push carts and freezers, POP (point-of-purchase) displays, and marketing material. We truck direct, cutting out the middleman, for now. Stay tuned for more. So, in addition to R&D, branding, marketing, manufacturing, distribution, business law, managing, web design, administration, writing, and networking, there is wonderful sales! You'll need an ample skill set in order to make your food item hit the market, especially if you don't have deep pockets funding your venture.
I think we're similar in some capacity to when Chipwich started out. In fact, before Richard Lamotta, founder of Chipwich, passed away, he contacted me to remark on how delicious Rice Creams looked. Unfortunately, he never got a chance to sample one. Have you tried a Chipwich lately? Nothing remotely close to what they were in terms of taste and texture before they were bought out. Unfortunately, this is the rule, rather than the exception. And when it comes to using a co-packer to produce your ice cream novelties using exacting specifications and ingredients, don't be surprised if you don't recognize the finished product.