Doug Quint should have been working on his dissertation in June 2009 when he decided he wanted a "fun summer job."
"I thought about being a butcher or an exterminator -- just something crazy," he said. Then he saw a posting for an available ice cream truck, and New York's Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was born. He and his partner, Bryan Petroff, spent the summer turning out a more colorful version of Mister Softee -- with far better ingredients. One summer turned into another and five years later, the pair -- who left their other jobs two years into the venture -- have launched a Big Gay empire (two storefronts in New York and one opening in LA this spring).
The couple, both in their 40s, used a castoff Mister Softee truck and focused on unexpected sweet-savory combinations. They experimented with olive oil, salt, vinegar -- ingredients rarely found in desserts for the masses.
"At first, we were just buying things that were commercially available," Quint said. "We weren't making very many things, we were just introducing combinations. Now, we cook 95% of our own products."
They also have their own vanilla and chocolate ice cream produced at a dairy in upstate New York -- a far cry from the early days, when the flavors were dictated by how well the soft-serve machine worked.
Embrace your customers.
"The first 200 people are your customers forever," the two men said at a recent panel hosted by American Express U.S. Small Merchants Group. "They're the marketing, PR and social media."
During the truck's first summer, Quint said their rabid fan base was quickly apparent "both online and in line."
"I could see people stepping up to bat for us on Facebook and Twitter," Quint said. "And the same thing occurred with people in line. A stranger might be looking at the truck saying, 'What the hell is this?' and someone would flag them over and they'd usually join the line."
The sometimes massive wait times have just reinforced their customer-first mission.
"People wait an hour in line and you have 90 seconds to convince them to do it again," Petroff said.
Understand your niche.
"Ice cream is fun," both men emphasized.
This means a rainbow logo and unicorns in the stores' window, for one, but also customer service that embraces their belief that "with ice cream comes a smile."
This is deeply ingrained in Petroff and Quint, who both loved roadside ice cream as children.
"My sister worked at the Tastee-Freez in my hometown," Quint said. "It was really fun to visit her there and was always a pile of laughs. My motivation with the truck was to be more like that."
Don't dilute the brand.
They know ice cream is a slower sell in the winter, but you'll never see a cauldron of Big Gay Chili or a specialty macchiato.
"We're not a coffee shop. We're an ice cream shop," Quint said definitively. (But don't fret, coffee drinkers. They have a Big Gay Blend roast, which is also used in their coffee ice cream.)
As they move to open a store in LA and plan for even more ventures, Quint said both he and Petroff are masters at the art of saying "no."
"If something doesn't feel organic or rushed, we really don't have a problem saying, nope -- not now, not ever," he said." We want everything to feel right. We probably passed up some opportunities that might have worked, but we're perfectly fine with it."