The Brooklyn-based ice cream chain boomed with the help of Oprah and Disney, then went bust. But the couple behind it are opening new shops and thinking small.
It was a sad day in Brooklyn when Ample Hills Creamery closed its doors. Just before last Christmas, the beloved ice cream parlor in Prospect Heights — and all 12 of its remaining scoop shops across the country — shut down after a decade-long roller-coaster ride of brand-building, bankruptcies and heartbreak.
As summer has approached, a constant stream of neighbors has peered hopefully into the darkened flagship on Vanderbilt Avenue, where the holiday lights are still up and the case is still labeled with last year’s Hanukkah flavor: cream-cheese ice cream swirled with chunks of locally baked raspberry rugelach.
“We made every mistake it is possible to make,” said Brian Smith, who founded Ample Hills with his wife, Jackie Cuscuna, in 2011. The couple were forced by bankruptcy to sell the business in 2020.
To their own great surprise, they will reopen that original store on Wednesday, followed over the summer by three others in New York City. Last month, the couple bought the shops back for $150,000 from the company they had sold to for $1 million: Schmitt Industries, an Oregon machine parts company that struggled to make the enterprise work. Schmitt put the company in receivership and sold off its assets, including a factory in Red Hook that cost nearly $7 million to build.
The Ample Hills story is a familiar one in the modern start-up world: Grow too fast, come down hard. It has also become common in the food industry, especially in the realm of desserts, a business now driven by social media fads and fickle consumers.
Formerly fast-growing chains like Cold Stone Creamery, 16 Handles, Yogurtland and Pinkberry have all scaled down from their peaks after opening in the early 2000s. Crumbs Bake Shop, which helped fuel the cupcake craze of the same period with its oversize offerings, went public in 2011 with an initial valuation of $66 million — and three years later went bankrupt, closing more than 50 shops.
Even by those standards, Ample Hills’s rise was unusually high-profile, turbocharged by endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and collaborations with Disney. Its collapse inspired a case study at Harvard Business School. And the company’s bid for a comeback will be watched by many more eyes than were trained on its humble start.
“It was amazing that so many people gave them a platform,” said Liz Rogers, who, after losing her “dream restaurant” to debt a decade ago, created Creamalicious, a line of Southern dessert-inspired ice creams carried by Walmart, Target, Kroger and Publix. “When you start out, you don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “Now they have to focus on their vision and not chase shiny things.”
This time around, the couple are determined not to get in over their heads.
“Toward the end, I was in the office so much that I felt like I didn’t even know how to make ice cream any more,” said Mr. Smith, 53, as a batch freezer making Banana Pudding churned loudly at the Social, a Prospect Heights ice cream parlor that a surprise investment helped them open in 2021. “I won’t let that happen again.”
At the beginning, Ample Hills was just a cartful of hand-cranked ice cream in Prospect Park with an appealing mom-and-pop back story: The couple lived nearby with their two young children, and were making up the business as they went along. Ms. Cuscuna had been a teacher; Mr. Smith, a screenwriter of B-movies and an ice cream hobbyist on the side.
They opened a brick-and-mortar shop just before Memorial Day weekend in 2011, and sold out of ice cream that Saturday night. Weeping with elation and exhaustion, Mr. Smith had to close for more than a week to regroup.
By feeding the customer’s inner child with flavors like Snap Mallow Pop and Cherry Cola — no Earl Grey or lavender to be found — Ample Hills quickly became one of the brands that made Brooklyn a food destination.
In contrast to other local producers like Blue Marble and Van Leeuwen, Ample Hills was determinedly uncool. Its signature colors were bright, its flavor names silly (It Came From Gowanus, Corn to Run), and while the ice cream base was top-quality, with no artificial colors or flavors, its mix-ins were often highly processed foods like Froot Loops, potato chips and M&Ms. (The shop’s name came from a loftier source: Brooklyn’s own poet laureate, Walt Whitman. “I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” he wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)
Like many popular treats (the Maman chocolate chip cookie, Beecher’s macaroni and cheese, Red Truck Bakery pecan pies), Ample Hills ice cream began its success streak with a nod from Ms. Winfrey. She’d been tipped off by her fellow ice cream fanatic (and Disney chief executive) Robert Iger, who enlisted the couple for collaborations like Marvel- and Star Wars-themed flavors, supermarket distribution and a scoop shop at Disney World.
Mr. Smith and Ms. Cuscuna stayed rooted in the borough, supporting the Prospect Park Alliance and other local nonprofits, and creating special flavors for the Brooklyn Nets. The combination of doing good, making money and representing Brooklyn — all through ice cream — felt giddy.
“It made us think anything was possible,” Mr. Smith said.
Even, maybe, becoming millionaires. They consulted a neighbor (Charlie O’Donnell, a founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures) for financial advice, and the fund became an investor, along with other firms that normally funded tech start-ups, not food businesses. By 2019, Ample Hills had raised nearly $20 million. But the couple lost control of the company in early 2020, when the costs of all that expansion swamped revenues.
On March 15 of that year, as the pandemic set in, they sold Ample Hills to Schmitt Industries.
Mr. Smith was heartbroken. He’d devoted 10 years of his life to mastering ice cream, overseeing every Ample Hills batch from scratch and constantly inventing new flavors that reflected his creative ethos: “Every flavor should tell a story.”
The couple declared personal bankruptcy, moved into a smaller apartment and worried about what would come after ice cream.
“What else were we qualified to do?” Ms. Cuscuna said.
To find out, she enrolled in an online “pivot workshop” held by the North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. That led them to Whiskey Wednesday, a regular networking event held by Norm Brodsky, a high-profile New York entrepreneur whose career had begun with a boom and bust. In 1979, he started a document courier service that expanded faster than sales, lost the faith of investors and went bankrupt following the advent of the fax machine and the 1987 market crash.
“I like to help people with moxie, who get back up after a hit,” said Mr. Brodsky, who advises many small-business owners but invests in few. He said he has invested “nearly seven figures” in Ample Hills.
Armed with new cash, the couple built and opened the Social in 2021. But the pandemic continued to ravage retail businesses around the city, and the Social’s earnings that first summer were not encouraging.
Last year, they were approached by Thomas Eisenmann, a Harvard Business School professor who wanted to use Ample Hills Creamery as a case study. (He teaches a course titled “Entrepreneurial Failure.”)
The study concluded that the couple, like many food entrepreneurs, had been too financially inexperienced and too easily lured by novel, impractical ideas, like a Los Angeles location that was built inside a Craftsman-style bungalow and packing their pints into square containers rather than the usual round ones.
“It hurt to see it laid out like that, and labeled a failure,” Ms. Cuscuna said.
But the study also concluded that the couple had rebounded well, by unflinchingly studying their missteps, swearing off venture capital — with its mandate to scale up — and composing a mission statement to remind them of their goals.
“Our mission is to harness the power of ice cream, like community organizers did before us,” it reads. To that end, “we are in constant pursuit of the Perfect Scoop, the Great American Scoop of Ice Cream.”
Mr. Smith chased that dream while in pandemic lockdown at home with a Vitamix blender. He started puréeing ingredients together, persistently spinning new mixtures until they were fine enough to freeze.
From those Vitamix variations, he developed a new basic formula for ice cream, with fewer egg yolks, less sugar and more glucose — a clear, syrupy sweetener with a taffy-like chew. Into the cream base, he purées whole croissants to produce Morning in Paris, swirled with raspberry jam; he blends bananas and Nilla Wafers to make Banana Pudding.
That new formula will gradually replace the original, as the couple cautiously reopens Ample Hills stores in Manhattan and Queens, and a new production facility and scoop shop in Industry City in Brooklyn. So far, they have no expansion plans beyond New York City. “We said yes one too many times,” Mr. Smith said.
Will their attempt at a second act go smoother than the first?
Their plan has a recent precedent: Last year, the Crumbs founders, Mia and Jason Bauer, bought back their brand for $300 and reinvented it as a supermarket and direct-to-consumer operation, with no stores. Their cupcakes and cookie jars are sold at New York City’s upscale supermarkets, and they’ve just raised $1.5 million toward expansion.
“All that money we spent on landlords and labor wasn’t necessary this time around,” Mr. Bauer said.
But the Ample Hills owners are doubling down on brick and mortar. “We want to know our customers again,” said Ms. Cuscuna, 53. She described the feeling of walking into the original store as “surreal.”
Mr. Smith, for his part, characterized his emotional state last week as “excited, grateful and terrified.”
Mr. Brodsky, the Ample Hills investor, isn’t worried. At 84, he has seen a lot.
“They built a brand that’s already been through bankruptcy twice and still exists,” he said. “That doesn’t happen unless you’re doing something pretty special.”
Read the article from The New York Times here.
Learn more about leasing office space at IC here.