Friday, August 03, 2007

Politically Incorrect Sale Increases

ONE of the last things a fledgling New York City business wants to do is alienate a powerful city politician. But that is exactly what happened to Scott and Kim Myles, the owners of 5 Boroughs Ice Cream.

In June, James P. Molinaro, the Staten Island borough president, issued a statement attacking the couple’s Staten Island Landfill flavor (which contains fudge, pieces of brownies and cherries) as “insulting and derogatory” to the borough, and urged that New Yorkers boycott all of the company’s flavors.

But after the boycott, four Whole Foods stores in Manhattan quadrupled their ice cream orders and Whole Foods affiliates in Connecticut and New Jersey began ordering the company’s ice cream for the first time. The Myleses, who live in Astoria, Queens, attribute the rise in orders to publicity from the boycott. “It tripled our sales and gave us a lot of momentum,” Mr. Myles said.

“We never intended to offend anyone.” he added. “We intend our ice cream names to be tongue-in-cheek with a New York sense of humor.”

The 5 Boroughs brand, with ingredients and names inspired by New York City neighborhoods, is now in 34 stores, with seven flavors available. This spring, the company introduced Upper East Side Rich White Vanilla and Jackson Heights Mangodesh (mango ice cream spiced with cardamom supplied by an Indian grocery store in Jackson Heights).

It is a small business, but the Myleses have lofty ambitions. They would like to turn their mom-and-pop operation into a national brand that can compete with much bigger names like Ben & Jerry’s.

While the Myleses think of themselves as the Ben and Jerry of New York City (they, too, have clever ice cream names and a portion of some sales goes to charity), competing as a small ice cream business in the New York market has not been easy.

Things that Ben & Jerry’s can take for granted — like equipment, distribution, production and marketing — have been a challenge for the couple, who had no previous business experience and who operate no brick-and-mortar store. After four years, the two have still not quit their day jobs, Mr. Myles as a graphic designer and Ms. Myles as a hairstylist.

“It’s deeply frustrating,” Ms. Myles said. “Capitalism is stacked against the small-business guy; the system is not your friend. Gaining your own shelf space, having your own plant, it’s all difficult. We have a great idea, we have standards and we have heart. For us to get recognition and be highly profitable, we need an investor.”

For now, they say, they are getting by on good word of mouth, ice cream demonstrations at grocery stores, and by renting space at upscale food fairs.

The couple know they have a long way to go, but they also realize how far they have come.

After they realized that they wanted to start a business, they contacted Malcolm Stogo, a consultant and founder of Ice Cream University, which offers seminars to aspiring entrepreneurs. Mr. Stogo helped them find equipment and space to rent in the back of a small ice cream parlor in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

Commuting on three subway trains from Astoria to Fort Greene for nine months in 2003, Mr. Myles began making batches of various flavors. (In 2005, when the ice cream parlor closed, the couple found a production facility in Boonville, in upstate New York, to make their ice cream.)

The company started selling half-pint containers in a few stores in 2004 and added full pints (at about $5) to its growing roster of stores last August.

“I give him a ton of credit; he had very little money,” said Mr. Stogo, who remains an unofficial adviser to Mr. Myles. “His product wasn’t great at first, but he kept improving it and finally got it right. The baklava had the best taste and the best texture.”

Mr. Stogo was referring to the couple’s Astoria-inspired Bakla-Wha?!, which had its genesis in 2001. At the time, Mr. Myles had begun playing Dr. Frankenstein with an ice cream maker that the couple received as a wedding gift, creating unusual combinations for his friends and family to try.

For Bakla-Wha?!, he mixed bits of Astoria-made baklava pastries with vanilla ice cream, cinnamon and walnuts. Ms. Myles said that was the couple’s “light bulb” moment when they realized they were sitting on “a million-dollar idea.”

But that wasn’t the initial reaction from their Astoria baklava supplier, Nick Sakalis, co-owner of the Victory Sweet Shop. “It was completely out of the blue and I was a little hesitant, to tell you the truth,” Mr. Sakalis said about the idea for a baklava flavor. “But it was good, much better than I thought it would be.” (The flavor is temporarily unavailable because of production issues.)

The Myleses say they are often approached by vendors and organizations that want them to use a special ingredient. They are discussing a possible beer-flavored delight with a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, brewery and are using a Park Slope granola maker’s ingredients for the tentatively titled Park Slope Granola Stroller — in honor of the neighborhood’s many baby strollers.

The Myleses say they are not concerned about offending a few people as long as most of them appreciate their humor — and their ice cream. They have received a few complaints that South Bronx Cha Cha Chocolate and Upper East Side Rich White Vanilla perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes.

“These are not racial slurs,” Mr. Myles says. “We’re celebrating New York’s culture and ethnicity.”

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