As she approaches the opening of her 9th shop, Robyn Sue Fisher caught up with Forbes and chatted about all things culture and soul, and how she is “us[ing] growth as a way to get better.”
HOW SAN FRANCISCO’S SMITTEN ICE CREAM OUTGREW ITS WOODEN WAGON BUT NOT ITS VALUES
FORBES, SEPTEMBER 2016
by Robin D. Schatz
“In 2009, Robyn Sue Fisher, a lifelong ice cream freak with an MBA from Stanford University, started selling her Smitten Ice Cream out of a Radio Flyer wagon in San Francisco. It was a nerdy product that fused nostalgia and science: Her homemade ice cream was made to order, flash-frozen at the time of sale with liquid nitrogen in her own ice cream machine that was powered by a battery pack she built out of an old motorcycle battery.
Using social media, Fisher alerted her fans to the flavor of the day and the wagon’s whereabouts. Soon, she was attracting huge crowds. Thanks to the smaller-sized crystals achieved with liquid nitrogen, the ice cream was ultra-creamy. Because it was made and consumed on the spot, there was no need for stabilizers to junk up the recipe.
Today, Fisher presides over a half-dozen Smitten Ice Cream shops in the Bay Area and Los Angeles with more than 120 employees. By year-end, she plans to have 10 shops in operation, with more on the drawing board for 2017. It took Fisher four years to turn a profit, but now that the business is finally starting to take off, she is struggling with a classic entrepreneurial dilemma: how to manage growth, while preserving a free-wheeling startup culture and maintaining the quality and integrity of the product.
“I’ve thought very, very carefully about how I can merge the soul of the company with growth,” she told me. “I’ve seen time after time after time companies that grow and lose their souls, and I’ve basically promised myself and my team we won’t let that happen. that’s a really interesting balancing act, and how to use growth as a way to get better.”
Her high tech “brrr” machines, which cost $2 million to develop and perfect, hold four different patents, and she’s presently building 26 new ones. Each new shop is unique, costing $400,000 to $500,000 to design and build. As the company contemplates each new round of expansion, Fisher sits down with her VP of Operations to discuss how many stores they can comfortably open, without compromising quality, and whether they have the appropriate talent in place. Fisher gives all of her managers stock options.
“I’ve always kind of despised hierarchies and org charts,” said Fisher. But as the company expanded, employees started asking for an org chart. “The only way I was comfortable with that was to flip an org chart on its head.”
At the very top of the org chart are the guests. “We don’t call anyone customers because customers are a transaction and they are guests in our house.”) Next comes the “brristas” as she calls her counter employees. She’s at the very bottom of the chart, where she “works for everyone else.” Her general managers are really the ones employees answer to on a day-to-day basis, but the org chart serves as a symbolic reminder of just how important the people on the front lines are.”
Read Robin Schatz’s full article for Forbes here: How San Francisco’s Smitten Ice Cream Outgrew Its Wooden Wagon But Not Its Values.