Employees: 25 year-round; 50+ during summer
Denver's ultra-premium ice cream maker Little Man Ice Cream has dished up an enviable position in the $10.8 billion U.S. ice cream market. The ambitious startup was founded in 2008 on the eve of the Great Recession by entrepreneur Paul Tamburello. Ever since, the privately financed company defied economic gravity by posting steady revenue growth for the past six years.
At the same time, its philanthropic Scoop for Scoop program (a scoop of rice is donated for every scoop of ice cream sold) enables Little Man to help feed the hungry in developing countries throughout the world. More than 1.2 million scoops of rice have been distributed to date.
"We've been very fortunate," says Martinez, Tamburello's friend and collaborator. He credits Little Man's early success to superior hand-crafted seasonal menu options, a well-publicized philanthropic mission and popular community promotions. The same initiatives also help distinguish it from supermarket mega-players like Nestlé (parent to Breyers, Dreyer's, and Edy's) and Häagen-Dazs or from franchisors like Baskin-Robbins.
"We built our first small-batch production facility is just two blocks from our world's largest milk can building. It was fairly expensive to outfit because we purchased the 'Ferrari' equipment of the ice cream world," Martinez says of the company's high-end freezers and mixers.
Suppliers include companies like Robinson Dairy, the Highland Farmer's Market, Savory Spice Shop, Bhakti Chai, and Shamrock Foods.
Rather than hire co-packers to make custom flavors like salted caramel, peanut butter cup, and strawberry balsamic, all batches will continue to be made in-house.
In order to meet increased wholesale and retail demand, plans call for construction of a new production and tasting room facility near Denver's new St. Anthony's redevelopment. "That also means we will look for additional investors or financing in 2015," Martinez says.
For now Little Man Ice Cream is sold only in Colorado, but that could change. The company is getting increasing calls to expand regionally and nationally.
Based on expected growth, management is studying new ways to streamline systems and train employees. "Our goal is to go to a made-from-scratch model and to expand our product line to include more novelties, maybe a specialty frozen popsicle or ice cream cake line," Martinez explains.
Distribution is handled in-house. A refrigerated truck delivers product to all restaurant and retail locations. Additional transportation equipment may be required when Little Man expands into at least one new Front Range market takes place this year.
Once a new production facility -- dubbed the Little Man Microbatch Creamery -- opens by the end of 2015, the company will be able to significantly expand wholesale business. "We really see marketing our 'micro-batching' process as a way to highlight how we create -- that like microbrewers and craft beer, we're Colorado-made," Martinez explains, adding that the new building will also house a tasting room. Visitors will be able to watch how each ice cream flavor is created and taste each seasonal "flight" of ice creams. "That also adds an experiential piece to the business."
Challenges: "I'm in charge of day-to-day operations and would say that our biggest challenges are the everyday struggles of real world business," says Martinez. "It costs lot of money to run the operation. We're producing and operating at high level of efficiency and effectiveness, but there's lots of competition out there," Martinez says. "You can get ice cream anywhere. We are focused on keeping Little Man Ice Cream distinctive, special -- and our (Scoop to Scoop) or community programs keep us relevant."
Opportunities: "Our biggest opportunity is that we're in a position financially to open new production and new retail locations," says Martinez. "That allows us to expand our brand through brick-and-mortar construction and wholesale marketing."
Needs: Martinez says Little Man has "a need for real collaboration with our customers and the community. Scoop for Scoop is Little Man's commitment to sharing one scoop of rice for every scoop of ice cream we sell with hungry villages in developing countries. We can't accomplish that on our own. This is a people business. The more we network, the more we can accomplish together and the better company we will be."