Green Valley News: Sahuarita ice cream business is taking off

Have you tried  Isabella’s Ice Cream?

What began in Sahuarita as a plan to peddle ice cream at neighborhood movie nights has expanded to specialty stores, restaurants and resorts statewide with projections to reach beyond Arizona soon.

Kristel and Dominic Johnson, who founded, own and manufacture all-natural Isabella’s Ice Cream, recently signed with Tempe-based Avalon Gourmet to distribute their products to Whole Food stores throughout the state. There are eight, including one under renovation and the store at River and Craycroft in Tucson, where sales of the creamy treat are highest, Kristel said.

Isabella’s will also be marketed at 12 AJ’s Fine Food stores in-state with the recent finalization of a contract with the store’s executive “who tasted and loved it,” Kristel said. Avalon linked the two and at a meeting this month in Phoenix, “I had every buyer in front of me sampling,” Kristel said.

More businesses have and are signing marketing contracts, including 200 restaurants and resorts around Arizona, where chefs are requesting exclusive flavors and sorbets as between-course palette cleansers, such as mango and the current climber, balsamic strawberry. Lerua’s Fine Mexican Food, a Tucson fixture for tamales since the 1920s, serves tamarindo and sweet corn flavors.

Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, among the first to sell Isabella’s, now offers scoops at the counter as well as freezer cartons, and ice cream dessert in its restaurant.

More space

In the last year, the Johnsons acquired creamery space near downtown Tucson, added a larger freezer with help from crowd funding online, and a custom-built, pneumatically powered carton-filler directly from China. They now have three full-time workers, and Dominic quit his job as a regional sales rep for an artificial turf company to devote full-time to the business.

Such moves have helped them triple production, and with the distribution help, labor is keeping pace so far, Kristel said.

Besides being a mom of two active daughters, Girl Scout leader and wife, she’s still involved in all facets of the business, focused on relations with local restaurants, advising on special events and overseeing product development. The couple still take their signature electric-powered Model-T vending trucks to cater private parties, festivals and corporate functions.

“It’s always our thing to work face to face with those who got us this far,” she said. “The truck is our marketing.”

An image of the company’s 1920s, wood-paneled truck appears on all packaging labels. A fleet expansion is still in the plans but on hold for now, Kristel said. Dominic is in charge of mechanics, always researching how to streamline operations. One idea that’s paying off is a window through which the production line can load ice cream cartons into the freezer, saving time having to open huge doors and freezer power to maintain optimum temperature.

She’s the expert

Not long ago, Kristel was invited by the University of Arizona, her alma mater, to speak before a women’s entrepreneurial group, a particular honor, she said.

Sleep? She’s lucky to get five hours a night. Sanity? Sleeping in on weekends, and spending workday breaks in running shoes, putting on a few miles, she said. Dominic, too, a three-time Olympic pole-vaulter representing St. Lucia, is in his zone and not slacking now.

It was a big step to walk away from a steady paycheck, benefits and commissions, Kristel said. The couple was once fortunate to clear $1,000 a month. Now with major chains on board and sales rising, Isabella income now is covering grocery expenses, bills and most importantly, peace of mind.

“We started with nothing, no pattern to go by, no business formula, and took a big risk with the kids’ college fund. I had tears in my eyes when we first went to the bank,” Kristel said.

Everyone’s been supportive, from neighbors who lent freezer space in their garage for the first ice cream concoctions and the four boys who’ve served as her toughest taste critics, to customers and the crowd funders. They’re individual investors, mostly strangers, who ponied from $5 to $2,000 for the freezer purchase. Of 200 who came for an appreciation party afterward, the Johnsons knew maybe 20 percent. The rest were unfamiliar, some from as far away as Phoenix, all pulling for the company and its irresistible products.

“It still blows my mind who’s buying all this ice cream,” she said.

Kristel attributes success to networking, customers and the “Starbucks effect.”

There’s not a lot of competition, everyone has their niche, she said. Coffee shops attract more coffee drinkers, and so, apparently, do ice cream displays.

Yet to come is new packaging — flat-sided, single-serve containers in a patented, adhesive-free design that will be shrink-wrapped to keep the all-natural ice cream fresher longer through distribution. The Johnsons discovered they can get them in bulk, saving on per-unit cost, through a loan program available from Whole Foods. In the coming year, they hope to solidify their relationship with the company and expand into Nevada, then California, Kristel said.

One of the best returns she’s experienced from what she calls their “happy” business, is recently hearing from a high school friend from more than 20 years ago, now living in Scottsdale, who came across an Isabella’s treat sold there and sent a photo of the carton to Kristel’s Facebook.

“It’s crazy to see how fast it’s grown” since the company’s beginnings in 2011. “It’s humbling. It’s cool.”