SMITTEN AT A GLANCE
Location: San Francisco, CA
Team Members: 200
Awards: Food & Wine’s Top 10 Ice Creams of 2016
Robyn Sue Fisher, founder and CEO of Smitten Ice Cream, likes inventing things: a machine that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream on demand; a company to sell that ice cream; a new vocabulary to describe how that company runs (one example: “We don’t have a ‘sourcing manager,’ we have a ‘hunter and gatherer,’” she says); and perhaps most importantly, she’s inventing a new definition of success for herself, one that prioritizes quality over quantity, purity over profit, and community above all. We spoke with her about growing in a smart way, failing fast, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Tell us a little bit about the origin of Smitten Ice Cream.
Robyn Sue Fisher: I absolutely love ice cream. I have two stomachs, and one is solely reserved for ice cream; I learned that from my mother when I was 3.
Once I grew up, I was really bothered by the fact that this product that I love so much is not what it seems in a lot of ways. Ice cream is now largely made with extra ingredients because of shelf-life concerns, as opposed to purity and taste.
After spending four years in the corporate world not really knowing what the hell I was working towards, I decided to get off that train and dive into something I love and make it better. That thing was ice cream. I had to fix this lack of purity and bring ice cream back in time. Little did I know I’d also be bringing it into the future.
I spent a lot of time researching ice cream and learning the science behind it. The gist is that the colder you freeze ice cream, the smaller the ice crystals and the smoother the product. I looked into the coldest thing I could freeze ice cream with, and that brought me to liquid nitrogen, which is -321°F. I realized that if I could freeze ice cream that cold, I could make individual batches in approximately 90 seconds from scratch. And if I could make ice cream that quickly, then I could freeze it to order, which means I could take out all the things that people put in it for shelf life and just make it about taste again. This is where old-fashioned and new-age come together and create harmony.
From there, I spent the next two years in a basement workshop basically inventing what would become our Brrr machine. It’s a cryogenic ice cream machine that freezes ice cream with liquid nitrogen. That was a hellish two years; a lot of blood, sweat and tears, in the literal meaning of the words.
The prototype of the machine was done in 2009. That was an awful year, and I was broke because I spent my life savings on inventing Brrr. I needed to get feedback on whether this company was going to work or not, because I was near the end of my rope. I needed something that could carry my machine and get it out to people; I chose a Radio Flyer wagon because it was inexpensive, it carries a heavy load, and it has the association of old-fashioned. I loaded up my prototype Brrr machine on a milk crate, strapped it on with a bungee cord, and made a battery pack out of an old motorcycle battery that I rewired to power my machine for about four hours. I packed the wagon with the freshest ingredients of the day and a tank of liquid nitrogen, and I used Twitter to tell people about it and went rogue on the streets of San Francisco selling ice cream.
It was totally and absolutely terrifying and totally and absolutely gratifying because within a couple of days of being out there, we had huge lines and a huge fan base and they made my world and my dreams come true.
After a year of selling ice cream on the streets in San Francisco, I was able to gain enough traction that there were people who wanted to help me finance the first store. I also learned through starting the company in the way I did that I could make a company work on a pretty scrappy budget, so I decided to raise as little money as I possibly could to open a store. The philosophy is that it’s more important to us to let the ice cream shine, and don’t waste stuff on bling.
I opened the first shop and I did that in a fun way. The combination of new and old is really important to me, so we found an old beaten-up shipping container and refurbished it. We craned it down in the middle of Hayes Valley, San Francisco, which was this little up-and-coming artisan neighborhood — the perfect place to open our doors officially to the public, legally. That was five years ago, and by the end of this year we’ll have ten shops.
“Comfort with failure is a huge advantage. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to hold back a little bit so that there’s always an excuse. But if you’re comfortable failing, you can go all-out.”
One thing that we find with entrepreneurs is this sense of persistence even in the face of insurmountable odds. What do you think gave you the courage to keep going for those two years that you were developing the Brrr machine?
RSF: First of all, I realized that I’m a shitty employee. I don’t follow directions well. I hate routine. I don’t like office buildings. The idea of going back to a job that put me in that box was scary, and that was at the back of my mind.
The second thing that kept me addicted to it was I needed to know if it would work. I was totally fine with failure as long as it was brutal, obvious failure. If I half-assed it and didn’t really know the answer, I’d always have that “what if” in my mind and that would beat me up over the rest of my life. Comfort with failure is a huge advantage. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to hold back a little bit so that there’s always an excuse. But if you’re comfortable failing, you can go all-out.
What is the mission of Smitten, and what are your core values as a company?
RSF: The mission of Smitten is joy, which is really fun to say. We have in parentheses underneath that, in small type, “We also serve the world’s best ice cream.” But that’s not our mission. Our mission is joy and it’s rooted in four different values, which we vet every single decision through.
Those values are, first and foremost, “make people’s day.” That’s both internally and externally. Our Smitteneers — we don’t say coworkers or employees, we say Smitteneers — we care about each other and also the guests who walk through our doors. We don’t call people “customers,” we call them “guests,” because we believe it’s not a transaction, it’s an interaction — that’s a totally different approach from just serving ice cream.
The second value is “commit to being the best.” Again, everything’s internal and external. Internally that means that all of us show up every day trying to give our personal best. Externally, the whole reason Smitten is doing this is that we’re proving that ice cream can and should be better. We’re saying, “Screw the status quo.” We’ve all gotten so used to the status quo that we don’t really know what we’re missing, but we’re missing so much. We’re out to prove just how great ice cream can be.
The third value is “think like an entrepreneur.” It’s important to us that everyone involved in the company, from our Brrristas to what we call our COW team — we don’t use the word “corporate” because I hate corporate stuff, so we call ourselves the COWs; it stands for “corporate or whatever” — our philosophy is “self-deprecating”: we work for everyone else, and our org chart is flipped on its head so I’m at the very bottom and our Brrristas are at the top. “Think like an entrepreneur” applies to everyone, and our Brrristas throughout the shops see so much more than the COW team does, so a lot of the ideas on how to improve or how to develop new offerings come from them. I make sure that I make time for idea sessions. We also believe that there is no endpoint. We’re not like, “Okay, once we get there, then we’re done.” It’s a constant evolution of who we are.
Our fourth value is “be genuine,” which is plain and simple.
What do you believe has been the key component to your success so far?
RSF: Simplicity. We do one thing better than anyone else in the world. We don’t try to do two.
Also, transparency and purity. We have nothing to hide. The more we can communicate what we’re doing, the more it’s attractive, as opposed to when there’s a lot of covering up, which is scary, especially in food. We’re actually not very good at communicating all the amazing things that we’re doing. We’re trying to get better at it. We’re just realizing the more we are transparent, the more traction we gain with people outside of our company.
The last thing is people. People are everything. That’s been core to our success, for sure: attracting amazing people with the same values.
Could you talk a little bit about your long-term vision as an Evergreen Company and what that means for you?
RSF: I have promised myself and my team not to ruin this thing. To me, that means controlling our growth. I believe strongly in growth, but I don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. It should be calculated and thoughtful and dynamic and multifaceted and not, “Put your head down and clench your teeth and look up when you’ve already lost your specialness.”
Can you talk a little bit about the culture that you’re developing at Smitten, and also if you have any practices that help you be intentional about facilitating that culture?
RSF: Our culture is based on our values and our mission and it’s not hierarchical, whenever possible. On some level, you need to know who you’re reporting to because you tell them what you’re doing. But the belief that the org chart is on its head is critical to our culture. It’s really important to me that everyone feels connected to me, even though we’re almost 200 people.
Within 30 days of being hired, every new Smitteneer comes to what I call a Culture Session, which is never more than 30 people. Every Culture Session is entirely different because it’s solely based around whatever people want to know about me or about Smitten. I answer every single question honestly, and a lot of it is me admitting what I don’t know and also just sharing and connecting with people. It’s important to me that I know everyone’s name before they walk in that room; I make sure that I do.
Also, as we grow, instead of getting less and less connected with our Brrristas, it’s my goal to get more and more connected. I like to reverse the cycle. Also, I didn’t sign up for Smitten to be sitting in an office chair all the time. Part of my promise to myself is to be genuine to what I want to do with my time and put myself in a position where I can be the best of who I am and also help the company the most.
I’m a twin, so I’ve had a teammate from day one, and I’ve always flocked to team sports, and that’s how I see the company. An ice cream company cannot be about one person. It’s about a team; especially how we do it, making everyone’s ice cream to order. It all needs to be very well-connected, and you can sense the chemistry of the team when you walk in.
That is my goal: to make sure that you walk in and you feel the energy, and maybe see some people dancing in the back. I love that we’re known for, in some shops, those dance parties. In the end, it’s ice cream. It needs to be fun.
What is your commitment to sourcing local ingredients, and what are you doing in the name of sustainability?
RSF: We source everything that we can locally. All of our dairy comes from Northern California. We use more expensive organic dairy than we could; there are companies that come to us with organic dairy that’s a third less expensive, and we’ve said no because we don’t believe in their larger values.
We’re not just sourcing from one place for all of California. We now have stores in Southern California and Northern California, so we source our Southern California berries from Harry’s Berries, an organic farm in SoCal, and our Northern California berries from Swanton Berry Farm. Just for the record, it’s not just because we love local. It’s also because it tastes better.
We make our ice cream machines here in California — that is a huge cost for us. But it’s meaningful to be able to drive to check in on how our manufacturing is going and to work with our partners. That’s our credit to local on the engineering side, which lots of people don’t think of. Most everyone is going overseas for manufacturing right now, so that’s pretty big.
Things like vanilla that aren’t made in California, we go outside for that. But even chocolate, we work with a company called TCHO Chocolate based here in the Bay Area. We ended up with them for two reasons. One was they won our blind taste-test. And two, they have amazing standards where they help support the local cacao bean farmers and cooperatives. . Again, we just have really high standards about owning our impact on the world.
The other important thing is that we don’t use any of the extra ingredients that you see in other ice cream. There are no unnatural stabilizers, there are no synthetic preservatives; none of the things I call “unpronounceables” — and there aren’t even any “pronounceable” extras. Like, despite the fact guar gum is technically natural and it can be organic, it’s still gum, and it’s still hard for your body to digest. We just don’t believe in using anything that is not for taste. So it’s partly about what we do put in and it’s partly about what we don’t.
“I believe strongly in growth, but I don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. It should be calculated and thoughtful and dynamic and multifaceted and not, ‘Put your head down and clench your teeth and look up when you’ve already lost your specialness.’”
Do you have advice for other mission-driven entrepreneurs embarking on a capital raise?
RSF: Get to know people before you need to raise money. You can say, “I may be raising money in the future but we’re not right now. Relationships matter, so let’s grab coffee.” Don’t make it about the money, make it about the relationship. Make sure they understand where you’re going.
I don’t think that “growth” is a dirty word, but I think it needs to be done the right way. Our philosophy is that we’re going to partner with people who share the same values. I always make sure that we develop relationships with people who we end up working with for financing. We have a handful of amazing individual investors who believe in what we’re doing. We know that we can grow with financing partners without selling our soul.
How do you make sure that the team that you’re putting together is one that can really stay true to the company’s values?
RSF: We structure our interviews such that we’re evaluating for our mission and values, even though people don’t necessarily realize it at the time.
Part of it is admitting what I suck at, or the things that I don’t like that make me less fun to be around. I try to find someone who’s good at or who enjoys those things and can help me be a better person and help me better live my value, “commit to being the best.” Also, as people come on board, figuring out how and where they shine and actually letting people help define their jobs. I’d rather hire a super-smart person who doesn’t know exactly what they’re going to be doing but has a lot of passion to figure stuff out and be like, “All right, this is going to be a little bit of an amorphous role at first but we’ll hone in on it.” That’s worked a handful of times for us.
I don’t believe in rigid structure, if you haven’t gathered that. I like letting things breathe and live. I think we’ve created a great space for that, and that’s not how a lot of corporate America is set up.
Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently when starting the business?
RSF: I am so glad I didn’t know what I know now because I’d have been too scared to start. So I believe that naïve optimism is a good thing. Live it up! If I had known it would take me four years to make a dime, I would have been terrified to start this. So, no. Don’t know too much.
Do you have a favorite quote that keeps you going?
RSF: I should. I really just believe in no regrets. That’s why I’m like, “If you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail hard.” I hate what-ifs.
Do you have any best practices for keeping your sanity as a young entrepreneur, especially traveling? How are you staying centered in the midst of this rapid growth that you’re experiencing?
RSF: Part of the hardest thing is that I’m also a mom, and I care so much about that job as well. I joke that Smitten is my first kid and my son is my second kid, because he arrived after Smitten had taken off. I have gotten much better at setting boundaries. I don’t look at my computer after 9 p.m., which still seems kind of ridiculous.
And I bike everywhere. That keeps me sane. I don’t get in my car unless I have to carry something heavy. And sometimes I even carry that something heavy on my bike. I always have a helmet head and I always show up a little sweaty. San Francisco has a hell of a lot of hills.
What is giving you hope for the future?
RSF: The people younger than me who I work with have higher standards than most people I know in terms of thinking through impact in a holistic manner. It makes me relieved and excited to rely a lot more on them to help create our future as a company, as a nation, and, hopefully, a planet. But I think we’re starting to examine everything on a deeper level.
FISHER’S TOP 3 PIECES OF ADVICE
1) KNOW WHAT YOU STAND FOR
Codify what your mission and values are as early as you can so that you know what your BATNA is. BATNA is a fancy word for your walkaway point with people; your line in the sand.
2) STRUCTURE EVERYTHING AROUND THOSE VALUES
You should have specific hiring questions that get into the heart of each value. So you’re not saying “Do you believe in this value?” but you have questions that are testing them for each one. Do the same with every other aspect of your organization, including training, promoting, and bonuses. Everything should be structured around that. It’s the root of who you are.
3) LET THE COMPANY EVOLVE NATURALLY
When I started Smitten almost ten years ago, I wouldn’t have designed it exactly how it is today. I learned a lot through doing. Don’t create such a rigid structure at the beginning that you can’t move forward to make the business work. Don’t be scared to evolve as long as you don’t violate what you originally set out to do.