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Growth
Business Observer Friday, Jun. 3, 2016 4 years ago

Flavor frenzy

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Spend more to make more — sales and products — is an ongoing theme at a St. Petersburg ice cream making business. Growth has followed.
by: Steven Benna Staff Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Working Cow Homemade Ice Cream Industry. Manufacturing Key. Ice cream maker aims to double production in 10 years.

Banana Pudding, Captain's Rum Raisin and Salted Caramel with Pralines are just three of the more than 100 flavors available from Working Cow Homemade Ice Cream.

Those flavor ideas, among others, just pop up, says Working Cow President Tim Pappas. For example, Brookdale Senior Living, a Working Cow customer, serves a popular Grand Marnier chocolate cookie. “So we made them an ice cream flavor,” Pappas says, “and now its one of the most popular.” The flavor is officially called Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffle.

But it's not always that straightforward. After experimenting and constantly brainstorming new flavors, the flavor tasting process features five or six people that taste and judge each batch. Only about 1% of new ideas are approved and stick on the market, Pappas says.

That strict selection process echoes the company's mission, which revolves entirely around quality and service — something Pappas' father, who managed a shellfish company, emphasized. “I worked hard every Saturday and Sunday just to get a cone from my dad as a reward,” Pappas says.

Pappas runs St. Petersburg-based Working Cow with that constantly in mind. “It comes down to offering exactly what the customers want and request,” Pappas says. “It's elementary, but a lot of people miss it.”

A lot of people haven't missed a chance to eat Working Cow, in any flavor. Proof comes in a five-year growth arc, where annual revenues have increased at least 9% in each of the last five years. Sales rose 20% in 2013, Pappas says, and 17.6% in 2015. Company officials decline to provide specific annual revenue figures.

The growth has also allowed the company to pursue opportunities to find customers in new locations, in addition to expanding its manufacturing base. Working Cow, which makes three-gallon tubs and single quarts of ice cream, sells to a variety of commercial kitchens and independent ice cream shops. Customers can also buy directly from the company's website. In total, the company makes well more than half-a-million gallons of ice cream a year.

“We're not in this to be billionaires in the ice cream industry,” he says. “We take it one customer at a time. The way we look at it is we made it today; we'll make it tomorrow. Don't put the car in front of the horse.”

It all starts with the company's 31 employees, Pappas says. Happy employees and customer satisfaction at Working Cow work hand-in-hand, Pappas says. He's so serious about it he's washed an employees car by hand and helped him change a tire.

Small things like that make a huge difference for employees, Pappas says. “You can say we don't have shareholders, but we do. Our shareholders are our employees,” he says. “If we work hard for them, they work hard for our customers. It creates that organic culture that we have here.”

Payback also comes in employee retention. Working Cow, 23 years old, has one employee who has been there 21 years. Many others have been there for more than 15 years.

Extra goodies
Working Cow deploys a direct from-the-farm manufacturing process, starting with the cream from DairyMix, a St. Petersburg-based ice cream mix provider. DairyMix puts in the solids, stabilizers and sugars that Working Cow needs, and that cream is used to make the ice cream. “We go through between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of that per week,” Pappas says.

Pappas says it's worth it to spend more on such an important part of the ice cream, to ensure high quality on the final product. “That's sort of the fresh fish syndrome,” he says. “You start with the best fish, it's hard to mess up. We start with the best Grade A cream, it's hard to mess up.”

That approach goes beyond the cream, too. In general, lowering the butterfat content hurts the quality of the ice cream, but he says large ice cream makers often drop it to around 10% to save money. Working Cow keeps its butterfat at 15%. “It's expensive to make great ice cream,” Pappas says.

Once the ice cream is produced, it goes into vats to add the base flavoring. Through a continuous feed freezer, the product goes from 34 degrees down to 18 degrees. Then comes extra ingredients, such as nuts, cookies and fruits, or swirls.

Each of the added ingredients are specialty products from their respective region, Pappas says. For example, Working Cow uses Plant City strawberries, Georgia peaches and pecans and Belgian chocolate.

Working Cow's products come in two sizes: three-gallon tubs — generally ordered by places such as golf courses, hotels and senior living facilities — and quarts, available for home delivery to 38 states. Places that serve Working Cow ice cream include Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Dip's Ice Cream on Anna Maria Island and
Molly Moo's Ice Cream in Lee County. A store in Charlotte County carries the Working Cow name and is a co-branded location.

Pappas sees two new opportunities ahead on sizing: pints and 10-ounce cups. One idea is to have a vending machine, offering 20 to 25 flavors, with the Working Cow the brand on it in schools or rest areas. “The funding would be split,” Pappas says. “A portion would go directly into the school's account and a portion would go directly into our account. We want to give back.”

 


Working Cow employee David Farley works on the line.



More space
As Working Cow has increased its business, the physical space needs have followed. That includes jumps from 1,000 to 6,000 square feet and then to its current 20,000-square-foot location. The next step is an 80,000-square-foot facility off 118th Ave. N. and Bryan Dairy Road in Seminole. Pappas expects to close on the acquisition of the property, a former Breyers ice cream plant, this summer.

When the company moved into its current facility 11 years ago, it was producing a little less than 100,000 three-gallon tubs per year. Now it's producing about 185,000 tubs per year, which is 555,000 gallons.

Along with allowing the company to make more per day and store more ingredients, the expanded space will create additional room for finished products. Pappas says the new plant will have 10,000 square feet of freezer space, up 150% from the current 4,000-square-foot freezer.

Scott Talcott, a business development manager with Pinellas County Economic Development, says Working Cow is the best kind of manufacturer because it touches regions outside the area. “The idea is that along with internal growth, outside growth can make the most difference in the economy,” he says. “More growth brings in more dollars.”

Any growth will bolster Pinellas County's already strong manufacturing presence. The county has roughly 31,000 manufacturing employees, second in Florida to Broward County, Talcott says.

The Working Cow expansion will also help it in its goal to grow its regional distribution customer base. Pappas sees Miami and the Florida Panhandle as ripe-for-growth regions in the state, and distribution in Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee are future options, too.

With the new headquarters and new growth opportunities, Pappas expects tub production total to double within 10 years. That being said, he doesn't have a specific year-over-year target in mind. He stays focused on his big picture goals of quality and service.

“If you keep those goals and consistently meet your standards, the rest will come,” he says. “I've never had a specific growth goal, and look what's happened.”

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