An ice cream venture stands out with its flavors and ingredients. But its secret sauce lies in one of its owner's unique sales skills.
When he was 10 years old, Matt Eastman was reading an issue of Boy's Life magazine when he saw an intriguing promotion.
It called for its young readers to sell Christmas cards — not the easiest task in July in Michigan. But Eastman took it as a challenge.
Eastman approached potential customers, showed them an image on a card and asked them, “If you look at this wintery scene on the card, doesn't it cool you off?” He sold enough Christmas cards to buy himself not one, but two radios.
Eastman says he always did well with school fundraisers, too. He learned a lot about sales from spending time with his grandparents, who owned a mattress and furniture business. “My grandfather could sell ice cream to Eskimos,” Eastman says.
Today that experience is coming in handy. A onetime cable splicer for a telephone company, Eastman is the owner of Lakewood Ranch-based Lickity Splits Ice Cream, and he says a big part of what he does now is sales. “I've never been afraid of talking to people,” he says.
Lickity Splits has had a unique run of late: Just a few years into the business, it has secured a deal with Tampa's Amalie Arena, offering major exposure for the brand. It has also experienced major growth in production — in the beginning, the company was making 30 gallons of ice cream a day. Now it makes 300 to 400 gallons a day. Clients include restaurants that serve Lickity Splits under a private label brand. Eastman declines to disclose revenue figures, but he says the company has gone from just him to a five-person operation.
The idea churns
Lickity Splits has been in business since 2014. But the prep work began two years before that.
Eastman and his wife, Jessica Eastman, a pediatric nurse, wanted to own a “fun business” — “something that would make people happy,” Eastman says.
It came down to something related to alcohol or sweets. Sweets won out because of Eastman's two pre-teen children. When they decided on ice cream, the next step was market research. That meant sampling the goods at a variety of ice cream shops. “Our kids hated it,” Eastman says jokingly.
They started making ice cream at home, getting input from friends and improving their mixtures. They developed flavors such as mint chocolate chip, making it with mint oil and hand-chopped Belgian chocolate bars. “A lot of thought goes into each recipe,” Eastman says.
Lickity Splits uses local ingredients in its ice creams, including milk from a Florida cooperative and cane sugar from the Everglades.
The main difference between competitors with the company's ice cream, Eastman says, is the flavor and the fat content. The higher percentage of fat in the ice cream gives it a richer, creamier taste, he says. Better taste also means more expensive ingredients.
All together, Eastman invested at least $500,000 to launch Lickity Splits. There was $280,000 for the equipment, including a walk-in freezer, refrigeration, ice cream machines, trailers and more. Another $180,000 went to marketing, advertising, licensing agreements and entry fees for events, he says. And the purchase and build-out of the office/kitchen space cost $100,000.
Eastman has no other partners or outside financing, just family. “If I earned a dollar working overtime on my previous job,” he says, “I put that dollar into my business.”
To get exposure, the company started selling ice cream at festivals, and Eastman says it's one of the ways the company's popularity has grown. They also provide ice cream for events at area schools such as football games.
When they travel to events, the Lickity Splits sets up a mini outdoor ice cream shop. The setup has a “real homey feeling” and includes a view of the Michigan dairy farm Eastman grew up on in a town he says counted 2,000 people and 50,000 cows as residents.
Soon Eastman and his wife were doing enough festivals and selling enough half-pints that they got to a point when they “needed more space for equipment to get to the next level,” he says.
No longer a home-based business, Lickity Splits moved into an office space, off Lena Road in east Manatee County, with a commercial kitchen. Production expanded. There, they use 1960s Electro Freeze Batch Makers to make the ice cream and store it in freezers.
A variety of area restaurants and resorts now carry Lickity Splits ice cream, and people can also order it online for home delivery in Sarasota and Manatee counties. That's another sales avenue Eastman says is good for exposure.
Festivals are still big for the company, too, and attending an Italian festival in Tampa helped Lickity Splits land a major client — Tampa's Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Casey Cole, senior manager of partner development for the Tampa Bay Lightning, was at the festival when his daughter noticed the Lickity Splits stand. He tried the company's salted caramel ice cream there and was hooked. “It was amazing,” he says.
The arena didn't have a hard ice cream partner, so he struck up a conversation with Eastman and his wife and asked them if they would be interested in talking more about a partnership.
“We want to align ourselves with 'best in brands' — the leaders in respective industries,” Cole says. He says one of the questions they consider for potential arena vendors is “how are they going to enhance the fan experience?”
Lickity Splits brought samples of ice cream for others at the arena to taste and they agreed with Cole. “The staff tasted it and fell in love with it,” Cole says.
Now the arena is in a five-year partnership with Lickity Splits, and the company launched there in October. It's available at every game and every event, including concerts and family shows. Also in the plans — having fans vote on their favorite flavors and select a flavor specific to the arena.
“It's a fun product, a great product that's local and gourmet,” Cole says. “Everyone can have fun with ice cream. It puts a smile on your face.”
Scoring a deal at Amalie was no small feat — especially considering many other vendors are known brands, including Dunkin' Donuts, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Papa John's Pizza and World of Beer. Eastman says he doesn't have sales figures yet from the deal because the season is ongoing, but he knows it was worth it. “For a small business like us, it's a great agreement,” he says. “The exposure alone is amazing.”
Eastman, a cable splicer for a telephone company and an electronic technician for the U.S. Navy before starting Lickity Splits, says he's working on securing additional new customers as well. “Big clients really open doors to other big clients, but you need a lot of little clients to pay the bills,” he says.
The biggest challenge he faces, he say, is “breaking into a business that already has the giants, getting people to give you a chance and getting people to trust you.”
The way to do that? “Tell people your story,” he says. And “try to create relationships — as many as possible.”
That relationship building includes even the youngest customers. “Everybody buys things with their eyes,” Eastman says, and that's why Lickity Splits sells more superman ice cream to children because of its colorful appearance. But there's also a deeper psychology involved. “I don't want kids to have to look up too far to adults selling,” he says. “There's something to be said for looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand and saying 'thank you for supporting our business.'”
His daughters have also made a habit of talking about the business. They have their own Lickity Splits business cards, he says, and they pass them out at school. Eastman says they go through more business cards than he does.
The company's growth has Eastman making plans to move into a bigger office space — 10,000 square feet or more versus the 1,200 square feet the company is in now. He's also considering a brick-and-mortar store and franchising.
As the company grows, Eastman plans to stick to the way Lickity Splits has been operating and making ice cream.
“Is there a cheaper way to do it?” Eastman asks. “Yes. Is there a more efficient way to do it? Yes.” But, he says, if they made it any of those other ways, it wouldn't be the same.
Scoop on selling
Ice cream entrepreneur Matt Eastman's top sales tips include:
• “The biggest tip is honesty,” Eastman says. “Everybody can spot a salesperson from a mile away.” If you're honest with people, he says, that can make a huge difference in your business with existing customers and potential customers.
• “Customer service is huge nowadays,” he says. “You can tell people when it comes to getting service with your orders, we pretty much drop everything.”
• It's also important, Eastman says, to be genuine. That includes looking people in straight in the eye and shaking their hands. “They pay attention to body language,” he says. It also means remembering people's names and aspects of their lives. “Just little things” can mean a lot, Eastman says, like bringing up the place someone is from. The idea is to “make some sort of connection,” he says, because, “When you do that, it makes your business call personal.”
(This article was updated to reflect Jessica Eastman’s correct name.)