A fast-acting, resolute couple launched a business with next to no experience. They quickly learned a key business lesson: stay nimble.
By John Haughey | Contributing Writer
Patrick and Sarah Mulcahy moved from Massachusetts to Polk County in 2014 to bring their sign-language ministry to a Jehovah Witness congregation in Winter Haven.
Volunteering was their calling, their passion. But it didn't pay the bills.
Patrick Mulcahy, a landscaper, and Sarah Mulcahy, a bookkeeper, searched but couldn't find jobs that would accommodate their ministry commitment. So, they resolved to go into the ice cream business — despite having no idea how to make ice cream or, for that matter, how to run a business.
But they forged ahead.
First, they made ice cream sandwiches using Sarah's grandmother's gingersnap cookie recipe and their own handcrafted, organic ice cream. They named their enterprise A Cow Named Moo after a cow Sarah raised as a child. And they hit the library, and read every book there about how to make ice cream.
They practiced what they learned with their kitchen Cuisinart and, batch-by-batch, created simple, flavorful ice creams. They customized a red tricycle into a mobile ice-cream box, built a pop-up stand and, in September 2014, A Cow Called Moo was born.
“The original plan was we'll be a mobile food-vending cart and go around town and attract attention,” Patrick Mulcahy says. “Well, that's not how it works. There really is a process to figuring out where to set up and how to sell a product. It came down to connecting with the right audience. It's a process where one thing leads to another.”
The Mulcahys began by selling ice cream sandwiches at festivals, as well as at downtown Lakeland's First Friday and Dixieland Village's Twilight Market and Last Friday events. In Dixieland, they noticed people buying their ice cream sandwiches often bought coffee at Concord Coffee. So they offered to craft affogatos — a coffee-based dessert — for Concord Coffee, and A Cow Named Moo's first relationship with a “symbiotic” business was established.
With this, a new opportunity surfaced: wholesale. The Mulcahys joined Lakeland's Catapult business incubator and used its commercial kitchen to develop an ever-expanding menu of ice cream sandwiches using organic cream and milk from Myakka City's Dakin Dairy Farm.
“Looking back, what was helpful was to be flexible enough to adapt to changes and move ahead with ideas that work,” Patrick Mulcahy says. The mobile cart idea “is an example of having a picture in your mind of what you are going to do, and that is not a reality. You have to make changes when the picture and reality are different.”
While their ice cream sandwiches are, essentially, the same product, the Mulcahys mastered replicating them in countless original, unique variations.
For instance: Vermont maple ice cream with a dash of Kentucky bourbon between roasted pecan shortbread cookies; blackberry ice cream between sweet corn sugar cookies; dark chocolate Irish whiskey ice cream on a dark chocolate sea salt cookie; goat cheese ice cream and cognac-infused fig on shortbread cookies; and Mexican strawberry ice cream on a cornmeal cookie.
The Mulcahys still use Sarah's grandmother's gingersnap cookie recipe, often with creamy lemon ice cream, but these are not grandma's ice cream sandwiches. In March 2016, the couple was awarded a $10,000 Catapult grant to purchase a commercial ice-cream maker necessary to get into the wholesale market.
Three years and approximately 30,000 ice cream sandwiches later, the couple now has freezer space in three locations: Scout & Tag in downtown Lakeland, Grove Roots Brewery in Winter Haven and Rafa Natural in Bartow. It also sells sandwiches at weddings and parties, and remains a vendor at area events.
The Mulcahys have resisted the temptation to expand. They make approximately 300 sandwiches every three-day workweek and devote three days a week to their sign language ministry. “In the future, we may have others help us (to expand) but for now, we are achieving sustainability,” Patrick said. “It takes care of our needs and keeps a balance in our business and our life.”