Not long ago, Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna, co-owners of Ample Hills Creamery, were preparing to meet with founders from Brooklyn Brewery and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, to get advice about expanding their business. Demand for flavors like Salted Crack Caramel and Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, made in the basement of their Gowanus store, was bottlenecking production. The husband and wife business partners knew how to make ice cream all of New York lined up to eat, but they needed outside money and counsel to help them make significantly more of it. Brian got in touch with his neighbor Charlie O’Donnell from Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, an $8.3 million seed fund run out of a Gowanus townhouse down the street, who had set up the meeting. Should Brian make a pitch deck? Yeah, Charlie answered, why not. Great, said Brian—what goes in a deck?
Brian was a quick study. At the meeting, O’Donnell, already a fan, was newly in love. “So I’m sitting there listening to Brian’s story, and I’m like, ‘This is the best place ever! I’m even more in love with everything it stands for, and its culture of ‘yes.’” O’Donnell, who grew up in Brooklyn and typically invests in early-stage tech companies, led a $4 million fundraiser for the four-year-old ice cream company to build a gigantic new “interactive” production facility in nearby Brooklyn, build new retail locations in New York City and beyond, and put a lot more Ample Hills Creamery pints into many more stores. This morning, O’Donnell announced the equity raise, whose other top investors include Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Red Sea Ventures, Seamless founders, and Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter.
Yesterday afternoon, O’Donnell brought me to the roof of Ample Hills in Gowanus to eat a flight of cream (six different-flavored scoops in dish that looked like an egg-crate) to explain how an investor of tech came to be the number one supporter of an ice cream company’s considerable expansion. You remember yesterday: It was nice, but not warm, exactly. Still, on the rooftop, an Ample Hill’s children’s birthday party was raging, and on the deck outside, kids and adults were wrapped in jackets, defiantly eating ice cream.
“People don’t stop eating ice cream in the winter,” said O’Donnell; typically, though, they don’t hang out at the place where they buy it. “Brian and Jackie create places worth going to. I’ll come here on a winter day, in gloves, huddled over ice cream.”
When O’Donnell, who is both the founder and sole partner at his fund, moved into his Gowanus townhouse, he found himself eating a lot more Ample Hills, though he’d never met Brian and Jackie. One day in conversation with Amy Bennett from Greene Grape in Fort Greene, Bennett mentioned that her friends Brian and Jackie had recently been made an offer of investment, and thought they could use O’Donnell’s advice.
“I sat down with [Brian and Jackie] and saw the offer was not a good offer,” said O’Donnell. “In this case, the partner was not someone who had a good reputation, and I said, generally, I don’t think it’s good to give up this much of your business to someone [like that.]” O’Donnell started to look for others in the food space who would have good advice for the ice cream makers, first reaching out to Tom Potter from Brooklyn Brewery and John Stage of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
But the more O’Donnell talked to the husband and wife team, the more of a fan he became, and the more personally interested he grew in helping the couple expand. Typically, he funds early-stage tech companies but, living in Brooklyn, he realized, he knew a decent amount about retail food, almost by osmosis. He looked to others to make sure he was not crazy: “I have investors in my fund who do this sort of thing and they were like, “You came across this in the normal course of business. If you believe in this deal, if it meets your return criteria, you should do it,” O’Donnell explained. “My job is to vet entrepreneurs, to make sure they’re the expert, and then surround them with people who have all the other stuff figured out—how to build buildings, what kind of management to hire,” said O’Donnell.
O’Donnell decided to sign on, so next came the business of “dialing for dollars.” But operating out of his own $8.3 million fund—and with an ultimate goal of more than a couple million—he ideally would secure some big guns to hop on board.
“Initially, individuals would put in like $50 thousand or $100 thousand and we were like at $1.5 million,” O’Donnell recounted. Eventually he learned the CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, was a big fan. “Do we go to Bob?” he wondered. “Leverage that?” In the end, he wouldn’t need to. A text message arrived from Taylor Greene at Lerer Hippeau Ventures. He heard O’Donnell was doing Ample Hills. He wanted in. At first he thought he’d do it on his own—LHV was tech-based, too—but ultimately Ben Lerer, managing partner and co-founder of Thrillist Media Group, met with Brian at Ample Hills. Once again, the ice cream man had won over another tech funder, and all of LHV was on board. Finally, Scott Birnbaum from Red Sea Ventures caught wind of the tech team supporting Ooey Gooey and Salted Crack Caramel, and he wanted a part of it, too. Just like that, the fund had gone from $1.5 to $4.5 million.
Then, said O’Donnell, came the nitty gritty of figuring out where all the production infrastructure would be built. Upstate seemed like a cheaper, obvious choice, initially. But the company was born and raised in Brooklyn—the couple first sold their ice cream at a Brooklyn street fair; the hometown narrative was compelling and, having all of the management and staff closer to home would be easier, too.
Despite Ample Hill’s Brooklyn roots, says Brian, there is no reason the brand will not appeal in stores across the country. “The experience of going to an Ample Hills store is the biggest thing,” he said. Brian and Jackie worked hard to train a staff that would provide a fun experience, not just something that tasted good. “A lot of the narrative is located in the physical space, and a great vibe, and a staff who looks like they’re having fun.” That can be built anywhere, with the right management.
I asked what was meant by “interactive” in Ample Hill’s future “interactive production facility.” “Brian grew up not too far away from Disney in Florida, and that’s the way he thinks you visit a place—you play in it,” said O’Donnell. “And that’s a big part of what they’re doing. You go, you visit, and maybe you create your own ice cream.”
On the roof, the birthday kept on raging. Two parents walked outside to hang a piñata in the shape of an ice cream cone. A little girl next to them stood in tiny tennis shoes and a jacket with chocolate all over her face. It did not faze her at all.
“Can you imagine working here?” O’Donnell wondered. “You’d never have a bad day at work. This is a place people want to go, there is no limit to this team’s creativity.”
Ample Hills Creamery: amplehills.com