Client: Kristina Zontini
Business Name: Super Secret Ice Cream Club
Location: Littleton, NH
Basil-Strawberry Swirl? Blueberry Chocolate Chip? It’s hard for Kristina Zontini to name a favorite among her many custom creations after a successful year in business as Super Secret Ice Cream, a tiny batch ice cream company that uses local New Hampshire dairy.
Since May, she’s been based out of a pushcart at the Littleton Farmer’s Market and a shared commercial kitchen on a farm in Sugar Hill. Kristina had begun imagining herself as an entrepreneur a full year before that, and that led her to enroll in a business education program where she lives. She had been “slowing chipping away” at assignments in that program, and realized if she were to get serious about making ice cream her business, she would need a commercial kitchen. And that’s why she found her business advisor, Rita Toth, at the NH Small Business Development Center.
Commercial kitchens are expensive and rare, but by May Kristina had found a friend with whom to partner in the kitchen at Ski Hearth Farm in Sugar Hill.
Kristina first experimented with custom ice cream flavors with a home ice cream maker. She’d give the results to her friends, and ultimately realized this could be what she had needed since moving from San Francisco to Littleton five years ago. She had worked in the food industry, including an administrative job at the Culinary School of San Francisco, but had never undertaken culinary training.
Taking the leap in the midst of a pandemic certainly wasn’t the original plan, but Kristina thinks it may have helped her in the long run. She needed a creative outlet, and her customers “really wanted to cheer up and treat themselves,” she said. “And everybody loves ice cream.”
With her kitchen ready, and after she found on e-Bay a small-but-professional ice cream machine that came with a pushcart, Kristina was ready to roll.
Her goal was to create a new flavor each week, which she says people thought was “insane.” The flavor ideas came from her own intuition. She uses whole ingredients like strawberries or blueberries - no syrups - and whatever is in season. “I’d just talk to my farmer friends and ask them what they had growing, and I’d go with that.”
Then she would announce the flavor-of-the-week over social media, take orders online, and show up with her pre-packaged pints at the weekly Littleton Farmer’s Market.
“The community was so nice and supportive,” she said. Kristina focused on creating a business that "makes people happy during these uncertain and stressful times. They wanted me to succeed and they wanted their ice cream.”
“During COVID, I concentrated on handling the high demand and serving customers safely,” she said. She created an online ordering system and set up a Square website. “The new flavor each week gave everyone something to look forward to.”
Her plan had always been to go slowly in building the business because everything was so “scary and unsure,” she said. But, the summer didn’t allow for “slowly.” She focused on keeping expenses and labor low, and being very conservative with Super Secret Ice Cream's budget. Here in February, she’s taking a bit of a breather to “set myself up for success,” she said, building on what worked and what her next steps should be. Freezer space and food storage are key issues, and she hopes to have a walk-up window at some future location.
Her business was too new and hadn’t had enough sales when the first pandemic relief programs were authorized by Congress. With Rita’s help, Kristina found a couple of grants which helped her purchase equipment, including Grafton Regional Development Corporations's Small Business Grant, funded by Citizens Bank.
Kristina continues to work with Rita, whom she calls “an amazing resource.”
“Without anyone else around to bounce my ideas off of, she’s my starting point whenever I have a question.”
Rita has helped with licensing and legal questions, plus “just networking me with lots of other people, which makes me able to easily figure out whatever problem I'm trying to solve.”
The details of running a small business can be all-consuming, Kristina said, and her relationship with Rita helps her take care of the nit-picky stuff. “It’s like SBDC advisors wade through the confusion for you and point you in the right direction.”
Kristina is currently looking for more partnership opportunities as she expands and expects that in the future Super Secret Ice Cream will need to focus more on online shipping and consumer experiences.
Honey Comb was a favorite flavor with customers.“People freak out over it,” Kristina said, so she hopes to keep that around as a classic flavor. Passion Fruit Sweat Cream, which tastes like Fruit Loops, was a hit once people tried it. Who knows what ice cream season will bring next time.
This client story is part of NH SBDC's ongoing collection of COVID Creativity stories about businesses surviving and thriving during COVID-19.