When Natasha Case decided to prepare architecturally-themed ice cream sandwiches made from scratch in her Los Angeles home it was just meant to be a hobby, something fun to share with family and friends. A decade later, Case’s audience has grown beyond her wildest dreams.
Her company, Coolhaus, which she founded with wife Freya Estreller, is one the biggest players in the scorching-hot craft ice cream game. Specializing in gourmand-meets-Wonka flavor combinations like Balsamic Fig & Mascarpone and Milkshake & Fries, Coolhaus has become a global brand with a massive, die-hard fanbase—Cindy Crawford, who has invested in the company and served as a spokeswoman, is among the faithful.
On the heels of the tenth anniversary of Coolhaus, I spoke with Case, who reflected on her company’s wild ride from truck phenomenon to worldwide sensation and the key lessons she’s learned at each stop.
Find the Ying to Your Yang
Cookies and ice cream isn’t the only combo that helped put Coolhaus on the map. In fact, the most significant pairing in the company’s history is without a doubt the partnership between Case and Estreller.
The two were set up by a mutual friend on a date, sparks flew, and the rest is history. Not only did Estreller hit it off romantically with Case (they would marry four years later and are now the proud parents of a two-year-old son), she would also take an interest in her fledgling ice cream sandwich project.
“She really saw the business potential in it,” says Case. “That definitely was a gamechanger.”
Case, a recent architecture major at Berkley who at the time had a career as a Disney Imagineer, was convinced. But in order to move forward, she insisted on joining forces with Estreller, a real estate investment executive. “We needed each other,” says Case. “I could do the brand and the marketing, the design, the P.R., and she would bring the finance and operations. You really couldn’t have one without the other.”
Tell a Compelling Story
Though not yet prepared to give up their day jobs, Case and Estreller knew they were onto something big. Back in late 2008, when the young entrepreneurs officially filed the LLC for Coolhaus, the craft ice cream movement was barely in its infancy. “There was so much white space, and it seemed like someone has to do this and I wanted it to be us,” says Case.
snickerdoodles with strawberry ice cream–has been a staple since the inception of Coolhaus, which itself is a riff on Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus.)But in order to succeed in a highly competitive industry they knew their company needed to be special, starting with the product. Focusing exclusively on ice cream sandwiches was a start, and they took steps to ensure theirs would stand out. They would be made with a unique variety of high quality cookies and ice cream, scooped to order, and given architecturally-inspired names. (The Frank Gehry-inspired Frank Berry sandwich–
When it came to distributing the sandwiches, Case and Estreller recognized that food trucks were becoming trendy in Los Angeles and wisely decided to join the fray.
Then, of course, there were the ladies themselves.
“It seemed so obvious that there was a need for elevated ice cream,” says Case, “made by millennials, made by women.”
Make a Huge Opening Splash
After months of perfecting recipes and forming their business plan, Case and Estreller were ready to unleash Coolhaus to the public. The two were prepared to devote their energy to the company full time, and in order to assess the risk of going all in, they agreed to employ a go-big-or-go-home strategy to mark their debut.
“The idea was that we would get it in front of the biggest critical mass possible to really see if people have chemistry with this brand…and really know if it was viable,” says Case.
Coachella, the country’s biggest music festival attracting thousands of fans, many of them local to Los Angeles, would be the perfect venue to test the waters. Nowadays, setting up shop at the fest is an expensive proposition (securing a food vending slot is nearly as coveted as getting on stage), but in 2009 a maxed-out credit card with a $5,000 limit could get you in the door.
In hindsight, selling ice cream sandwiches in the desert heat to a bunch of hard-partying millennials was a no-brainer. When Coolhaus opened for business at 7 a.m. on the second day of the fest, a massive line had already assembled. Case and Estreller had easily made back their investment but more importantly, by the time the truck arrived back in Los Angeles, it had gone viral, earning coverage from the Los Angeles Times along with several local and national blogs.
Be Willing to Change Gears
After Coachella, Coolhaus was officially up and running as word of mouth continued to spread. Case and Estreller stuck with their plan to follow the typical L.A. food truck model: Park at a popular location and spread the word to your social media followers–if you Tweet it, they will come.
But then, MySpace called and the plan was thrown out the window. The oh-so-hot (at the time) social media pioneer wanted to host an ice cream social at the offices and the ladies were more than happy to oblige. “With catering, you have a guaranteed amount that you’re going to make,” notes Case.
“It just shows you why it’s important to launch even if you haven’t figured everything out,” says Case. “The market can tell you things about what it wants. We didn’t have [catering] in the pro forma, but now it’s 95 percent of our [truck] business.”
Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em
Now that they were well-versed in the full business potential of their trucks, Case and Estreller were eager to expand the Coolhaus brand beyond Los Angeles. After a successful launch in Austin, the ladies set their sights on New York. Not only did they have a ton of requests via social media to move to the Big Apple, nearly half of their L.A. catering clients had offices there. “We already had this built-in demand that made it feel like we have to do this,” says Case. “It’s less risky and less like starting from scratch.”
Their instincts were right and Coolhaus continues to be a hit in New York. The company was truly on a roll and Case and Estreller’s next move seemed to be another slam dunk. Since there wasn’t much of an appetite for ice cream sandwiches in New York during the winter, why not “snowbird” the trucks in Miami where the weather’s always nice?
Though smart in theory, the move ended up being a rare misstep for Coolhaus. The seven-month Miami stint was hit by unanticipated problems from dealing with local government to building the right team. “When you’re not from there and you’re not living there full-time, it’s really, really difficult,” admits Case. “Sometimes it’s just not the best fit, and you have to know when to pull the plug.”
When Settling Down, Find the Sweet Spot
Though Coolhaus was thriving (Miami notwithstanding), Case and Estreller began to realize the limitations of their business model.
“Even though the truck is very special, it can be very hard to track down,” says Case. “You don’t have regular hours and it’s kind of hard to build a culture around the truck from a corporate perspective.”
A brick-and-mortar Coolhaus location seemed like the next logical step. Close to home in Los Angeles was a must, but it wasn’t immediately clear exactly where in the city’s vast sprawl they would plant their flag. To decide, Case and Estreller employed the Goldilocks method–settling down in a popular neighborhood would be pricey, and a spot that was too remote would yield little traffic.
In the end, Culver City proved to be just right. Even though it was home to Sony Pictures Studios, not to mention a number of architectural firms, the neighborhood was still considered up-and-coming eight years ago. Moving there would be a risk but it would also have its rewards. “Culver City paid for all of our permits,” says Case. “They paid for our mechanical, electrical, plumbing…We were in there for an incredible rent. That would never happen now.”
The shop opened in 2011 and remains a local fixture. Yet again, Coolhaus succeeded by being ahead of the curve.
Stay True to Your Brand
So how does a scoop operation make the transition to retail? “I wandered into our local Whole Foods,” says Case, “and I found [an employee] and asked, ‘What do I have to do to get on the shelf here?’” (Another lesson–don’t be afraid to ask.)
Though the conversation yielded an introduction with a local buyer for Whole Foods, stocking Coolhaus would be a tough sell. At the time, craft ice cream, let alone craft ice cream sandwiches, had a limited presence in supermarkets. Plus, Case and Estreller had a very specific vision when to came how their product would be sold.
“I told her I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting any compromise from what we scoop at the truck or the shop,” says Case. “We’re going to make it the same way and sell it for the same price. We’re going to have the architectural theme too. She just thought it was absolutely bananas.”
The buyer ultimately relented and in 2012 Coolhaus launched in three Los Angeles Whole Foods locations. They were an instant hit and the brand would eventually be picked by the grocery chain nationwide.
But as the company underwent major expansion and outside investors became part of the fold, Case found herself second-guessing her instincts. “When you’re getting a lot of influence from investors or people who have been in the game longer, the temptation is to dilute the quirkiness of a brand and to just kind of fit in,” she says.
“I think we went through that a little bit with some of the flavors that we brought in during that middle period which were elevated classics. It’s still a winning strategy, but I think what we’ve come back to now in the past year or so, is really, really owning the unique, weird brand that we are and bringing that to everything we do.”
Never Stop Innovating
Since expanding into retail, Coolhaus has introduced an ever-growing selection of ice cream bars and pints which are sold along with the company’s signature sandwiches at over 7,500 retailers across North America and Asia as well as through home delivery. The company hasn’t abandoned its roots and continues to operate a fleet of 10 trucks.
This year is poised to be huge for Coolhaus, with new items including a reinvention of the bon bon and an “ice cream street taco” which Case is particularly excited to launch. There’s no question that her enthusiasm for Coolhaus is as strong as it’s ever been.
“When you’re scaling, you really have to maintain the energy of when you were small and have less to lose because you need that to continue to make you special as you get bigger,” says Case.
So how does she envision Coolhaus a decade from now? Her answer isn’t surprising. “We hope to have established ourselves as the household brand of our generation.”
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Header image courtesy of Coolhaus/Facebook.