By Valerie Vinyard –
Isabella’s Ice Cream
Husband-Wife Owners Hit the Big Time
Your first taste of Isabella’s Ice Cream will persuade you to make it a part of your daily diet.
With a base of just four ingredients – cream, milk, eggs and cane sugar – this simple mix yields amazing flavor.
“It tastes old-fashioned,” said Marissa Hatton, a 19-year-old Pima Community College art major who started working catering events for Isabella’s when she was 15. “You can taste how natural it is. I still eat it all the time.”
Isabella’s Ice Cream, named after owners Kristel and Dominic Johnson’s first daughter, has achieved regional success.
More than 100 Safeway stores in Arizona as well as Whole Foods locations in the Southern Pacific region now are carrying pints and minis. The Johnsons recently signed with United Natural Foods, the largest natural food distributor in North America. And in December, the couple parked a Model T truck that doubles as a scoop shop inside Rincon Market.
Besides its great taste, Isabella’s Ice Cream is lauded for being all natural and for not using stabilizers and fillers. The couple also buys local foods to use for flavors when they can, including Green Valley pecans and Amado honey. The pair also is very civic-minded and donates ice cream for fundraising events for various schools and Living Streets Alliance.
The idea for Isabella’s Ice Cream began in summer 2008 when an ice cream truck drove by their Rancho Sahaurita home.
“Dominic said, ‘It would be cool to have an ice cream truck,’ ” Kristel Johnson recalled.
Economy leads to career change
The two University of Arizona graduates had been doing real estate investing, but business was down because of the economy. Dominic, 39, started looking into getting an ice cream truck and liked Model T trucks from the 1920s. He bought his first one for $1,200 from a member of the Model T Club of Southern Arizona.
“He brought it back from Nogales,” said Kristel, 37. “It was in metal pieces in the back of his Ford pickup. I said, ‘I thought you were buying a car.’ ”
Putting the truck together and converting it to an electric – rather than gas-powered vehicle – took almost a year. With recycled wood paneling, solar modules on the roof and zero emissions, Isabella’s takes its green message to the street each time it goes out.
The pair took money out of the college fund for their two daughters – Isabella and Alexandria, now 13 and 9 – to pay for startup costs.
“I had tears in my eyes, and I said to Dominic, ‘You’d better make this work,’” Kristel said.
Isabella’s first event was selling ice cream at Hot August Nights in Green Valley in 2010. Other catering events soon followed.
“It started growing really fast right away,” she said. “You learn to step out of your comfort zone when you start a business.”
Success at catering gigs soon led to a meeting at Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, where the chef placed a “ridiculous order” as a sort of test to see if they could produce. They did, and their flavor, honey lavender, was a hit.
Success forces a move
Up to that point, the Johnsons had been using a friend’s kitchen to create their ice cream. They had outgrown it, so they rented a small space in Mercado San Agustín in spring 2011 that housed a kitchen and a walk-in freezer. In addition to catering events, Isabella’s ice cream was available for sale at Rincon Market and the Food Conspiracy Co-op on Fourth Avenue.
Business continued to grow. In April 2013, the couple set up a Kickstarter campaign and raised close to $17,000 (they had hoped for $15,000). In August 2013, they moved operations to a 1,500-square-foot warehouse on 17th Street near Park Avenue.
“We knew maybe 20 percent of the people who contributed to the campaign,” said Kristel, who is proud that they never have taken out a loan to support their business. “People from all over the world gave. It was amazing; it was so cool.”
Darcy Landis, local product coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region of Whole Foods Market, found Isabella’s on Kickstarter and researched the brand before meeting with them. Besides the product, she likes the square cardboard containers that Dominic created and is in the process of patenting – “they’re so nostalgic.”
“What’s not to like about them?” she asked. “They make everything fresh – that’s a big difference. It’s really just starting with the quality of the ingredients. I think they make a real commitment to finding flavors that work.”
Flavors have run the gamut from the standards to more adventurous – including kale ginger, salted caramel, spicy chocolate and celery sorbet. Their most popular flavors are salted caramel pecan and lavender vanilla.
“I look at candles or scents and I think, ‘I can do that flavor,’ ” said Kristel, explaining how she comes up with new combinations.
Small business struggles
But it hasn’t all been easy. The couple admitted that they don’t pay themselves very often – most of the money goes back into the business. Dominic, who competed in the pole vault in the 1996, 2000 and 2008 Olympics, said he was surprised how difficult it was to start and run a small business.
“I think qualifying for the Olympics is easier than this business,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can’t control.”
Interestingly, the Johnsons originally planned to franchise the idea.
“We had no intention of making ice cream,” Dominic said. “It’s Maynards’ fault. It just grew from there – now we make everything.”
And now, he wouldn’t change anything.
“It’s super rewarding, especially to see the brand grow,” said Dominic, who said that Isabella’s now has three Model T trucks, including the one parked at Rincon Market.
Rincon Market owner Ron Abbott first started selling Isabella’s pints and minis. At the scoop shop in the front of the market, you can enjoy 15 flavors at $3.50 a scoop, $6 for two. Toppings and waffle cones also are available.
“They’re local, and with Dominic’s history with the University of Arizona, it’s a good fit,” Abbott said. “The texture of the ice cream is different. It’s not like a normal ice cream.”
Next on the to-do list: Hiring more people to create the ever-growing products and give the Johnsons a bit of a break. Kristel said that will be difficult but necessary.
“It’s hard to let go, to trust someone to do my recipes just right,” Kristel said.