With all the talk about startups in our community lately, you might get the idea that this movement is just about companies with venture and angel investments, super-charged growth, and multi-million dollar revenue. Let that stereotype fall from your mind. It just ain’t so. In fact, the vast majority of startups in our country are done without venture capital and are more grounded in creating a family income than long term investments or explosive growth. This is a story about one of those.
A few weeks ago, I found a post on Facebook about a new ice cream parlor in Radcliff called Family Fun Ice Cream Parlor. Being supportive of local businesses but trying to watch my weight, I was conflicted. But alas, I decided to take one for the team and check it out. You know, just so I can bring you stories like this. And also because fat people ARE in fact, harder to kidnap, and I find belts to honestly be restrictive and one size fits all. I’m just that kind of guy.
When I arrived, I found a quaint, busy little place near the corner of South Wilson and Rogersville Rd, crowded with people of all ages, sitting on straw bales on the front porch, smiling and generally having a good time while slurping up some of the delicious treats from inside. I immediately felt like I’d stepped back in time and walked into a shop in Mayberry. The decor was reminiscent of my youth in small town America, minus the crazy mailman we had. Big band music was playing in the background and their was an air of simpler times. People were tossing bean bags and kids were bouncing in an inflatable castle outdoors. Inside, I found a long line of people, all smiling at one another and moving through the line tasting a variety of flavors. The line was just long enough to give me time to evaluate and decide on flavors without having to hold up those behind me.
I’d learned that it was a relatively new business, and being the author of this column, my thoughts naturally drifted to learning about their story to share it here. I followed up later that week and arranged an interview with the proprietors, Joey and Michelle Harmon. We had to arrange a time during non-business hours because, well…they’re just too busy any other time. I expected to spend about an hour with them, but their story was so compelling, the meeting ended up lasting much longer. I usually have a list of standard questions for everyone I interview, but because this one was so different, I found myself deviating greatly from those questions and just spent most of my time listening to them talk. The rest just fell in place.
Prior to this entrepreneurial initiative, Joey Harmon was the proprietor of 911 Express Tech, a company that provided technical services for consumers in need of computer repair, software problems, etc. The company began experiencing a reduction in business due primarily to people moving from desktop and laptop computers to mobile devices. Joe and Michelle, the parents of ten children (yes you read that right, ten) were looking for new ways to supplement their income (I can’t imagine parents of ten children not needing ways to supplement their income).
On March 29th, 2016 while cleaning out the storage shed on one of their properties, Joe suddenly thought of an ice cream parlor. Yes, it just randomly popped into his head, but Joey insists it was a God thing. Neither he or Michelle had previously considered getting into the retail food business, but it was an idea that kept resonating with them. There was something about the idea of creating a business around nostalgia that finally propelled them into making the decision. Exactly two months later, they opened their doors.
It was not an easy decision, nor was it an easy path. At the time, they had only $800 in savings for this idea. They had to completely renovate the cottage like house, that they owned that was built in 1938, they had to buy specialized equipment, and they had to do all the other things involved with starting a new business. The Harmon’s are hard working people and are well respected in their circle of friends. Their faith plays a major role in nearly everything they do. With the help of friends, city employees, and fellow church members, people seemed to come out of the woodwork to help them make their dream come alive. Now, compare and contrast this with your stereotypical startup that finds these resources from strangers with big checkbooks instead of their network of friends, and you’ll begin to see why I found this story so fascinating.
Some friends donated time, some donated money, and some donated their skills. From indoor plumbing, rewiring the electrical infrastructure, to building their gravel parking lot, they managed to convert the goodwill of friends and neighbors and $800 to get the business off the ground. While Michelle is the quintessential bargain hunter, who is also obsessed with cleanliness and an orderly work environment, Joey spearheaded the design layout and construction work. Michelle found an ice machine, some freezers, and an industrial sink for a few hundred dollars on Craigslist (surprisingly, you can still find non-adult items on Craigslist. Who knew?) Something that would have likely cost them over $20,000 had they purchased them new. They were old and dirty, but after long, arduous days of cleaning and maintenance, they were able to put them all back in working order.
They knew nothing about the ice cream business, but they spent many hours of research online and in real life to learn what they needed to know. A week after they came up with the ice cream business idea, they randomly were passing a gas station. They noticed an ice cream delivery truck that they had never seen in the town before. They immediately jumped out and began asking the ice cream driver questions about the company and if they provided ice cream to ice cream shops. The answer was, “of course, that is all we do”. So several days later a representative from the company contacted Joey and Michelle. They found out that the company was family owned since 1902 and that the ice cream tasted great. They finally found their ice cream supplier and never looked back.
The Harmon’s made a conscious decision to use grassroots promotion rather than traditional advertising. They relied on traditional word-of-mouth combined with some savvy social media presences and marketing creativity. Joey and Michelle were also founding members of the Radcliff Small Business Alliance board, so they used this as a way to help them get the word out. The Family Fun Ice Cream Parlor also frequently hosts community events. They were careful to advise me though that all of these have dual purposes – not just a business promotion thing. They have a genuine desire to contribute to our community. They’ve hosted pet adoptions, back-to-school drives, horseback riding, live music, and community outreaches, as well as after hours speed-dating, controversial-flavor tasting nights, and wild hog races. (Okay, those last three were jokes). It’s not uncommon to see kids there with their grandparents happily consuming the cold offerings from inside, offering a timeless multi-generational opportunity for family time.
Inside, they have a few tables decorated in colorful, simple tones. In an age where people usually spend their time staring at their phones, they offer an alternative. On the tables you’ll find a small bucket with little decorated wooden sticks. Each stick has a different question or topic, intended to promote conversation, and happily, none of them are in regards to the November election. I dare you to sit down at one of these tables and ignore those sticks. A few days after the interview, I took my wife for some ice cream and dinner (yes, they offer some great food there too). We found ourselves both amused and occupied with answering the questions on those little sticks and not once was I tempted to check my Facebook status.
They also shared one story I can’t leave out. Recently, one of their younger customers came by for ice cream with her mother and they retreated to the front porch. While they were outside they were listening to a commercial on the air about people not having clean water in some countries. This spunky ten year old girl, after finishing her ice cream decided she wanted to give to a cause. She went back inside the parlor and gave all the money she had left. The neighborhood has a large population of children and some come from economically distressed families. She asked Joey if she could leave some money in a “kitty” to allow the cashiers to give free ice cream to the kids without money.
Apparently, this little pay-it-forward gesture put a smile on the faces of quite a few kids, because when she returned several weeks later, the kitty was empty. She quickly and happily replenished it with more. Because of this young girl’s donation that goes in line with the Harmon’s business philosophy, they added the Pay-It-Forward fund. This one touched my heart. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I couldn’t leave without a contribution to that kitty myself. By the way, remember I mentioned Michelle’s obsession with cleanliness? They have managed to get and keep a 100 percent rating from their health department inspections. Let me know if you find any others that pull that off.
In all our excitement about being rated the number one community in the country for startups, we sometimes overlook the world of the mom and pop businesses that contribute to our quality of life. It’s not all about, high-tech, huge rounds of fundraising, and substantial improvements to the job markets. Sometimes it’s just about building a business that keeps the family fed while offering an experience of good old fashioned food and fun. Sorry, I couldn’t help the reference to the Beverly Hillbillies song. You can thank me later for leaving that little ditty in your head for the rest of the day. Kudos to Joey and Michelle Harmon for giving our community this little slice of Americana with the Family Fun Ice Cream Parlor. Stop by and get a taste yourself, they plan on staying open year round. And by the way, if you’re feeling generous, you might consider replenishing their kitty for the less fortunate kids in the neighborhood.