Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
An ice cream shop would seem to be a relatively uncomplicated business. Make a gallon of vanilla, a gallon of chocolate, and sell scoops to a sweet tooth clientele on a hot day.
But if you’ve never been an entrepreneur, if you’ve never thought in terms of doing business, you might make the mistake of buying that ice cream shop in the second row of a mini-mall, back where it can’t be seen from the road. You might make the second mistake of buying the shop in November, when winter is fast approaching and the ice cream market is going into hibernation until springtime.
Welcome to Ultimate Ice Cream.
Nine years later, Kevin and Lucia Barnes can laugh at those early mistakes. “And we had never made ice cream before we bought it,” Lucia says. “It was truly a leap of faith.” Kevin shakes his head at the memory, adding, “Probably 50 percent faith and 50 percent ignorance.”
Easy for them to say—now. Those nine years since their early mistakes have seen some challenging moments and serious setbacks, but they now preside over a company with two stores, a wholesale clientele that includes many of Asheville’s best restaurants and a headquarters’ building that includes an ice cream factory in West Asheville, where they make more than 4,000 gallons of ice cream a month.
Sitting at a conference table in the office they share, Kevin and Lucia looked back to a time before they ever thought about becoming entrepreneurs, back to a time when they were both social workers—yes, social workers. Probably among the least likely professionals to become entrepreneurs, Kevin and Lucia had both pursued careers working with the most vulnerable members of society. “We met when our jobs intersected,” Lucia says. “Kevin was working with folks suffering from traumatic brain injuries, and I worked with people who had mental disabilities.” That was in 1996, and they were married two years later. Over the next seven years, they had three sons and remained in their social work careers. But they began to feel a pull in a different direction.
“I think it was mostly evolution,” Lucia says, picking her words carefully to explain their career change. “And part of that evolution was working in larger systems that took away from what probably were the missions in our hearts to help people.” Is that a diplomatic way of saying she was frustrated by too much bureaucracy and too little action? Her answer is quick and direct. “Yes.”
Kevin explains his own evolution more simply. “I just got burned out.”
So there they were, with unfulfilling jobs, three young kids, and approaching the perfect age for a mid-life crisis.
They began looking around for other options and noticed a newspaper ad for an ice cream store. “It just clicked for us,” Kevin says. “It just felt right.” Lucia picks up the thought in a recurring pattern. They don’t interrupt each other, but their conversation weaves together as they develop a common thought.
“Every step that we took felt right,” she says. “Learning about the business, meeting the folks that were selling it, every step of the way it felt right.”
Their reality check came quickly. The hidden location (1070 Tunnel Road, Asheville) and the chilly season combined to make it a tough start. “It was scary, and it was hard for a long time,” Lucia says. Again, Kevin weaves into the thought. “Like understanding all this debt that we had and how we were going to make it happen. It was very scary.” Lucia continues, “The other piece of it was Kevin worked every single day, every single shift, and I was working part-time but I was a ‘Mom,’ and I was shuttling little kids around and doing what I could to help Kevin from home, but we had some hard years.” On those last words she leans forward and her voice becomes intense: “HARD YEARS.”
They soon learned that the way to get through hard years is by hard work. “We had an excellent product,” Kevin says. He decided to reach out to a new market: the hotels and restaurants in the Asheville area. “I would load up a bunch of pints and just get in the van and drive around to restaurants in town with a rate sheet, drop it off in the kitchen and go on to the next one.”
The strategy paid off. Their client roster now reads like the A-list of Asheville restaurants and hotels. The Grove Park Inn, Bouchon, Carmel’s, Chai Pani, Louella’s, and the Biltmore Estate are just a few of their outlets.
“And then we bought a mobile unit so we could do festivals,” Kevin says. “Our confidence was growing rapidly.” Lucia adds, “When we were setting up at a festival people would come by and call, ‘Yaaay, Ultimate.’ We were getting the reputation as the best ice cream in Asheville.”
“So we started thinking about opening a second store,” Kevin says. “And, we found this tiny space up on Charlotte Street. It was perfect. It opened up four years ago.”
With two stores and a strong wholesale clientele, Ultimate had definitely turned the corner from shaky investment to thriving little company. Kevin and Lucia agree that the secret to their success is in their product.
“I still believe that our product is the best product around,” Lucia says, and Kevin launches into an explanation why.
“Butter fat rules supreme in the world of ice cream,” he says. “And, the more butter fat you put in your product means it’s going to be more expensive. So 10 to 12 percent is the most you’ll find in most ice creams. Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s are in the 16 percent range. Ours is 18 percent. And there’s this thing called overrun in ice cream.” His manner takes on an intensity as he talks. He leans forward and begins to nod for emphasis, his gray ponytail bobbing in silent punctuation. “Overrun is the amount of air you pump into the product. You have to put some air into it, otherwise it would be like a scoop of ice. It just wouldn’t be enjoyable. So you buy a scoop of ice cream, 50 percent of it can be air. We put less air in our ice cream, so a quart of our ice cream weighs more than a half gallon of what you might buy in a grocery store.”
Lucia has been nodding along with his explanation, but she doesn’t let him stop there. “He’s really, really good at what he does all the way around. And he has a special intuition with flavors. He does a dash of this and a dash of that. It’s amazing to watch because he has nailed it now every time.”
Ultimate’s flavor menu runs from the standard vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry to Kevin’s creations, which could fairly be described as everything from eccentric to absurd. They include goat cheese and Bing cherry, honey lavender, blueberry pancake, bacon—yes, bacon—and one of his most popular: blue cheese. (Author’s note: Suspend disbelief and try the blue cheese. I loved it.)
Kevin shrugs off the variety. “We have done over 300 flavors. Some of them were just one shot deals like we did for a restaurant. Pomegranate hibiscus or something like that.
“I’ve always loved cooking and creating flavors,” he says. “I can read a recipe and know how it will taste, so I was able to transfer that to ice cream. I wanted to do a blue cheese ice cream. Lucia says, ‘No, that would be horrible, don’t make a blue cheese ice cream.’ ” As he talks, she is smiling and nodding her agreement. “And I said, ‘I’ll put a caramel swirl into it because I think the caramel and the sharpness of the blue cheese would work really well together.’ And it did.”
“People love it,” she says, and then adds a finishing flourish to the story. “And I like it.”
At the Tunnel Road store on a recent weekday afternoon, the blue cheese flavor got an impromptu consumer test. A woman at the counter tried a small taste and, with a surprised voice, proclaimed, “Hey! That’s really good.” And then she offered a different testimony to the Ultimate brand, “But I’ll take my regular flavor.” Behind the counter Gena Veseley began scooping. She didn’t have to ask what the customer’s “regular flavor” was.
“We get a lot of regulars,” Gena says, and the store’s co-manager, Brittany Payne, adds, “We even get vacationers who come back every year.”
The weekday traffic would seem to bear them out. The outside benches were occupied with multi-generational groups licking cones or spooning scoops, and it seemed like the adults were enjoying the outing as much as the kids. Meanwhile, more than a dozen people were lined up at the counter, checking out the board listing all the flavors as they waited to make their choice.
“It’s busy every day,” Brittany says. “On a summer Saturday, we’ll have as many as 40 people lined up out the door.”
[quote float=”right”]Brittany says, “This was my first job. I got promoted to manager, and, now that I’m married, my husband and I hope to open an Ultimate franchise together some day down the road.”[/quote]Brittany and Gena work the counter like old pros, greeting customers and offering a taste of the more exotic flavors. During a lull in the action, they proclaim their satisfaction with their jobs. Both have been at Ultimate about five years, and Brittany says, “This was my first job. I came home from college and started behind the counter here. I got promoted to manager, and, now that I’m married, my husband and I hope to open an Ultimate franchise together some day down the road.”
Kevin is working on a long range plan to create some franchise outlets. Revealing another dimension of their social worker impulses, Kevin and Lucia admit to nurturing a semi-paternal relationship with their young employees.
“We’re the first job for a lot of kids,” he says. “They come to us as rising sophomores, and they’ll stay with us and work with us summers through college.” Lucia picks up his thought. “When kids are sixteen, it’s natural at that age for them to steer away from their parents a little bit but still gravitate to a comfortable adult. So we’ve been that for so many young people. We feel close to a lot of those kids who open up during their adolescence. They can just come and talk to us.”
Back at the Tunnel Road store, Gena and Brittany validate that history. Gena sums it up simply: “It has been family.”
The store displays another example of their social commitment. A hand chalked announcement on the flavor board proclaims “$27,000” donated to charity in Ultimate’s Flavor of the Month program.
“We came up with that because we were getting contacted by people for donations,” Kevin says, and again they play ping pong with the thought.
[quote float=”right”]A couple decides to seize control of their lives, they take a huge risk, run into unforeseen complications, work hard to overcome them, and finally turn the corner to a bright new day. They live happily ever after. Not in real life. Not by a long shot.[/quote]Lucia: “We wanted to give to our community.” Kevin: “And we wanted to keep it to Western North Carolina, so we created flavor of the month.” Lucia: “And we came up with 12 organizations that we want to work with, and we assigned them all a month.” Kevin: “This is also our advertising budget. We create the flavor for them, and they drive people who are interested in what they do to our stores to buy that flavor.” Lucia: “And we have a place in the shop to give out information about who they are and what they do, and here’s a signup sheet to volunteer.” Kevin: “At the end of the month we give them the income from that flavor.”
By this point the Ultimate narrative would seem to follow a familiar path. A couple decides to seize control of their lives, they take a huge risk, run into unforeseen complications, work hard to overcome them, and finally turn the corner to a bright new day. They live happily ever after.
Not in real life. Not by a long shot.
Lucia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“That was two years ago,” she says. “It was a tough time because I had major surgery and realized I would have to undergo chemo therapy. So that was a big life changing event for our whole entire family. Our kids were very much affected by seeing me go through that process, and we had to have one of those moments when we were seriously wondering should we continue with the business.”
Kevin has been watching her tell the story. “The diagnosis and finding this building were all within weeks of each other.” His gesture takes in the office where they’re sitting and the production facility in the next room. “So it was like, do we proceed with the growth of the business or is this a time to step back and reevaluate. And, what we came to after lots of discussion is that we want to have things to work towards, and that’s what we did.”
As he looks back, Kevin begins toying with a small sheet of paper that he had folded into the shape of a bird. Lucia continues the story in the dispassionate voice of a survivor. “I took time. I didn’t go into the stores. I didn’t go into any events. I didn’t want to be around people. I really didn’t want to be defined as the cancer patient. I wanted to know that this was a stumble, and we were going to pick up and continue going.”
She leans back. He visibly relaxes. They have navigated a terrible experience, and now she can provide that happy ending. “So we picked up, and I’ve been healthy and well and we’ve really moved beyond it. I’m completely cancer free.”
Now they look to the future. “For a while I didn’t know if we had the ability to do this, and now I don’t see why we don’t. We can do this. We can grow this business. We don’t want to be stinking rich out of all of this; we want to grow a business and create this family of all the people who are with us and we all do this together.”