Building a Business One Scoop at a Time

Ice cream, it's not just for breakfast anymore. So says a sign hanging from the counter of Moorenko's, a sunny, brightly colored parlor that makes ultra premium ice cream two tubs at a time.

Inside Moorenko's in McLean, Va. (Sharon McLoone)

The proprietor and sole full-time employee, Susan Soorenko, will celebrate the McLean, Va., store's five-year anniversary next month.

But when she first opened the store, she thought she'd be able to continue her 25-year career as a fitness instructor and operator of the community's Jazzercise franchise. She was wrong.

"It took me a long time to recognize that I thought I had just opened an ice cream store, but really I owned an ice cream company," she said.

Besides the store, Moorenko's ice cream is served in 50 of the finest restaurants across the region. And while ice cream must have at least 10 percent milkfat to be legally called "ice cream," ultra premium must have over 16 percent milkfat in it. Moorenko's has at least 17 percent.

"Someone once explained to me that ice cream is like hot dogs, it's really about the quality of the ingredients you put in it," she said.

Soorenko switched her focus from exercise to ice cream after "significant life changes." While on vacation with her sons out West, she fell in love with a unique ice cream that she wanted to sell on the East Coast. That plan fell apart for a variety of reasons, including the high cost of transporting it across the United States.

Making Moorenko's ice cream two tubs at a time.(Sharon McLoone)

She attended a week-long course at Ice Cream University where she learned how to use equipment, choose flavors and most importantly make ice cream. She also studied ice cream production in Europe which has influenced her business. She currently imports many of her flavorings from Italy.

At Moorenko's, flavors include old standbys with a twist like bittersweet chocolate, Italian flavors like Lauretta (cherry vanilla) and seasonal tastes like cranberry walnut, fresh ginger and blood-orange sorbet.

Susan Soorenko at her McLean, Va., ice cream cafe. (Sharon McLoone)

Although Soorenko preferred to keep her restaurant clients under wraps for competitive reasons, her frozen treats are served at dining establishments in Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, Vienna, Upper Connecticut Ave., Dupont Circle and as far as Culpeper, Va., and Baltimore.

She also makes ice cream for Walter Scheib, the White House executive chef from 1994 to 2005, who now runs an event services and consulting firm. "If he is cooking a dinner for 600 in Connecticut, we ship to Connecticut," she said. That liaison taught her how to ship ice cream overnight. 

Moorenko's pints also are sold through six Whole Foods grocery stores and four My Organic Markets in the metro area. The dairy products are growth-hormone free and come from a farm in Virginia.

The restaurant revenue stream has served her well and it's the part of the business that's "exploding," she said. It's also what keeps Moorenko's afloat, especially during the winter months.

Because of her success in wholesale, she is moving her small kitchen out of the McLean location to a larger one. But on the retail side, she's actively looking to share her space with another firm, eyeing someone whose business has a strong winter season.

"You run a seasonal business by the skin of your teeth," she said, adding that her summer revenue is more than double compared to the rest of the year.

Real estate is all about location, location and location. While Moorenko's store holds a sweet spot in downtown McLean, the rent is extremely high for a very small business, she said.

McLean doesn't have a real small-town feel, she said, and while a lot of the area's residents have disposable income, they may spend it at a chain store at nearby Tysons Corner. "I wouldn't say that a great percent of the community here is really wedded to the community. It's a very transient area."

But that said, Soorenko recalls the countless times that a parent has called for their child in the hospital who has been craving a Moorenko's milkshake, or a funeral party stops by to console itself.

"Ice cream is a universal food that's almost always attached to nostalgia," she said.

One of the ways Soorenko stays in touch with the community is to donate local fundraising events the opportunity to be a guest ice cream chef and create the "flavor of the week." The winner of the fundraiser meets with Soorenko to discuss the flavor of their dreams and then helps her create it. The flavor gets named for them and is served for a week.

"It's one of the ways I can contribute to the community and at the same time, draw them into our process," said Soorenko.

In September 2005, she opened a second store in Silver Spring, Md., where the rent is much lower, but major construction in the area is making it difficult for potential customers to reach the store. She expects the store to "be brilliant" in about six months when part of a major revitalization at the corner of Blair Mill Road and Georgia Avenue is finished.

Additionally, her brother is her landlord in that location, affording her some flexibility. Between her two stores, she employs about 30 part-time people.

"I love what I do, and I strongly believe...that an entrepreneur is someone with a great idea and no trust fund."

By Sharon McLoone |  October 15, 2007; 8:50 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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I work with clients looking for franchises like this. I am a Franchise Consultant and offer a Free Franchise Consultation Service to clients looking for a Franchise.

Ice Cream Franchises are growing. I see more and more of them opening each year.

Good luck in your venture.

John @ Franchise Pros


Posted by: John | November 12, 2007 10:59 PM

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