How Darwinian Thinking Keeps Ice Cream Shop Afloat In Off-Season

As President-Elect Trump has driven stock markets to brand new highs, Main Street might have to wait a bit to see the value. While Store Front businesses showed positive year-over-year growth, their performance overall dipped slightly since Q2 2016. The hot-off-the-presses Q4 Store Front Business Index™ reveals which sectors are sizzling and which might be fizzling. It also includes an interview with Vince Petryk, founder of J.P. Licks Ice Cream, who shared the secret sauce of his Main Street success story.

For some entrepreneurs, starting a Main Street business is how they choose to pursue the American Dream.

For others, like J.P. Licks founder and owner Vince Petryk, opening a store front business was not just a dream. Petryk, who said he was bullied ruthlessly as a kid from the third grade to high school, views his chain of Boston-based ice cream stores as safe havens that he wants to share with his community.

“I was always a weirdo,” said Petryk. “I got beat up and knocked down, my books thrown away or flushed down the toilet a few times.”

“That’s what J.P. Licks represents to me,” he said. “It’s a little corner of the world where, hopefully, to the best of my ability, all the things I learned in Boy Scouts are put into practice, where people are trustworthy, faithful, honest [and] respectful.”

While humor wasn’t one of the qualities he was taught in the Boy Scouts, Petryk said he includes it because it’s important to him and he believes “you should have fun with what you do in life.”

Petryk founded his chain of ice cream stores in 1981. The first store opened in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood (hence the initials J.P.), and the company has since expanded to over a dozen locations around Greater Boston. Locally, the chain is a beloved institution that serves coffee and pastries, in addition to a wide selection of ice cream flavors.

Ice cream and Darwin

The story of smaller businesses being pushed out by larger, national chains is nothing new. History has plenty of examples of chains moving into a neighborhood and causing local establishments to shutter. But Petryk expects no sympathy as a small business owner trying to make ends meet.

“I really am a Darwinian when it comes down to the strongest should survive,” he said.

Petryk said it isn’t in his nature to ask for help, so he never made a habit of attending local city council meetings. He sees competition from small and big players alike as a natural component of being a Main Street merchant and praised large corporations, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, for being able to give consumers exactly what they are looking for the moment they enter the store.

“If a national chain is better than me, then let them kick my ass,” he said.

Thinking better rather than just local

For a local merchant, Petryk also takes a somewhat scornful view of consumers who seek out local businesses simply because they’re local.

“It’s almost patronizing or whatever you want to call it,” said Petryk. “‘Oh, they’re a local business so I have to go there.’ No, you should go to the best business for whatever you’re buying.”

In that same vein, a locavore Petryk is not. He takes the same attitude toward his suppliers. His priority is sourcing the highest-quality goods he can afford, regardless of where they originate.

“If I can get as good or nearly as good a strawberry locally, I’ll buy it,” said Petryk. “If I can get better strawberries that are maybe a little more expensive from far away, I’ll buy those.”

“For me, quality is really at the bottom line, and I temper it as long as it’s within an acceptable range,” he said.

But something that is not acceptable to him is forcefully employing trendy language to pander to new customers. While other Main Street merchants might attempt to reinvent themselves, Petryk scoffed at the idea of rebranding his chain to appear more hip to appease current fads. He did not mince words over what he described as “highfalutin terms” being pushed on him, his products and his business.

“If I hear the word ‘artisan’ or ‘artisanal’ one more time, I will vomit,” he said. “Over my dead body will it ever be ‘artisan’ ice cream.”

Not having fun? Open a new store

Petryk finds having so many stores spread across the region keeps him energized and excited about his work. In his observation, business owners who limit themselves to a single store location are more likely to burn out.

“A lot of small business owners with one store aren’t happy,” he said. “They’re not making any more money from year to year. For some reason, they don’t expand — they don’t want to or they can’t.”

Petryk recalls meeting several local independent business owners who were feeling frustrated, and those feelings were starting to affect how they interacted with their customers. His strategy for not falling into a similar trap is to expand.

“When I start getting those feelings, I did another store,” he said. “And it was like, ‘Yay, fun!’ I get to design a store, and I get to make a little more money if everything goes well.”

Staying afloat in the off-season

Of course, ice cream is more or less a seasonal delicacy, and Petryk is fully aware of the pressures he faces to keep his business going during the winter months when demand for his signature offering plummets. So, how does J.P. Licks make ends meet when the weather is cold?

“We do our best without,” said Petryk. To that end, he added coffee and baking products to his menus in the late 1990s, which helped alleviate some of the company’s wintertime losses. By expanding his offerings, Petryk was able to provide new ways to reach his customers, while still serving dessert options.

“Ice cream is sort of the dessert for adults and children, while coffee drinks, like lattes and cappuccinos, struck me as the adult treat for true adults,” he said.

“The other thing we do is quite simple — we lose money for five months,” he said, and then laughed.

Investing long-term in staff

But beyond making adjustments to his menus, Petryk said he urges his store managers to retain talented staff to avoid getting shorthanded when the snow melts and summertime returns.

“That person standing there doing nothing in January is going to be the kid you’re going to count on in April while you’re shorthanded and it’s 70 degrees and the line is out the door,” he said.

Petryk explained that he pays his staff $2 more than the Massachusetts minimum wage in an effort to give his managers more leverage to hire talented young people to work at his stores. He described himself as a “weirdo,” which is why he has a pattern of employing staff who might be also considered outsiders, he said. Looking back to J.P. Licks’ early days, Petryk said he was able to thrive because he hired students from the nearby Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) that other businesses would not hire because of their appearances.

“The MassArt kids were pierced, they were tattooed and they were scarified in the 1980s, so I had the pick of the litter because nobody would give them a job,” he said.

And the experience translates into long-term loyalty. Petryk became emotional as he described how people he once employed return to the ice cream store to help their own children get their first jobs.

“They trust their children with us, and they want their kids to have a good experience, and that’s precious that they thought so much of us,” he said.

These bonds and the ability to have fun running his business are what Petryk considers key to his happiness.

“I always felt that I would jinx myself if I made money my first priority, so it was all about everything else,” said Petryk. “And if I did everything else right, the money will take care of itself.”

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About The Index

The Store Front Business Index™ (SFBI) provides a quarterly metric measuring the health of typical small businesses that populate Main Street, USA. Measurements are in real terms and are based on the growth in new establishments, real wages and employment.

Main Street small businesses are identified by the North American Industry Classification System codes that relate to businesses that are typically small businesses found on Main Streets in both urban and suburban areas. This includes eating establishments, professional and personal services, construction, remodeling and repair services, fitness clubs and a wide variety of retailers.