Jeff Sommers being interviewed
Jeff Sommers interviewed by C-Suite Network's Gregg Greenberg.

Before they became small business owners, Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel were your typical married couple living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sommers, a middle school teacher, and Hammel, an attorney, lived with their two children in the city's Merriam Park neighborhood, and the family loved getting homemade ice cream at a shop called Grand Ole Creamery.

The problem? Grand Ole Creamery was too far away to visit on a regular basis. Sommers and Hammel had always wanted to start their own business, and in 2000, they decided to recreate the special, small-batch ice cream experience of this Twin Cities establishment right where they lived.

Inspired by Grand Ole Creamery and the couple's favorite Michigan ice cream shop, Captain Frosty's, Sommers and Hammel began to learn everything they could about ice cream making. They rented and renovated a small retail space a couple of blocks from their home, and Izzy's Ice Cream was born.

Slow but steady growth

Today, Izzy's has two Minnesota locations with a loyal customer base, but getting there wasn't an easy road. In a CO— interview with C-Suite Network's Gregg Greenberg, Sommers said he and his wife had to mortgage their house twice to generate enough funds to get their budding business off the ground.

"We paid ourselves back by 2009, so in about nine years, we'd really built the initial foundation for our brand," he explained.

Reflecting on the difficult financial journey to successful business ownership, Sommers said he wishes he and his wife were a little more conservative with their capital in the beginning. If he could do things differently, he would have considered potential ROI more carefully when deciding how to spend their hard-earned money.

"We were super passionate in the beginning, and we weren't thinking about return on investment from a day-to-day basis," Sommers said. "Today, with more at stake ... each dollar ... is a lot more important than we ever imagined in the early years."

As Sommers and Hammel grew their business, they hired students, neighbors and other people they knew to help keep the shop running. As a local family business, the couple was very invested in building strong relationships with their employees and retaining them.

"A couple of our key employees have been with us 13 and 10 years," said Sommers, noting that these staff members had started working for Izzy's when they were teenagers.

Today, with more at stake ... each dollar ... is a lot more important than we ever imagined in the early years.

Jeff Sommers, co-founder, Izzy's Ice Cream

'Earning the right' to stay in business

Sommers says that local media coverage played a big role in putting Izzy's Ice Cream on the map following a relatively slow first season.

"As soon as we were covered in the newspaper, we had lines out the door," he told CO—.

Now, busy summer days at Izzy's may see as many as 1,000 guests at each of their two retail locations. On top of their brick-and-mortar success, Izzy's Ice Cream is also sold in approximately 80 grocery stores and served in dozens of local restaurants.

All this buzz and popularity hasn't gone to the couple's heads, though: Izzy's continues to focus on the guest experience to keep their patrons coming back for more ice cream. As Sommers puts it, they see each day as "an opportunity to earn the right to be in business tomorrow."

On their quest to earn that right, Sommers, Hammel, and the Izzy's team are looking to grow the company up to three-fold by this time next year. They've got big plans to hire more staff, sell their products to more grocery stores, and even become an ice cream supplier to more Major League Baseball teams (Izzy's is already the sole supplier for the Minnesota Twins).

Sommers noted that the company is self-funding these growth efforts, and their capital limitations may present some difficulties along the way. However, the couple has learned a lot in their nearly two decades in business, and they're well-prepared to make their goals a reality.

"We're being really strategic about developing a program where we can really hit some of our objectives and hit the market running," said Sommers.

Check out our full interview with Jeff Sommers interviewed by C-Suite Network's Gregg Greenberg to learn more about the growth and evolution of Izzy's Ice Cream.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Jeff Sommers interviewed by C-Suite Network's Gregg Greenberg.
Published February 25, 2019