A short of two arms with hands holding ice cream cones in front of a Loblolly Creamery store window. The window has the words "LOBLOLLY CREAMERY" stenciled on it in white text with a multicolored 3D effect. The words "SCOOPS CONES SUNDAES SHAKES MACARONS AND MORE" are stenciled in smaller blue text along the bottom of the window. The hand on the left holds an ice cream cone with two scoops of a white ice cream with chocolate chips. The hand on the right has two scoops of a pink ice cream.
Loblolly Creamery founder Sally Mengel's lessons for success include knowing the numbers, partnering with other businesses, and recognizing when an idea isn’t working. — Loblolly Creamery

With flavors like Arkansas Mud and Little Rocky Road, Loblolly Creamery offers small-batch, made-from-scratch ice cream, as well as a variety of sweet treats through its two shops, a solar-powered truck, and grocery stores around Arkansas. The company’s name is a playful reflection of its Arkansas roots, where the loblolly is the state tree. “We try to keep it fun,” said Sally Mengel, Owner and Founder.

At the same time, Mengel has learned quite a bit about building and sustaining a business since opening Loblolly in 2011. Here are six top lessons:

Know your numbers

It’s great to be passionate about your business, Mengel said. Yet a solid understanding of its financial performance is key to success, she added. “Knowing your numbers means you’re able to stay on top of your costs, compare performance over time, identify sales trends and opportunities, understand where you are losing money, and make decisions that maximize profitability,” she said.

Leverage no- or low-cost resources

Mengel studied anthropology and global health in college, with a goal of going into public health. Instead, of course, she became a business owner. To be as effective as she can in her role, she leverages low- and no-cost learning opportunities, such as classes through a local college. “There are so many free resources for small businesses,” she said. Mengel also connects with owners of other businesses, particularly women-owned and food service companies, to share information and support each other.

Partner with other businesses

“Collaborating with other businesses is such a good way to promote and grow your customer base,” Mengel said. During past Thanksgivings, Loblolly Creamery partnered with a pie shop to promote pie a la mode. At times, a portion of sales from a particular flavor will be dedicated to a local nonprofit. Loblolly has also welcomed other businesses to host tables in front of its shops. “We’re a neighborhood ice cream shop and these bring people in,” she added.

Even when ideas don’t prove viable, however, examining them has value.

Be open to opportunities

These can come from any direction. In Loblolly’s case, one came from their homemade waffle cones. Because the hole at bottom could allow melting ice cream to leak out, Mengel and her team began placing a marshmallow in the hole. “That spiraled into a product: handcrafted marshmallows,” she said. The marshmallows complement the ice cream and offer a product line that’s often more popular in colder months, when ice cream sales tend to slow.

During COVID, when fewer people were going out, Loblolly’s wholesale division grew, along with the spike in grocery sales. “We were able to pivot and focus on our packaged ice cream sales,” she said.

Keep learning

While the lessons critical to sustaining a successful business may change, they don’t end, Mengel said. Early in Loblolly’s life, her team’s focus was on building the brand. Now attention has shifted to ways to replicate Loblolly and boost efficiency, all while maintaining the brand, she said. For instance, are there systems that would make the kitchen more efficient? If so, could the company afford them? How would any moves impact the Loblolly brand? “As we grow, it’s like we move to a different chapter in the business’s story,” she added.

Know when an idea isn't working

While it’s important to be open to opportunities, it’s just as critical to recognize that not all will work out. When a large membership store opened near Loblolly’s shops, the company became a vendor and created a two-pint box of ice cream for the retailer. It soon became clear, however, that Loblolly would need a bigger infrastructure and different business model to produce at the output required to maintain the partnership. “We are a small-batch ice cream company and we realized that it didn't fit our brand to try to produce at that level,” Mengel said.

Even when ideas don’t prove viable, however, examining them has value. “We may explore a partnership, new retail opportunity or new product that doesn't happen, but we have built a new relationship or learned from the experience,” Mengel said.

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