THERE can’t be too many things more mundane than selling ice-creams – until you buy one from Anton Fester – the man who’s literally thrown the fun back into getting an ice-cream.
Where else do get your ice-cream chucked, juggled or frisbeed between attendants before it’s served up to you with smile, or where staff chime a gong and bow to you when you give them a tip? Or where on Tuesdays you get to play rock, paper, scissors with staff for the chance at a 20% discount if you win? At Ice Cream Ninjas, is where.
For Fester, the owner of Ice Cream Ninjas, it’s all about the fun.
“I reckon that going for an ice-cream is a celebrational treat, but at most places all it is a transaction,” he says.
Last year he was a regional runner-up in the Small Enterprise Development Agency’s (Seda) Small Business Stars awards, where he won R50 000 worth in business support. The year before he collected two others – a 567 Small Business Award and FNB social media award.
“I remember when I was in Korea and I was haggling with some guy over the price of something… and he finally said ‘let’s play rock, paper, scissors – if you win you get your price and if I win I get my price’… and we battled and I defeated him. And I’ll never forget that feeling,” explains Fester.
It was while he was a marketing manager in British American Tobacco, with above-the-line marketing of cigarettes had been outlawed, that the one-time cricket coach cut his teeth in cutting edge marketing techniques.
Points out Fester: “Everything was based on the experience that you gave people”.
Three years ago he took the decision to go into business when the tobacco company was in the process of restructuring.
At first he considered buying a franchised outlet, but he soon realised that many of the best sites had already been taken and that if he were to become a franchisee he would have to adhere to the strict rules laid down by the franchisor, which would stifle his creativity.
He then thought of opening his own business. But then he would be up against big names.
Then he remembered a New York ice-cream parlour in Times Square that he once visited where the staff would sing to customers that gave tips. The company was looking to expand.
He could buy a master license for the company, he thought, but this would set him aside $2 million for a brand South Africans were unfamiliar with. Most importantly he’d be back to square one – having to abide by franchisor’s rules and not be able to craft his own.
Pursuing the ice-cream idea he noticed that there were a number of other businesses in the US that mashed ice-creams and he realised that in the same way that one can’t copy protect frame-grilling a hamburger or deep-frying chips, there is no patent on mashing ice-cream.
Then using the internet he researched different ways that ice-creams are being sold – incorporating flipping, juggling, mashing and even throwing into the mix before finalising his business model.
All the time he bounced ideas of his BAT colleagues, who allowed him six months to work on his idea, while through the Young Presidents’ Organisation he got in touch with a top franchisor for some tips.
At the end of 2010, one month after leaving his job, he opened the business in a kiosk in Tygervalley Centre mall, in time for the summer holidays. Sales took off. But there was a hitch.
The centre was undergoing a revamp and made a decision to do away with kiosks. The management offered him a store instead, but the store format did not suit the business, and made it more difficult to attract customers.
“Our whole dynamic of being out in the open and throwing ice-creams was completely taken away because we were in this long thin shop, there was a glass between us and our customers; we couldn’t speak to them,” he said.
Rent was also a problem and he was close to R80 000 down before he even sold an ice-cream. Soon he was soon forced to close the store.
But by this time he had also started running events, doing 21st parties, weddings, product launches and wine auctions, and these began to take off, so much so that in June his sales were about three to four times that of sales in the same month last year.
“Some people want to go and want to go and they really want to make it work, but there comes a time when you have to say ‘this isn’t working, I need to try something else’,” he points out, adding that the local chocoholics weren’t too pleased when he closed the store.
Since then he’s done work with some of the country’s top corporates, teaming up with many big names to help attract conference delegates to the corporate’s branded stand.
With events he only needs to turn to the resources when he has a specific event.
This year he also franchised out his remaining outlet in Somerset Mall, to a former employee Brian Mawoneke in order to focus more on the events side.
Fester says his biggest challenge has been to find the right locations to train staff. Getting newbies to work in the business’s store helps and he’s also looking to get involved in more food markets in Johannesburg where he has an events team.
While he was able to use his retrenchment package to finance his business, he believes the single biggest hurdle to getting more small businesses off the ground is access to finance.
Another gripe of his is that South Africans aren’t innovative enough, he believes more should people take enough advantage of looking overseas at various business ideas and the feasibility of introducing them in South Africa.
But it’s the fun he has with ice-creams that he most likes to talk about, like the time at a 21st party in Stellenbosch where he attempted to see how high he could throw an ice-cream and still catch it.
“We had all these guys around us baying for us to drop the ice-cream. So I was throwing it pretty high and I dropped one. And they were like ‘aah he’s finally dropped it’. ‘Okay cool guys’ (I said) and made another one and threw it even higher… and it went high up in the air and I caught that one.”
Fester claims the furthest he’s thrown an ice-cream and caught it – in a small 10cm-wide tub – is 30m, no easy feat.
“People go ‘what happens if it drops?’ Then it drops. I would much rather drop an ice-cream and make another one, than not throw an ice-cream. To me the value of throwing an ice-cream far exceeds the two to five percent wastage that you get from dropping it,” he says.
For Fester his biggest asset is the fun experience that he has built around buying an ice-cream.
“I reckon that if you can make someone smile when they come into the shop or when they interact with you, you have already positioned yourself in the top five businesses out there, because many businesses don’t care if you smile.”
This interview originally appeared in Business Day on 29 July 2013: http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/2013/07/29/encouraging-one-to-play-with-ones-food
Stephen Timm is a