The Pivot: Natasha Case, Co-Founder and CEO of Coolhaus
Natasha Case had a nightmare just the other night — her first in years. “I was making Dirty Mint Chip ice cream with the First Lady at the White House but I forgot the recipe and half of the ingredients,” says Case, laughing both at the ridiculousness of the dream, but also the palpable feelings of anxiety. See, Case, the co-founder of hip ice cream truck-turned-full-fledged-sweet-tooth enterprise, Coolhaus, is actually headed to D.C. this Fourth of July to make ice cream with POTUS, FLOTUS, and for hundreds to military servicemen and women. Nerves are understandable. (Not to mention, she is a judge on the Food Network’s “Chopped” tonight. Talk about pressure!) “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, God. Ice cream nightmares again?’”
It feels like just yesterday that Case sold her first ice cream sandwich at Coachella 2009. “It’s all a blur,” says the Los Angeles native, who launched Coolhaus with co-founder Freya Estreller while working in architecture at Walt Disney Imagineering. The inspiration for Coolhaus was born while Case was delving into the concept of “Farchitecture” (aka food architecture) in her UCLA masters’ program. She learned that design could enhance a person’s dining experience and, in turn, food could bring awareness to architecture in design. Sure, she thought, food was fun—but Case was on track to be an architect, a life-long dream. Yet she couldn’t shake this ice cream thing. After spending nights elbow-deep in mixing bowls and chilly concoctions, she got the idea to build sandwiches named after famous architects. Snickerdoodle cookies sandwiching strawberry ice cream was dubbed the “Frank Berry” after Frank Gehry. “Mintimialism” is a sweet shout out to minimalist design style and is a perfect combination of double chocolate chip cookies and Dirty Mint Chip ice cream.
The duo then found a beat up postal truck on Craigslist, threw on some chrome rims and added a sound system. With a few gallons of the cold stuff, Case and Estreller drove out to the desert music festival. The rest is delicious history. “On one hand, 2009 seems so long ago. But on the other hand, it feels like just the beginning of something so much bigger.”
Big is an understatement. Coolhaus has grown from one truck and a half-dozen frosty fast treats to being sold in nearly 4,000 supermarkets across the U.S.—including Whole Foods, Safeway, and Kroger. And handmade sammies were just the start. Now sweet-seekers can whip up their own desserts at home thanks to last year’s cookbook, or try Coolhaus’ variety of pints, ice cream bars, cookies and a forthcoming candy bar. Millennials sold on the creativity and freshness (all-natural, handmade and organic whenever possible) can’t get enough. “They feel like there’s an authentic story that you want to get behind,” says Case. “People feel they can relate to my career pivot like ‘Oh, that’s something that I would want to do’ or ‘I know someone who did that.’” It is estimated that Coolhaus will do about $5 million in wholesale dollars this year alone. That’s one hell of an upgrade from the $5 festival fare.
So how did they do it? “Honestly, the vision book we drafted when we first started was the thing that was most instrumental in getting me to realize that this is a brand, this is a lifestyle—not just a food truck company.”
Early on, Case and Estreller met with investor Bobby Margolis (the man behind Target’s Cherokee jeans) who forced them to think beyond the trendy food truck. Dealing with repair costs, city zoning and parking laws, plus unpredictable staffing issues made food trucks a risky investment. He suggested creating a vision book to jot down all of the directions they wanted their company to grow in.
In addition to putting pen to paper when conceptualizing a new venture, Case strongly urges testing the waters. “If you’re going to pivot, there’s a lot you can really do to grow [a business] on the side before you dive in,” she says. “Bring your product to a farmer’s market or start an e-commerce business. You don’t have to say, “Okay, this is it. I’m quitting my corporate job on day one of the new business.”
And don’t worry, you don’t have to ditch your former life altogether. “It’s not like you’re rejecting your training and your other career,” insists Case. “It can still come into play.” A prime example is Case still designs all of the marketing materials, packaging and assets making full use of her top-tier degrees and love of design. One has to only look at the website’s nifty graph-paper background to see her underlying passion. “Your original career or training is always going to be helpful. You can use it to your advantage and get a fresh look at your new industry.”
So about that nightmare. Is she still having night sweats at the thought of whipping up ice cream with the First Lady? “I’m living the dream,” says Case. And you bet, she’s counted and recounted all the ingredients she’ll need to serve up 2,000 ice cream bars on the South Lawn. “This is really what I’ve been working for. It’s what I live for.”
Learn more about Natasha Case and other women ice cream makers here!
Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images