Small Business Pivots: How an Ice Cream Shop Weathered and Survived 2020

These are turbulent times in business, especially for small independent businesses. Under the weight of this pandemic, it’s a sink-or-swim situation. Companies are flexing their creativity and colouring outside the lines in an all-out effort to survive. Every minute for these businesses, there are critical decisions to be made, pivots and constant course corrections, often without the full picture. There’s no time to think, only act. Now, more than ever, there’s an urgency to cast away what doesn’t serve the survival of a business and make tough choices. This is a story about how one unlikely ice cream shop has kept its head above the cream.

Be open to changing the plan.

In December of 2016, in less-than-prime ice cream weather, friends Alex Zavaleta and Meryl Hillerson opened Charm School Social Club, an ice cream parlour in Richmond, VA. After a successful run of ice cream pop-ups at local punk shows in the Bay Area, the big plan was to set up shop in San Francisco, where Alex, a designer from the vinyl toy industry,
turned ice cream hobbyist and Meryl, a pastry chef, lived. However, after visiting Richmond for a wedding, a friend convinced Alex to consider opening up a shop in Richmond instead, and off they went. Charm School opened, doling out gourmet ice cream with an emphasis on community. Their large 3,000 sq ft space allowed them the freedom to do more of what matters to them. From launching Charm School to band collaborations with Saves the Day, Napalm Death and punk heroes Descendents to art shows with up-and-coming local artists, the space became a community hang-out spot. These events served to carve out their place in the community and align their business ethics and values to their brand. Everything was going great until March 2020.

You don’t have to run your business like everybody else.

Ice cream shops typically close for the winter, re-emerging in the spring when the greater consciousness for ice cream returns. For Alex and Charm School, the business has always run differently to others in their industry. Being different has been an advantage in the past and proved vital in enduring this past year. They usually stay open through the winter, understanding there will be a loss in December and January. They’d maintain a trained and committed staff and could recoup in the spring. Well, of course, that didn’t happen. On March 17th, 2020, they closed down and reassessed. As Alex points out, they couldn’t safely serve ice cream as they used to, but they had hundreds of big tubs ready to go in preparation for the season. They hand-scooped their entire inventory into pints, which they sold exclusively. In previous years, pints were an afterthought, nice to have, but most of their business and profits came from single-scoop sales. As other shops opened with the warmer weather, Charm School hesitated. After an attempt on National Ice Cream Day, it quickly became apparent that adhering to health regulations couldn’t be done. With the safety of everyone in mind, they returned to what was working: pints.

The team behind Charm School is not afraid of being different, and that showed when they chose to keep their doors closed to the public while their competition returned to “normal.” It showed when they attended and graduated from the 124th & 126th annual Penn State Ice Cream Course – an absolute must for anybody in the industry who loves their craft and takes it seriously. They quickly discovered their approach was going to be different, and that stems from their business ethics. Alex says Charm School is proof positive that you don’t have to run your business like everybody else, and nothing is stopping you from changing your methods or plan.

If something’s not working, let it go.

A large part of their success lies in their agility, adaptability and willingness to change. Early on, Charm School offered milkshakes. Making them was laborious, and the clean-up was a pain. One day, Meryl turned to Alex and said, “I wish we didn’t have to make milkshakes.” At that moment, Alex printed a sign that read “sold out,” slapped it over the menu board and effectively eliminated the product from their offerings. The milkshake model didn’t make sense from a business perspective. Alex quickly weighed the costs in labor and time with profitability, and the value just wasn’t there. The “milkshake moment” embodies a business mindset that has carried them throughout this pandemic. If something’s not working, let it go. For Charm School, the milkshake moment encapsulates what small businesses have to do, especially during the pandemic, to survive; change course, try new things, lean into what works, and let go of the rest.

As a self-described outsider and black sheep of the ice cream industry, Alex says, “it was okay to run things differently than other industries, and differently than how you’ve traditionally done them because these are not normal times.” As a result, they’ve been able to assess the ever-changing situation, un-tethered to rigid plans or limiting beliefs of how things need to be and take the necessary risks to keep doing what they love.

Check them out on Instagram, and if you’re in the Richmond VA area, invest in some gift cards and count down the days until the scoop returns!

Title Photo by Chris Bavaria, courtesy of Charm School