Entrepreneurs

This 30-year-old started with a homemade boozy ice cream recipe—now she's bringing in millions

Last year, videos of ice cream company Tipsy Scoop crafting pints of its alcohol-infused desserts, named for cocktails like "vanilla bean bourbon," went viral on Facebook.

"One of our videos got like 7 million views in five days, something crazy like that," 30-year-old Tipsy Scoop founder Melissa Tavss tells CNBC Make It.

Not long after, Tavss was working in her small office at the company's production facility in East Harlem in New York City, when she and her two employees heard a buzz at the door. They assumed it was a delivery person, coming to drop something off at the brand's industrial space, which sits without any signage or storefront on 113th Street and Park Avenue under a train track.

So when Tavss answered, she was shocked to find customers. They had seen the videos and came to try some of Tipsy Scoop's boozy ice cream themselves.

"They looked as confused as we were," Tavss laughs. "They were showing up thinking it was an ice cream shop." Instead, they found what she calls a "kind of a scary looking warehouse."

At that time, Tipsy Scoop, which makes ice cream with 5 percent alcohol by volume (two scoops is like a light beer), was selling its product on the company's website, at a couple of retailers, like Whole Foods, and via catering events — but there was no ice cream shop, and Tavss had no plans to open one.

Tipsy Scoop going viral changed all that.

A post shared by Tipsy Scoop (@tipsyscoop) on

First, customers showed up at her commercial kitchen in small numbers. But then, it became groups of 10. "It wasn't stopping," Tavss explains.

So she sold the visitors pints of ice cream from the warehouse — sometimes up to $75 worth — and realized she needed to start looking for a brick-and-mortar location to sell scoops.

In May of 2017, she opened her 300-foot store in Manhattan's Kips Bay neighborhood to a flood of customers. Bouncers checked IDs to make sure customers were over 21. (The bouncers are still there now, on weekends.)

In the first month of opening, "We did more [business] than we anticipated for the rest of the year," Tavss explains. Now, Tavss has 13 employees and expects to see about $2 million in sales this year.

A post shared by Tipsy Scoop (@tipsyscoop) on

#Foodporn indeed

The viral videos showed Tavss the importance of investing in social media. It is the main marketing strategy for the business.

"Some older people come to the store and they say 'You should really do some marketing!' and we just kind of laugh," she jokes. "We're like, 'We do a lot on social media.'"

In the restaurant business, social media matters. The influence of Instagram, in particular, continues to grow, as the platform now boasts 800 million monthly active users — up by another 100 million since just April of this year. The hashtag #Foodporn has been used on Instagram over 130 million times, and those posts can even impact what people eat, according to MIT's Technology Review.

You'll find #Foodporn written on flags that adorn ice cream bowls at Tipsy Scoop, along with other similar hashtags like #Foodiegram. In the two weeks after opening, the tiny store went through 10,000 flags (which until a few weeks ago, Tavss' mom was hot-gluing together by hand. Now, employees do it).

"We've seen some people being really crazy in terms of trying to get the best Instagram photo," Tavss says, mentioning a customer who threw his bowl of ice cream in the air to get his shot. "The picture turned out great, but I don't know if he ended up eating the ice cream."

Instagram is even driving restaurants to change their physical appearance and add photogenic details like neon signs. In Tipsy Scoop's store, you'll find a neon ice cream cone, seen again and again under #TipsyScoop, which has over 4,500 posts.

"Social media and Instagram is just huge for food," Tavss explains. "People are very visual, and everybody who comes in here is taking a picture of their ice cream. Sometimes I'm like, 'Are you even going to eat it?'"

She adds that of course, the food needs to taste good too. For fall, the store is offering flavors like "spiked spiced pumpkin pie," "salted caramel apple brandy," and "candy corn vodka martini," along with year round favorites like "chocolate stout and pretzel."

Tipsy Scoop has nearly 30,000 followers on Facebook and almost 44,000 on Instagram. While other employees help with posting pictures, Tavss says she still does much of it herself. Tipsy Scoop has also garnered a wider reach through media coverage from the likes of Buzzfeed and Thrillist, both of which posted videos on their Facebook pages.

"The response to [those] viral videos on Facebook has been the most overwhelming," says Tavss. Every time a new video is posted, "it gets more than a million views in the first day, it's like our emails are flooded, the orders are flooded."

A legacy of ice cream

Tipsy Scoop founder Melissa Tavss
CNBC
Tipsy Scoop founder Melissa Tavss

Ice cream is in Tavss' blood: Her great grandfather was the president of the Ice Cream Alliance trade association in Great Britain. But the idea for Tipsy Scoop first began while Tavss was in business school at New York University. She started making ice cream in her kitchen with an old-school Cuisinart ice cream maker in 2013. Since homemade ice cream can get too icy and crunchy, some recipes call for dash of alcohol (which doesn't freeze) to make them creamier.

Then she thought: "How cool would this be if it could hold an alcohol content?" Tavss says. In a previous job doing marketing for alcohol brands, she'd seen a rising popularity with incorporating booze in foods.

"I started just bringing over recipes to my friend's house in Tupperware," she says, experimenting with methods to freeze the alcohol and early flavors like dark chocolate whiskey salted caramel.

It was a hit, so she sought help from a recipe developer in January of 2014 to formulate a base that could be changed to create a variety of flavors. A few months later, she started producing her product in a rented space at a kitchen incubator and launched Tipsy Scoop.

"I started part-time as kind of a hobby more than anything, and did catering and events for friends' weddings," Tavss says. "That really picked up. We got a few ice cream push carts, and we were like wheeling them all over the city doing events."

A post shared by Tipsy Scoop (@tipsyscoop) on

The catering business supplied enough money (along with Tavss' personal savings) to get the company up and running. They moved from the incubator space to the kitchen in East Harlem and started selling pints online (a 4-pint pack is $48) and in retailers like Whole Foods, Morton Williams and Gristedes (where it's scanned like beer or wine because of drinking age laws), before opening the shop.

And Tavss isn't stopping. She hopes to sell to more grocery chains, to continue catering events and to open new stores.

At least for Tavss, brick-and-mortar retail is alive and well: "The shop has really blown away our expectations."

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