Being subversive can sometimes make you successful.
This is the twisted tale of how a musician in Philadelphia "tired of living in a van" pivoted to make ice cream with bizarre flavors. Pete Angevine now owns a half dozen ice cream stores and employs over 50 people. Revenues in 2018 topped $1 million, he says.
"Like everyone else with a heart and a mouth, I love ice cream," says Angevine, owner of Little Baby's Ice Cream.
Angevine is 35 years old, tall and lanky, dressed on the day of our interview in a multi-colored shirt--with matching socks--and slacks. He started Little Baby's Ice Cream in 2011 in Philadelphia, selling handmade, small batch "super premium ice cream," with flavors that include Chipotle Chocolate, Cucumber Dill, and Buttered Popcorn. Angevine makes them "Philadelphia style," meaning no eggs, and the cream comes from grass fed Pennsylvania cows. Nearly half the menu is vegan ice cream made from coconut cream and sweetened with agave, and there's even an ice cream infused with CBD, a cannabis extract that contains (virtually) no THC. "One hundred percent legal," says Angevine.
He spent his early adult years playing music and eventually got a "regular" job with a low salary working at a community arts program. Somewhere along the line, as the clock was ticking away, Angevine thought he might need to make some actual money. "It was a bit of a 24-year-old's existential crisis," he says.
Then he received a Cuisinart from his future mother-in-law, and he started experimenting with ice cream. He saw it as a blank canvas. "Ice cream is something that really brings people together, and it makes people happy," Angevine says, "it's the perfect platform to subvert."
He realized that companies like Haagen Dazs already knew how to make great ice cream, so what could he do differently?
"One night I couldn't sleep," he says. Angevine went down to the kitchen to play with ice cream in the Cuisinart. "I was making an Earl Grey base, and I was like, 'What else could I throw in here?'" As a gag, he squirted some Sriracha hot sauce over the Earl Grey base. "I threw it in the freezer, and I woke up the next day, and it was absolutely delicious and totally bizarre, and unlike anything I had ever tasted."
Another local musician named Martin Brown just happened to be playing around with ice cream at the same time. The two men discovered their shared passion and decided to team up. Angevine says he used $11,000 he'd inherited from his late mother to start a business, calling it Little Baby's, a name he admits they just made up. "Little Baby's doesn't mean anything, it just felt right."
By the spring of 2011, they were selling their offbeat ice cream at local art festivals and block parties, using a tricycle dubbed "Flavor Blaster One." Their ice cream proved such a success, Angevine says, "we very immediately realized that there was a much bigger audience for what we were doing than that."
Angevine decided to quit his job with the community arts program and go "all in" on Little Baby's Ice Cream. He and Brown raised $150,000 from friends and family and bought their first commercial equipment. Their first store opened in the Fish Town neighborhood of Philadelphia near a place called Pizza Brain, "which bills itself as a pizza restaurant, as well as the world's first and only pizza memorabilia museum."
First year sales were only $27,000.
That all changed in 2012. As subversive as Angevine's ice cream was, nothing proved as weird as a YouTube video he made that year for $3,500 with a friend from high school called, "This is a Special Time. " In the video, someone seemingly covered in ice cream (it's actually marshmallow fluff) scoops "ice cream" from the top of their head and eats it. The "model" has wide, almost alien-like eyes. It's freaky.
"It was honestly not even intended to be a commercial of any sort," says Angevine. "It was really just a funny little piece of video art." He figured a hundred people would see it. Within 48 hours, the video had 2 million views, and there was an immediate impact on sales. "At the time, the only phone number associated with the company was my cellphone, and that was a bad idea," he laughs.
Eight years later, the video has been viewed over 14 million times.
In hindsight, Angevine says he probably should have tried to raise more than $150,000 to give him more breathing room in the beginning, though all of his investors have been paid back. He is honest about the challenges learning to become a businessman.
"I approach this as an art project, right? As something that's kind of expressive," says this ice cream entrepreneur. "Translating it all into being a functional business that has employees and pays taxes and needs to pay the rent and have revenue and bookkeeping and all of that, it's genuinely not how we initially approached it." To help, he brought in two outside partners who invested $500,000 and have helped grow the company.
Even so, Little Baby's Ice Cream is maintaining its strange, funny, quirky brand. It teamed up with a local school to launch a pint of ice cream into space. "It's really validating and exciting to have so many folks that have bought into what we're doing," Angevine says. Recently a man asked the company to help him set up an extravagant plan at one of its stores so he could pop the question to his girlfriend. "Their first date was at a Little Baby's a few years ago, and that's really cool."
Pete Angevine continues to experiment, and to subvert. He doesn't always succeed. "We tried to make a champagne and Lucky Charms flavor which was repulsive."
More from Strange Success: How this dad's hairy back made him a millionaire
Like this story? Check out the Strange Success podcast.