23-year-old's food businesses bring in $650,000 a year: 'I’m a brown kid with tattoos and no college education, and I’m doing it'

How I turned my love of 'real fruit' ice cream into $650K in sales
How I turned my love of 'real fruit' ice cream into $650K in sales

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Nico Vergara worked at Zeds Real Fruit Ice Cream before launching his business. It has also been updated to remove an earlier reference to Vergara taking a trip to New Zealand.]

Nico Vergara is 23 years old. His businesses brought in $650,000 last year, he says. And it all started with a small New Zealand-style "real fruit" ice cream cart in Portland, Oregon.

To make the dessert, you use a specialized blender that mixes an ice cream base together with fruit poured into the top. Vergara helped manage a business, Zed's Real Fruit Ice Cream, that used the machine before starting his own in 2021.

Today, Nico's Ice Cream includes two brick-and-mortar locations in Portland and pints sold in about 60 grocery stores across Oregon and Washington.

"It's funny. I mean, I'm not a huge sweets guy," Vergara, 23, tells CNBC Make It, admitting that he'd previously "never been a huge fan" of ice cream. "[But] when I ate New Zealand-style, it's light, airy, fruity."

Nico Vergara, CEO and founder of Nico's Ice Cream.
CNBC Make It

Bringing his vision to life meant emptying his bank account: Vergara says he started his company with all $25,000 of his life savings, from investments in stocks like Apple and Amazon, and $10,000 from an uncle.

Within a year, one ice cream cart became two brick-and-mortar locations, a Mexican restaurant and a cafe that closed almost as quickly as it opened. In 2022, the ventures brought in a combined $650,000 in sales, Vergara says.

Most of that revenue — $473,000 — came solely from Nico's Ice Cream.

Here's how.

Bringing a taste of New Zealand to the U.S.

Many teenagers don't have thousands of dollars in savings. Vergara credits his mother, who worked as a private investigator, for introducing him to investing at a young age.

"My mom taught me a lot about money," he says. "And one of the things that she taught me about was investing. So when I was 14, 15 years old, she had me start investing into stocks and having me do my own research."

Before starting Nico's Ice Cream, Vergara also worked in the service industry — studying how to navigate payrolls, negotiate leasing contracts and obtain equipment for brick-and-mortar shops.

One piece of equipment was particularly important: the ice cream blender, made by a Hope, New Zealand-based company called Little Jem. Vergara spent $11,000 on the machine, which took three months to go through customs and ship to the Portland airport, he says.

Vergara, working at one of his two Nico's Ice Cream locations.
CNBC Make It

With his money and equipment in order, he crafted a three-year business plan:

  • Year One: Open a cart and sell ice cream in north Portland.
  • Year Two: Buy another custom cart and ice cream machine.
  • Year Three: Open a brick-and-mortar store somewhere in Portland.

That plan went out the window when his cart's sales exceeded expectations, Vergara says. Three months in, he expanded to his first brick-and-mortar store. Exactly a year later, he opened a second one, purchasing another Little Jem ice cream machine to power it.

Wanting to build on the momentum, Vergara used more than $100,000 of his profits to open a Mexican restaurant called Nico's Cantina and a cafe called Nico's Coffee.

The coffee shop closed its doors after suffering a break-in, struggling with its landlord and bringing in only $20,000 in revenue last year, he says. The restaurant — which brought in $157,000, he adds — still exists today.

Vergara's current focus is opening a third ice cream store this fall, ideally outside Oregon. It won't be easy, he says, citing the coffee shop's failure.

"There's passion and love for what I wanted to do," he says. "In my opinion, if you think about it too much, you're going to scare yourself out of a situation."

His advice for anyone else who's full of entrepreneurial ambition: Take the leap.

"I'm a brown kid with tattoos and no college education, and I'm doing it," Vergara says. "And, you know, if I can do it, genuinely, anybody can do it."

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