Ice Cream Riot’s Jim McNutt Talks Business
Posted on July 30, 2014
What happens when a regular guy from Philly opens a killer ice cream shop in Denver? He gets a solid set of regulars and an interview proposition by yours truly. As a new found addict of Ice Cream Riot and its nothing-short-of-awesome variety of ice cream flavors, I wanted to see what made this place so good and get some firsthand business advice from the ice cream master himself, Jim McNutt.
Rachael Moyte: How long have you lived in Denver?
Jim McNutt: Two years. Well, almost two and a half.
RM: What made you want to open up an ice cream shop here?
JM: It was really necessity; it’s not some lifelong dream of mine or anything. I’m a very honest person. I just worked in ice cream for a very, very long time and I just knew how to do it. So when life came to a point where I wanted to open a business, it just seemed like the natural step.
I mean, I love ice cream and I just wanted to open a business. I was in my thirties, had gotten laid off and decided I was done working for other people. I know the ice cream business, I make good ice cream so I’m just gonna sell it.
RM: Well, I’M very happy that you did that! So, what brought you to East Colfax? How did you choose your location?
JM: Oh, I live here. I live right off Colfax.
RM: So, choosing a location was easy? Or were there other areas that you were looking into?
JM: No, it was really mainly this area because there were already major ice cream shops in the neighborhoods where I would want to put one. So that just naturally ruled them out. I’m not trying to start ice cream wars here. I live here and there are no ice cream shops on East Colfax, so I wanted to put one here. I changed that.
RM: How do you decide what flavors to make?
JM: Just randomly. I have no method. Like, Cheddar Goldfish is a perfect example. I was just down at the store and saw that and thought I’d throw some in the ice cream and give it a shot.
I think about junk food a lot, like Pop Tarts. My Cherry Pop Tart was really popular and I mean, who doesn’t want Pop Tarts ice cream? You know what I mean? Well, I guess some people don’t, but a lot of people do.
I just don’t get too deep into it. My method is the opposite of trying too hard. I don’t like to think about complex flavors and stuff. I’m not a foodie so I don’t think like a foodie. I mean, I want Whoppers ice cream, you know? I want cereal ice cream because I love cereal. That’s my approach, really.
RM: Did you have any expectations going into the business or was it sort of “I’m just going to give this my best shot”?
JM: Oh, I definitely had expectations because I’ve worked in ice cream since the 90’s. But back then it was ice cream trucks. An ice cream shop is a different animal. It’s foodservice, but it’s not a restaurant. Ice cream is ice cream, you know?
Since people know that the margin can be lacking if you’re trying to open a restaurant, it’s like, why would you open one? I knew ice cream well enough to know that it’s not the worst business to be in if you’re going to be in foodservice.
RM: What would you say to somebody wanting to open up their own ice cream shop?
JM: Do it. But, don’t do light ice cream. There’s a way to make a lot more money off of ice cream, but it’s skimpy ice cream. I put a lot of stuff in my ice cream. You’ve had my ice cream; I load it with a lot of stuff, which I think is better. You can be successful no matter what, but make good ice cream. Don’t skimp on ingredients.
My whole goal with everything was to keep this [Ice Cream Riot] as simple as possible because I don’t want the product to suffer. I mean, I would want to buy my ice cream. I’ve tried other peoples’ ice cream and man, I would want to buy mine. Take my blackberry ice cream for example. I put A LOT of blackberries in there and blackberries aren’t the cheapest things on earth. But when you see people’s faces light up when they take a sample, it’s worth it.
So that would be my advice. Oh, and be ready to get asked a lot of questions about gluten-free ice cream.
RM: What are some challenges that you’ve had since opening day and how have you overcome them?
JM: The biggest challenges are the fact that I run the place alone right now and growing it. Expanding it outside of here. I mean, I’m here every second the store is open and there are things that need to get done during store hours. You know, how do I find time to go out and get my ice cream into stores and be the sales guy? That right there is a challenge.
It’s my own fault since I’m doing it alone, but that won’t last forever.
RM: How and when did you realize there was a market for Philadelphia water ice here? And aside from me, how have Denver residents reacted to it?
JM: Water ice is interesting to talk about because I had no idea there was a market for it. Now I do, but I had no idea because it’s not out here. Its everywhere in Philly. We grew up with this stuff.
My whole thing was “I’m just going to sell water ice and see what happens”. I don’t know how you can’t like it and the main thing is to just get people to try it and they’ll like it. I’ve sold a bunch of it and it’s been successful. I think if I had just opened up a water ice shop, I don’t know if it would have been. But because it’s in addition to ice cream, people come in for the ice cream and then go “hey, what are these?”
I have to explain that its not sorbet, which is what everybody thinks it is. It’s water ice and people like it. I’m from Philly and people love that the water ice is authentic and made by somebody from there.
Plus, it’s dairy free and vegans have eight options in here.
RM: Where did the name “Ice Cream Riot” come from?
JM: I thought about tons of names, but I wanted to call it something fun. I just thought the idea of an ice cream riot was funny. I thought of the name and first Googled it to see if it existed and it didn’t. Then I was looking at pictures and came across this picture of an ice cream riot from a Simpsons episode. That was what I would imagine if I were to think of an ice cream riot.
Plus, I thought it would fit with this kind of place. It wouldn’t fit if I was located in a suburban area. I put my personality in this joint and it just works for this place and East Colfax. It’s just fun.
RM: How did you choose your artwork?
JM: It’s a very old school East Coast thing to just have your restaurant covered in framed pictures. That’s just the décor and that’s a thing from back home. I’ve always liked it and I saw it a lot as a kid back in the 80’s. You’d see it all the time.
So when I found this place, I had these big white walls. I thought “how am I going to decorate this place?” and I just loved the idea of having pictures of ice cream related stuff everywhere. Not the corny pictures either. I wanted cool ones.
I just put my personality into this joint. Celebrities eating ice cream, I love animals so animals eating ice cream. It gives people something to look at while they’re here. People can stand in line and have something to look at or they can stare at the floor. People get their ice cream and by the time they’re done looking at the pictures, they’re done with their ice cream and that’s their experience here. They like it. I mean, who thought I’d find a picture of Kurt Cobain eating a popsicle?
So, there you have it. If you are considering an ice cream business, take some helpful advice from Jim McNutt. And if you ever find yourself in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, CO, do yourself a favor and stop by Ice Cream Riot at 1238 E. Colfax Ave. Tell him Rachael of the FSW crew sent you.