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The Ice Cream Maker
By Subir Chowdhury
Random House Subir Chowdhury
All right reserved. ISBN: 0385514786
A Bucket of Ice Water
It was a Monday afternoon in May when my life changed forever.
I was working away at my job as the Plant Manager for Dairy Cream, a regional ice cream company, when Reggie, one of our sales reps, came breezing through the door an hour earlier than I expected. He had a big appointment with Natural Foods, the booming national food chain that has had a branch here in town for ten years or so. I thought that perhaps he hadn't made his sales call yet, until he shook his head, and with an easy-going shrug, gave me a "thumbs down" signal. He'd failed again to sell even a half-pint to Natural Foods. "Well get 'em next time," he said nonchalantly, with the faith of a Cubs fan.
It was no skin off his nose, I could tell. After all, no one really expected him to make the sale. We'd been trying for years. In fact, he seemed relieved. Going down there had become an annual chore I had made him perform, and he had completed it. It was one less thing he had to do.
Only this year I had really been counting on making that sale. We'd come up with three new flavors using natural ingredients that I thought would knock their socks off. That was the way we'd originally made a name for ourselves-with radical new flavors that had gotten us not only local publicity and a surge in sales, but national attention. But my new flavors strategy seemed to have fizzled with Natural Foods.
What was worrying me most was something I couldn't tell Reggie or anyone else. Our boss and founder, Malcolm Jones, had recently expressed his disappointment to me at our lack of sales growth. Our profit margins were shrinking. Malcolm had told me if things didn't get better soon, he would have to make some serious changes. One solution, he said, would be to bring another management team on board. Or, he intimated, he might be forced to sell our factory outright to a national manufacturer, or scuttle the ice cream factory altogether by selling the land to a real estate developer. "I don't care what you have to do to turn things around. But get it done. I'm putting this on your shoulders." With suburban sprawl spreading past the highway belt encircling our city, I had no doubt Malcolm could make more money selling the land to a developer than he could running it with its current revenues. Either way, however, I would be out of a job. With a wife and two young kids, eight and six, Malcolm's rebuke jolted me out of my complacency.
Although I had grown up in town, I had taken the job at Dairy Cream only two years ago, after spending ten years in a food manufacturing company in Denver. It seemed to me it was only recently that our family felt settled. My wife Jean had landed a new job at one of the local bank branches, and our son and daughter had a growing circle of friends in the neighborhood. But there was no way we could swing the mortgage and everything else on Jean's salary alone.
And if I failed at Dairy Cream, what would I do? I wasn't necessarily the smartest guy in the room but I worked hard at my job. I had come up with a number of management initiatives and employee morale programs to improve our manufacturing processes and increase our production.
But lately, nothing seemed to make a difference. Our ice cream appealed neither to the high-end, premium buyers, nor was it competitive with the lower priced budget brands. We were caught in the middle, and getting squeezed from both ends.
I'd never failed at my job before, but I'd begun to run out of answers. What could I do, I worried, to avoid this fate? What would happen to all the people under me if Malcolm sold the business-or the land?
That morning, I had held out hope that Natural Foods might be our savior. I knew that if we could sell our brand to just one branch of their chain, it would significantly boost our numbers. Their sales are so strong, they'd carry us with them. And then, of course, it would give us a foot in the door to try to land an account with the entire chain, multiplying our modest profits many times, overnight. And because Natural Foods has such a fabulous reputation for quality products and customer service, being picked up by them would signal to other retailers that we had earned the stamp of approval from the toughest judge in the food business, leading to more contracts.
So when Reggie returned to tell me we got another 'no go' from Natural Foods after an abbreviated ten-minute conversation with their buyer, my heart sank lower than my work boots. Reggie said he barely got his first sentence out when the buyer started asking questions he couldn't really answer.
"Such as the density of our ice cream, the percentage of 'mix-ins,' in weight and volume, the success rate of our packaging-"
"The success rate of our packaging?!?"
"That's what I mean," Reggie said. "I'd never heard such questions before."
I was dumbfounded. How could Natural Foods make their decision on whether or not to carry our ice cream based on such arcane questions?
My disappointment, however, soon changed to determination. I couldn't just let this account go. Years ago I knew one of the higher ups in the store. Darn it, I would go and make the pitch to them myself. Although I was scheduled to meet with our Director of Quality that day, I found myself taking off my safety goggles and lab coat, putting on my jacket and grabbing my keys before I was even aware of what I was doing. I'm not a sales rep-I have absolutely no sales experience-but I knew how crucial this sale was. I had to get it. I hopped into my car-a SUV we had just bought two months earlier to help trundle the kids around town, I reflected ruefully, thinking of the payments-to go down to Natural Foods myself.
Although I had always refused to shop at Natural Foods-because they had never bought our ice cream-I had no trouble finding their store, a huge building located at one of our major intersections. Essentially a fancy grocery store, it looks nothing like the Biggie-Mart I frequent. The storefront consists of huge windows framed in brick, looking more like a bookstore than a grocery store. From across the parking lot you could see the 30-foot high rafters inside-the entire ceiling painted beige, not the depressing black or shocking white of most stores-and the friendly banners hanging above each cash register. Whether you cared about the products or not, the store's design had a way of drawing you in.
I wanted not to like the place, but I still couldn't help but notice the lengths Natural Foods took to make you feel welcome. Despite my boycott, my wife still shopped there, and often gushed about what a great place it was, gently mocking my stubbornness at refusing to cross its doors. I soon found out what she was talking about.
I walked through the front doors-my wife claimed that if they ever closed them, she hadn't seen it-which are so expansive it's virtually impossible to bump into another customer, no matter how busy the foot traffic. A blast of invitingly cool air greeted me on this hot summer day. I walked past the push-carts, all of them a shining, robust green, neatly organized in a fan design to allow maximum access and minimum hassle. I noticed an unmistakable fragrance, and looked to my left to see a veritable wall of flowers, like a scene from a rich impressionist painting. Soft, soothing music wafted down from above. The ten-second experience of walking into Natural Foods was as warm a welcome as a store can give you, transporting you to some place inviting and exotic, in just a few feet.
"Hello, how are you?" a friendly voice asked with such genuine sincerity that I assumed she was a friend of mine. I didn't recognize her, however, and must have looked puzzled. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"No thanks," I answered. She was clearly not an official greeter, just a friendly employee doing her job arranging the floral display, while saying hello to as many customers as she could. I soon heard a chorus of similar greetings around the store, many of them quickly evolving into longer conversations.
My first look inside revealed just how clean and fresh, warm and welcoming the entire store was. It didn't feel at all like my local chain grocery-and certainly not like our factory. But I quickly dismissed the thought. After all, they were in retail, and we sell to stores, not customers.
Just past the flowers I found the "Help Center," manned by two cheerful employees, one of whom seemed free to answer a question.
"Hello there," the information woman said. "I'm Jenny. How can I help you today?" When I had gotten out of my car I'm sure I wore a stubborn scowl, but it was impossible to maintain a downturned mouth in the face of such a friendly smile. I had left the factory in such a rush that I couldn't recall the name of the buyer Reggie had talked to. But I remembered one of my parents' neighbors had taken a managerial job at Natural Foods years ago, and I had decided to give him a shot first.
"Does Mr. McMaster still work here?" I asked.
"Ohhhh, yes," she said, grinning. "I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Is he expecting you?"
"No," I admitted. "Is that a problem?"
"Not at all," she said. "He talks to lots of customers every day, and I doubt any of them have made an appointment yet."
"Well, actually," I said, "I'm not really a customer. I'm an old neighbor, from way back. I haven't seen him in, geez, probably ten years."
"Wow!" she laughed, joking, "Does he owe you money?"
"No," I said, smiling, unable to resist her humor. "Actually I'm here on a sales call."
"If you haven't seen Mike in awhile, maybe I'd better take you to him."
Jenny stepped out from behind the counter, told her co-worker she'd be right back, and led me through the store.
"Is his office in the back?" I asked.
"Mike's office will be our last stop. You're more likely to find him in the parking lot, gathering carts, or at the entrance fiddling with the flowers, than sitting at his desk. Most of the time he's roaming the store, talking with customers and our team members."
We walked through aisles that were even wider than I had imagined when I saw the store from afar in my car. They were immaculate, and comfortably organized. The shelves were made of rich cherry wood, and cantilevered to break up the sterile, straight lines of most conventional stores. The lighting was softer, too, than the harsh fluorescent lighting of the typical grocery store, with a variety of lush green plants, making this huge box feel more like a cute coffee shop than the gigantic food franchise it actually was.
What I noticed most of all, though, was the number of employees we walked past-dozens, easily-stocking shelves, fashioning imaginative displays with co-workers, talking with customers. It was clear that rather than regarding their customers' questions as a nuisance, it was the favorite part of their jobs.
Jenny found Mike helping a customer in the pasta section, discussing the vast array of choices. He was undeniably older than I'd remembered, but he'd aged well, still lean and spry, with the same glint burning brightly in his eyes. Mike was asking the customer a detailed series of questions to determine exactly the kind of meal she was planning to prepare, and what pasta and sauce might work best for her purposes.
He gave us a "Just a moment" gesture, then asked the customer a few more questions about how often she visited Natural Foods (every week, she said), what she liked best (the selection and the service) and what she thought they could do better. "Hmmm," she said. "That's hard to say. I come here an awful lot, and I love it. But I suppose it'd be helpful if you had some sort of information card or sheet for your products, so I wouldn't have to ask a clerk like you every time I had a question."
"Ms. Truax, it's always a pleasure talking to our customers, but you have a very good idea. I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks," she said. "And please, call me Samantha."
"Samantha it is. Thanks for visiting our store."
When he turned to us, said, "Now, you have to be Frank Delvecchio's son, Pete, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said, extending my hand. "You have an amazing memory. Last time I saw you, I was just home from college, with long hair and glasses."
He chuckled. "And I must have been 35, with some hair, and no glasses!" He thanked Jenny for her help. "It's great to see you again, Peter. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
"Sure," I said. "Thank you. And call me Pete. I think only my mom still calls me Peter."
"And you can call me Mike."
"Mike it is," I said.
Mike started walking me toward the cafe in the front of the store, awash in sunlight pouring through the lightly tinted picture windows, where he found an open table for us to chat.
A friendly waitress came over to take our order. "Do you have latte?" I asked.
"Of course," the waitress said. "And you, Mike?"
"Make it two, Monica. Thanks." Then Mike turned his attention back to me. "So, to what do I owe this pleasure?"
"First, it's good to see you again," I said, suddenly a little embarrassed that I hadn't stopped in to see him before. I'd forgotten what a friendly neighbor Mike had been.
"Ditto." he replied. "But I've got a hunch you didn't come down just to say hello!"
His remark disarmed me. He must be used to sales calls by now, I realized. "You're right," I said. "I'm the Factory Supervisor for Dairy Cream now. I've been there the last couple of years. And I've been dying to get our ice cream in your store for a long time. I remembered you had helped get Natural Foods' founder get the chain off the ground years ago, before relocating back here in town. So I thought I'd come down to see if you still worked here."
He spread his arms. "Now you have your answer!"
"What do you do here?" I asked. "I'm guessing from what Jenny said that you're not actually a clerk."
Excerpted from The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury Excerpted by permission.
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