Cold Stone calls
Franchise manager mixes it up at ice cream shop
There’s a lot more to mixing candy bars and gooey pie fillings into ice cream than one might think.
At Cold Stone Creamery in downtown Chico, manager Ted Thomsen serves up customer service and a quality product while opting not to follow lockstep the dictates of the corporation that oversees Cold Stone franchisees nationwide.
I first visited a Cold Stone back in the mid-1990s, when I was working in San Luis Obispo. It seemed decadent and, to be honest, a little pricey. But at $3.35 for the “Love It” size (formerly known as “regular"—yeah, it’s weird) today, it’s an affordable indulgence, with much more substance than your average $3 espresso drink.
I opt for the mocha flavor with pecans. The metal paddles slap and click on the frosty granite surface as the nuts meld with the ball of ice cream Thomsen has measured by sight. Cold Stone makes much of its profits from the sale of multiple “Mix-Ins"—additions like blackberries, Oreos, graham cracker crust and Heath bars, set out in neat rows for customers’ lengthy pondering. The ice cream stretches and wraps around my tongue in the creamy nature of homemade. The crunch of the nuts plays off the smoothness of the ice cream.
The vanilla bean flavor has no artificial aftertaste, and the sweet cream variety is a perennial favorite. The waffle cones are sweet and crunchy, and the milkshakes stand out as thick and substantial.
The frozen granite stone, Thomsen says, is not a gimmick. “It’s what allows us to mix things in,” he says. “If you tried to do that on your countertop, the ice cream would melt and slide around.” Has he ever licked it to see if his tongue would stick to the stone, a la A Christmas Story? I’m not the first person to ask him this. “I’ve never licked it. I think that would be against some kind of health code.”
Even though the cooler months, the slow season for ice cream, are coming, Cold Stone has its year-round regulars. “It’s funny. Some people say it’s too cold for ice cream, but other people say they eat it all the time and it has nothing to do with being refreshing. I say, ‘Do you drink coffee in July?'”
Cold Stone began in 1988 in Tempe, Ariz., and has since grown to include 149 stores. “Cold Stone is getting bigger and bigger. They want to be a break-through brand like Starbucks,” said Thomsen, who, during his three years managing the Chico store since it opened has worked his way into a part-ownership interest.
There are many things Thomsen likes about the franchise business, such as having customers walk in excited to find there’s a Cold Stone in town.
But there’s a loss of individuality that goes along with being one of 149. Thomsen, who graduated from Chico State University in 1993 with degrees in communication and business, is a little surprised that he’s enjoying it so much. “I always thought, if I want to do a business, I want to do my own.”
To get in on the Cold Stone fun, franchise owners must pony up an initial fee of $35,000 and make a total initial investment of between $235,035 and $348,370. On top of that, 2 percent of their proceeds each month must be sent to the corporate offices. “There’s no feedback other than a score,” he says, when corporate comes up from the Bay Area every four or five months to do a “Scoop Report.”
Thomsen has never been one to play by the rules completely. One year, he wanted to make a special watermelon sorbet to serve during the Slice of Chico event downtown. “Mistakenly, I called the corporate office.” They told him it would be a disaster if someone tasted watermelon in Chico and then went and demanded it at another Cold Stone. “I still went ahead and did it,” Thomsen says. “It was a cool, community kind of thing.” Another time, he used peaches from a Farmers’ Market vendor to make peach sorbet. “They came up and said, ‘Oh, you can’t have this.'”
But Thomsen doesn’t want to sound negative.
“Ice cream is a good thing," he says. The littlest customers are his favorite. "The kids are cool. The kids come in here and they want Gummi Bears in their ice cream," he says. "I’ve heard parents say, ‘That’s gross,' to Gummi Bears 400 times. I always think, ‘You’re not the one who’s going to eat it.' This is the opportunity for people to get creative and do whatever they want."