Summer 2020 was not the best, but we found pleasure in simple things: like big scoops of craft ice cream. In this episode we are talking to the owners of Blue Cow, a craft ice cream business here in Virginia. Husband and wife team Jason and Carolyn Kiser offer their insights on what it takes to run a small food business, and for them, it’s all about sourcing as many of their products as possible locally. Their philosophy is one of using wholesome ingredients that are produced in the area and collaborating with local businesses to create a uniquely local product, thereby not only creating a novel experience for their customers but also promoting the welfare of the community at large. With two locations and a third in the pipeline, the Kisers are excited about their journey ahead, despite the challenges they had during the height of the pandemic. The two also talk about their production facility, their hopes of eventually serving wholesale accounts, and the exciting flavors they are working on for the fall and winter.
Key Points From This Episode:
When they started their business, opening another location, and future expansion plans.
What’s in a name: Why Blue Cow is a nod to the Blue Ridge mountains
Jason talks about the pandemic and their fast pivot from walk-up scoops to take-home pints.
Blue Cow’s expansion to a new production facility.
The Kiser’s philosophy on small-batch ice cream and sourcing the ingredients.
Small batch is really small: including basil sourced from a micro-farm in their neighborhood.
Hear about their key partnerships with local companies and some examples of collaborations.
Jason talks about making small batches and their plans to supply other foodservice outlets.
Their most popular flavors and the new ones to look forward to in each new season.
How their family life and kids inspired them to fill the need for craft ice cream in the area.
How to connect with and become a customer of Blue Cow!
Connect with Jason & Carolyn Kiser of Blue Cow Ice Cream:
Follow The Virginia Foodie here:
Click Here for the Full Transcript
Note: We use AI transcription so there may be some inaccuracies
Jason Kiser 0:00
The light bulb went on I was like, "Oh yeah, so we really are in the ice cream business you know."
Georgiana Dearing 0:03
There's candy involved! You didn't tell me that.
Welcome to the Virginia foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people and good brands that you know and love. If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered how did they do that? How do they turn that recipe into a successful business? Then we've got some stories for you.
Welcome to the Virginia Foodie Podcast. I'm George Dearing, owner of Water Street Marketing and founder of Virginia Foodie. As we record this, it's 2020. And it's been a crazy, crazy summer. I don't know about you guys, but we've been taking simple pleasures wherever we can find them, like ice cream. So today I'm talking to the owners of Blue Cow. A craft ice cream business here in Virginia, and they're giving us their take on running a small local food business.
Well, Good Morning! Welcome. I'm so happy to be here with you guys. I've got Carolyn and Jason Kiser from Blue Cow Ice Cream. We've been kind of following you on Instagram for a while, and we crossed paths some last year when you were opening a new shop in Virginia Beach. So I'm really glad that you could join me on the podcast today. And I thought maybe you could start by telling our listeners a little bit about your business. Just let them know who you are, what you're doing and fill us in on what's going on.
Carolyn Kiser 1:45
Yeah, well, first of all, thank you for inviting us to be on your podcast. This is a first for us. I am Carolyn...
Jason Kiser 1:53
And I'm Jason, and we are craft ice cream makers. We have a business, Blue Cow Ice Cream. We started the company in Roanoke Virginia about three years ago since we've opened our second location in Virginia Beach last summer, as you mentioned, and we have plans to bring another unit online in Fredericksburg in the spring of 2021. That's just a snapshot of our business. We're into the craft ice cream game.
Georgiana Dearing 2:20
Oh, that's great. What's the blue in Blue Cow?
Jason Kiser 2:23
Blue is for the Blue Ridge, Virginia's Blue Ridge. That's where we opened up. And you know, cow, obviously for the dairy. So Blue Cow Ice Cream is how we came up with the name and we get asked that quite a bit. So that's kind of background maybe?
Georgiana Dearing 2:38
Well, it's cute. We like it. We like your brand. That's cool.
Carolyn Kiser 2:42
I think naming a restaurant is harder than naming a child.
Georgiana Dearing 2:48
You're putting it out there for everybody, aren't you? Well, the first question I've been asking everybody I mean, we're recording this in 2020. It's crazy. It's August and legitimately, how's it going? The years been nuts? How are you doing?
Jason Kiser 3:04
It's going pretty good, all things considered. When the virus hit back in March, there was a lot of unknowns for many businesses, us included, about how to handle it and what to do. And then the governor kind of went to a phase one where things were clamped down pretty tight. So that put a bit of a strain on the business as far as how we operate. Because, you know, we're a walk-up business. People like to come in and sit in the store and experience the shops and taste ice cream and make a decision and get a product. So, you know, we had to limit, like everyone else, limit the store to 10 or less people and was just a tough time for everyone involved. So we kind of had to adapt our model at that point to take on a more of a delivery and curbside, which was new for us. So we got a website set up and you know, and then went to curbside delivery and it was just a challenge for the business. You know, Just how we operate, you know. We have one phone line in the store, usually we might get four or five calls a day want to know when we close then now we're having orders come across online and they're here to pick it up and they're trying to call in. So yeah, you know, it was just an operational challenge trying to keep the store open and keep our employees employed and keep the customers happy. Just a weird time.
Carolyn Kiser 4:24
I will say I think we are a little more fortunate that it is not a sit down restaurant, you know, that it is more of a counter service experience because there is some comfort there with just taking it and eating quickly. That's been helpful that even if our dining area was closed, you know, people could still come and get a scoop of ice cream.
Georgiana Dearing 4:46
So did you do take home ice cream before? Were you selling very much in pints and things?
Jason Kiser 4:52
We were selling pints before COVID, we had connected with GrubHub and Postmates for some delivery, local delivery. It was... pints were going out and scoops. But after COVID for sure more pints were heading out the door, it just totally changed the mix of items going from a more of a scoop on a cone to a pint and a couple of pints at a time two or three pints at a time. For sure.
Carolyn Kiser 5:18
Yeah, if you look at kind of pint sales from June, for example, June this year versus June last year, I mean, it's totally more of a take-home product as people stock their freezers.
Georgiana Dearing 5:31
Well, that would be kind of cool. If that gives you another little stream of service for your customers to just keep that take home in your mind.
Jason Kiser 5:41
I think we plan to leave our online store open so people can continue to order and do curbside. It's been pretty well-received. And since the... since coming back to phase three, it's become more in balance with those orders to where we can manage it a little better with our infrastructure. With the telephone, it was just nutty there for a little while.
Georgiana Dearing 6:04
Well, you're like a lot of businesses, you had to do a pretty fast pivot. I think that customers are very adaptable to the new guidelines. I haven't heard a lot of feedback from restaurants community saying, you know, oh, they just won't stand for it. You know, that's good, I think.
Jason Kiser 6:23
That's been our experience. Most customers are very understanding of the situation that we're in as well, you know, trying to serve a different way and they're aware of the guidelines and they follow the guidelines for mask requirement, social distancing, but that is there is occasion where you have somebody who doesn't agree with those policies, and they certainly let us know about it.
Georgiana Dearing 6:46
That happens, with anything. Change is hard for some people. You mentioned that you're still planning to move into Fredericksburg and you have a location in Virginia Beach and the last time I talked to you, you're making your ice cream just in Roanoke. Do you do any other ice cream making anywhere else? Or do you have a facility or how do you manage that expansion?
Jason Kiser 6:47
We started with the one store here in Roanoke, and we have a small production kitchen in the back of that store,
Carolyn Kiser 7:19
Definitely a size small.
Jason Kiser 7:20
Yeah, small but functional, it worked great. And as we were getting to the point where it was time to bring Virginia Beach online, we knew that we were going to run out of freezer space critically. I mean, our production capacity was still there enough to build the ice cream that we needed for two stores, but we needed more freezer capacity. So we were able to get a little more space in our building kind of as a temporary Band Aid last summer and we put in a bigger freezer. But that being said, we do produce it all centrally. And we're in the process now of building out a central production kitchen and a larger building that will allow us to continue to grow into the foreseeable future. So we know we're in the midst of a construction project right now to get production moved into the bigger location. And that'll be great. It's just a much more accommodating building for what we need to do right now. It's a little tight back there. So we're kind of dancing around and scooting around. We get it done, but I don't know how we do it sometimes.
Georgiana Dearing 8:23
That's kind of a thing with a lot of small craft food businesses in general. It's that chicken egg thing, growth versus capacity versus demand. It's like, when do we make that move? So that's a bold move to pick a new location and take on some expansion, which is great, because that means you can bring your ice cream to another community. And now I'm going to really ask you about that ice cream because that's the part people want to know about. You are very much about local flavors. Can you talk about some of the great things you have? I mean I know of some of the favorites that I see going by but can you talk about your philosophy and your approach to ice cream making?
Jason Kiser 9:08
So our philosophy to ice cream making is we want to create a great craft product for our customers to enjoy. In the process of making the ice cream we want to source our products as close to home as possible. And knowing that's not always available to us given we're using a lot of chocolates and other confectionery items, you know if we do have to buy outside of local we seek out the best products we can buy through our supply chain. On a local side of things, we've created some partnerships with, like, Hubs Peanuts, for example. They're a Virginia-based peanut company and we use their peanuts in our ice creams when we need peanuts. We use... we make a peanut butter for example. We'll have Hubs Peanuts in there. We've contracted, or, not contracted, but we've aligned with a couple of coffee roasters in the area. So we have Red Rooster, which is a Floyd Virginia coffee roaster. And we use their products in our ice cream. And we sell that here in our Roanoke store. And we've also connected with Three Ships Coffee out of Virginia Beach, and they roast their beans and we use their product for a product that we make for our Virginia Beach store. So we've tried to keep it local, with relationships to the specific markets, even down to that level.
Carolyn Kiser 10:24
And one of my favorite examples is this micro-farm I think you could call it and it's with our Backyard Basil flavor. It's a basil-flavored ice cream with chocolate chips. And this is about local as you get. It's a neighbor. We're in a residential area in our Roanoke store, and it's a neighbor in that neighborhood. He grows some basil every year and so he approached us and asked if we'd be interested and he's got a great business actually. And we were in you know, we've used that in our Backyard Basil. Unfortunately, he didn't have a great crop this year. So it wasn't available, and we had people asking for it, but that's part of the nature of farm-to-table, I guess is, you know, you have to go with what, what's available and in season.
Georgiana Dearing 11:12
So you're really small-batching it
Jason Kiser 11:15
Oh, totally small-batching it. We make ice cream about four and a half gallons at a time. So it's, you know, if you think about ice cream production for like a Hershey's or something, I mean, that is just nothing, you know, I mean, it's just such a small batch that we're working through. It's just very organic. And you know, just, I said comes out four and a half gallons at a time. You know, we've run a couple machines all day long to keep the store supplied.
Georgiana Dearing 11:42
Goodness, my brother could go through that in a month. Four and a half gallons of ice cream. That's not a lot of ice cream.
Jason Kiser 11:49
We've had people ask, you know, can you sell us a whole tub of ice cream? Well, and I was like, where are you going to put it? From the local sourcing something that we're giving consideration to and looking into is when we get into our new building is being able to source our dairy more locally. I mean, it's a locally-sourced product now it's Virginia cows, but you know, through a cooperative dairy farmers and there's a local dairy close to us who's been looking at building out her own dairy and we'd love to get the milk and the cream from her and be able to pasteurize on premises. So you know, we're just not set up for that at the moment. You know, we get a mix co-pack for us, that comes to us ready-to-use, you know, they have in there, what we need, what we want, but it would be great to be able to procure our dairy at a much more local basis. We would love to do that in the future. So that is something that is on our radar, hopefully in the next year or two.
Georgiana Dearing 12:45
Oh, wow. So you would go right back to the cows. I just didn't really even think about that. I mean, I think of dairy in a bulk a little bit, but that's really craft. So that's it makes a variable interesting experience for your ice cream. But to go back to something you talked about people asking about a whole tub, do you ever see or do you now consider supporting restaurants or other outlets? You know, in food service industry?
Jason Kiser 13:16
We have thought about it. We don't currently. We've been asked a couple of times about wholesale. I think the answer is yes, we'd like to have a couple key partnerships and supply ice cream to a small amount of people who are also focused on quality like we are. Part of this situation is in how we're licensed and regulated. We have a license to sell our products through our retail stores. So we don't have a wholesale license. And that's just a mechanism of how we're regulated through VDACS, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Customer Services. But so I guess the answer to your question is we don't right now, but we're looking into how can we do that. There's just a little more red tape and some different things we'd have to do with labeling for our ice cream tubs to get it out into the wholesale market like that.
Carolyn Kiser 14:07
I do think once we move into our central production facility, right now, it's also a space. So we can't even really entertain that knowing we don't have the storage space for wholesale.
Jason Kiser 14:19
So what it really boils down to is re-pasteurization, they would want us to re-pasteurize an already pasteurized product to wholesale. And right now we don't have a pasteurizer.
Georgiana Dearing 14:32
I'm a consumer of dairy. So what does that mean pasteurized and then repasteurized? Does that impact flavor or quality or anything like that?
Jason Kiser 14:43
Not really. I mean, it shouldn't impact flavor or quality. It's just another step in the supply chain to put a barrier up against foodborne illness. You know, any pathogen, you know, basically when we get our mix, it's already gone through that process. So it's ready to go and, you know, to have to take it to a repasteurization again–it's just a redundant step. But I think they're thinking about that in Richmond about how that works going forward for people like us who are manufacturing on a small scale craft basis. So we're just waiting to kind of hear back at this point.
Georgiana Dearing 15:18
I want to go back to flavors. And what do you have? I know that you have some interesting palette going. So what are you working on? And what are the big ones? What can people look forward to?
Jason Kiser 15:29
Right now we're kind of moving out of summer and into the fall, so we'll be transitioning to some more, fall time flavors and flavor profiles, like pumpkins and spices. And as we move into the holidays, some more holiday themed flavor profiles
Carolyn Kiser 15:47
I will say, just over this summer, one of the big ones, if you will, our Key Lime Pie is really well-received and that and our S'Mores. Those two we get a lot of feedback on just in general. But obviously, particularly Key Lime that kind of phases out as we look into fall, but those were very well-received. Yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 16:08
Oh, those sound delicious. That sounds good. So when you're doing Key Lime, we don't really grow limes here, but you're sourcing them from what kind of resource for that?
Jason Kiser 16:19
So that one is a company down in Florida that we source. We have a key lime juice jugged up and sent to us I think they're actually in Key West, as well. Yeah. So it's like, yeah, they're traditional. When you think of key lime pie. These are the people that you think, you know, Nellie and Joe's is the name of the business.
Georgiana Dearing 16:40
They provide a specific size jug for you to use for your production.
Jason Kiser 16:45
Yeah, we buy in gallons, they prepare gallons for other people. I think other... that's just that is one of their sizes that they produce is gallons. So we buy gallons of this key lime juice and bring it in and then we do some things with it inside to get it ready for the ice cream. So it's not like, you know, rock solid when it gets in there and freezes over. It's a great flavor. We bake up like a traditional crust that you would find on a key lime pie and toss it in when the ice cream is coming off the machine and it just works very well together kind of leaves you digging around looking for that crust when you're going through the pint or through the scoop. It balances nicely.
Georgiana Dearing 17:18
I know that the Pungo region has a lot of great sources, my mind just flipped to strawberry as well. It's like oh, you probably got some farms in that region that you're working with or
Jason Kiser 17:29
So with strawberry, given the limited growing season, we have a little bit of a situation where we can't get them all at once and store them effectively...because we could get them all at once, but with our freezer situation right now we would have to get them all in and then freeze them for use later which would be perfectly fine but we just don't have the room. So for currently sourcing strawberries in particular, one of our food suppliers and they come from North Carolina and maybe some from Virginia. So that is one that we would like to source more locally when we have more room to kind of take the berries in when they're at the peak of season and put them away so we can use them down the road. We get some berries from a farm in Michigan, they're known for growing their black raspberries. So we buy berries from a farm in Michigan for some flavors that will have coming here in the fall. We are aware of Pungo and though they grow great strawberries... I actually got a few names of some farms down there from when it's time to kind of move that conversation forward. Hopefully in the spring we'll be looking at that because we'll be in our new building by then and have more room to accommodate them.
Georgiana Dearing 18:36
Fall flavors and fall ice cream that sounds like there needs to be pie on the side of that but you said you have pumpkin, you have spice tell me some other things, do you do an eggnog? What things are really going to carry you into the colder months with a cold dessert?
Jason Kiser 18:55
Definitely pumpkin coming. We're about to release a chocolate ganache and peanut brittle. which is a nice hearty, decadent flavor for the fall. We will do a cinnamon snickerdoodle as we get a little closer to the holidays, and that's an awesome flavor. We have a couple of white chocolate and peppermint bark as we get closer to the end of the year. Some things will be new this year we're kind of thinking about some new flavors, what else Carolyn, what's coming?
Carolyn Kiser 19:24
Well we have Cereal Milk coming, which is another one that people go crazy for which is basically you know, we all love the end of the bowl of cereal and you know basically we have a flavor that mimics drinking the milk from your cereal bowl so that one will come yeah, we steep that with some cornflakes and some other spices
Jason Kiser 19:47
You have a black raspberry flavor that we'll be bringing on probably in the next month and a half, black raspberry with chocolate chips. We ran a sweet corn flavor last year and corn is in right now or is probably coming or you know just getting maybe towards the end of finishing. I'm not certain if we'll do that one this year, but we've that might come out corn, sweet corn with black raspberry.
Georgiana Dearing 20:08
That's interesting. You've got some interesting takes on flavor like what inspired you to work in the food industry? Or what inspired you to work with food? And is there something in your past and your childhood or something that is a good food memory that led you to what you're doing right now?
Jason Kiser 20:28
It might be more in the present. We have two kids.
And the past too, I mean ice cream is we enjoy ice cream. We enjoy ice cream as a family. And in Roanoke, we saw an opportunity to maybe take the ice cream in a different direction than what was traditionally happening around here. We had a little spark to kind of light us up in the sense that there was a operator who had a small ice cream shop that we would go to as a family and they retired after being in business for like 25 or 30 years or whatever it was. They had a long run in the food business and they had decided to hang it up and that really was kind of a little bit of a spark that Carol and I started talking about is you know, wow we, you know, we enjoy going to get ice cream as a family. There's an opening here to do something on a craft basis. I mean, there you know, Roanoke had craft breweries, a lot of cool bakeries and the food scene is developed and doing great so we just kind of saw a hole for craft ice cream and thought we could fill it and you know, our goals were to make a quality product, sourced-locally as much as possible. And to make fun and enjoyable retail spaces where people could come and do what we like to do, which is, you know, be with our family and friends and enjoy a good product at the end of the day.
Georgiana Dearing 21:50
So are your kids your taste testers?
Carolyn Kiser 21:53
Oh yes, and they're brutally honest. You know how kids are.
Jason Kiser 21:57
They are funny. When we were kind of getting ready to to open, you know, there's just a whirlwind of things happening before you go live and, you know they hated going up to the store they would just complain all the time you know, I don't wanna go up there, but once we kind of got our toppings jars out and set they saw a big jar of m&ms and they were like, Oh wow, let's do it.
Totally changed everything.
Georgiana Dearing 22:24
There's candy involved! You didn't tell me that.
Jason Kiser 22:27
You know, it was hysterical. We got our machines up and running and I made this big tub of ice cream and I brought it home. And so we just had this like big tub of ice cream and we're all in there with a spoon like eating it in the kitchen. It was just really funny. I think that was a good memory for me is that you know the kids kinda...the light bulb went on it's like oh, yeah, so we really are in the ice cream business, you know?
Georgiana Dearing 22:48
This has been great talking to you. Can you give all of our listeners an opportunity, like where can they find you? What are your Instagram handles? All that good stuff because I know everybody's gonna want to go out and taste it now, so...
Carolyn Kiser 23:01
yeah, well thank you and we hope so. So thanks for having us on. Right now we have our two locations. One is in Roanoke, and that is at the base of Mill Mountain in southeast Roanoke. And the other one is in Virginia Beach. We're off Shore Drive. 2817 right there in the Food Lion shopping center. We're also on Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is the same. It's @bluecowicecream.
Georgiana Dearing 23:28
Well thanks for letting us know where we can find you. I'm sure people are gonna want to run out and get a scoop. Thanks for talking today.
Carolyn Kiser 23:37
Thank you so much
Jason Kiser 23:39
Appreciate you having us this morning, and you have a great day.
Georgiana Dearing 23:41
Thanks! Bye bye.
Thanks for listening. And if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at vafoodie.com. If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @VAfoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with Good Food, Good people, and Good Brands.