Chaeban scales seasonal shop to year round success with subscriptions
Imagine getting two pints of delicious ice cream delivered to your door from a local ice cream shop every month. Now imagine learning that your subscription supports a variety of local businesses, or that it helped over a dozen Syrian refugees start new lives, or that it’s truly made from scratch. That’s what Chaeban is all about. It’s ice cream: But it’s ice cream with a story.
The artisanal shop was founded by husband and wife team Joseph Chaeban and Zainab Ali, and local entrepreneur Darryl Stewart. They didn't just want to make people’s lives a little sweeter, they also wanted to help Zainab’s family, refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War, to start new lives in North America.
New lives meant new jobs, which the ice cream shop would provide.
But if they were going to open an ice cream shop, they wanted to do things differently. With Joseph’s background as a dairy expert, they set up a miniature plant in the back of the shop to process raw milk into high-density ice cream base and blend it with tasty local ingredients, instead of buying a base from a factory and adding flavors.
“We make it from scratch right from the beginning,” Joseph said. “The ice cream you’re eating is helping four or five other local businesses.”
"We make it from scratch right from the beginning. The ice cream you’re eating is helping four or five other local businesses."
After opening their doors in the winter of 2017, several of Zainab’s relatives got to work mixing and scooping, including her sister, who was a full-time employee and integral part of the team.
It felt like Chaeban was ready to have a year like no other in 2020. But of course, what no one saw coming was a global pandemic that would put a deep freeze on Chaeban’s business strategy and force them to open up a new revenue stream.
The partners got together to think of what to do next. They came up with an unexpected idea for a business trading in frozen goods: a subscription.
The idea piqued interest and alarm bells all at once. Chaeban had never planned to get into ecommerce. After all, ice cream isn't known to be the most shippable product.
One March night, they realized that the summer wouldn’t be business as usual. Quarantine and social distancing protocols stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt their plans and potentially bankrupt their business, which relied heavily on summer foot traffic.
They accepted most of their plans for 2020 had to be cancelled. The closed sign would hang for months. The ice cream carts booked for events all summer long would not ring their bells.
“We were doing good and all of a sudden, that’s it,” Zainab said. “You have to close your doors.”
This new reality meant they had to scale back their operations, lay off most of their staff (including Zainab's sister), and think of ways to stay afloat.
The timing of the pandemic was potentially devastating to their business. “September to April, we run at a loss,” said Joseph. “(From) the end of April until the end of August, we make our money for the whole entire year... and here we are in March shutting down after we already lost so much money.” Joseph said. “I didn’t know how we were going to survive this.”
"I didn’t know how we were going to survive this."
A quick email poll out to their customer list revealed potential for the idea of a subscription-based ice cream club. They set up a Shopify store and installed Bold subscriptions.
Within three weeks, they were ready to launch. The night of the launch, they nervously kept an eye on their phones, hoping that people would sign up — and it turned out customers could really warm up to the idea of an ice cream club.
"[Signups] just kept going up and up and up, and I was like ‘I’m dreaming,’” said Joseph. “It was overwhelming."
"[The subscriber number] kept going up and up and up, and I was like ‘I’m dreaming.’ It was overwhelming."
Bold Subscriptions made it easy for customers to get on board, using a build-a-box feature to pick their personalized mix of monthly flavors.
Zainab and Joseph looked at each other and realized they had a new problem: “Wait a minute, do we have enough ice cream?!”
Darryl agreed that it was a bit of a shock: “The actual numbers really exceeded our expectations to the point we were scared about how we would do this.”
With hundreds of unfulfilled orders, Chaeban hired back all of their staff and turned their focus to increasing production and timely delivery.
With their staff back and systems in place, all they had to worry about now was delivering hotly anticipated cool treats to excited subscribers.
Chaeban attracted more than 1,000 subscribers in just over two weeks, and hundreds more would sign on in the months that followed. To date, the subscription ice cream club has pulled in over 70% of the revenue they expected to make from summer foot traffic.
“Subscriptions really saved our company and I’m truly grateful for that,” said Joseph. “Customers tell me ‘what a great idea, now I don’t have to come to your store in the winter, you’ll just deliver it to me.’”
"Subscriptions really saved our company and I’m truly grateful for that. Customers tell me ‘what a great idea, now I don’t have to come to your store in the winter, you’ll just deliver it to me."
With a subscription model in place heading into the fall, Chaeban doesn't expect the same seasonal dropoff in their business. The idea that was borne out of necessity during a pandemic has brought a renewed sense of optimism, year-round growth, and stability to their business.
“Working 80 hours a week all summer, then trying to figure out how to survive all winter. That was the lifestyle,” Darryl explained. “It’s allowed us to have a life because you actually know what your revenue is for the next month.”
In addition to the income, their ice cream subscription model served up a variety of other benefits, including what might have been a missing ingredient all along: focus.
“We did so many things before — we did events, we made crepes, we served coffee, when you think about it, those are the things everyone else was doing.” Darryl said. “It seems obvious, but what was different about us was the way we make our ice cream. That’s what people value.”
And now they know those people like never before. Through the ice cream club, they can track and quantify communications with subscribers. This allows them to garner valuable insights they didn’t get from everyday conversations with walk-in customers.
“We launched (more) dairy-free flavors and that’s been a great decision.” said Darryl. It’s also allowed them to nail down their expenses and optimize profitability. “We never knew before this pandemic how much it actually cost to make a pint of ice cream. Now we make 40 cases of ice cream every day," Darryl said.
This allows them to price their products better and scale their business, especially the ice cream club so they can deliver subscribers a sweet fix year-round straight to their door.
And for the Chaeban team, that’s the best part of the job. Darryl said it’s common for kids to be waiting at the door after parents receive the text notification that their ice cream delivery is on its way.
“It’s really wonderful to see the smiles on people’s faces when they know we’re coming and you put the ice cream right in their hands” he said.
That’s something that the whole team can relate to.
“My favorite part of this whole experience is seeing the customers’ smiles when we deliver the ice cream, that just cheers my whole day up,” said Joseph. “It keeps you going. I want to give back to them as much as they gave back to me.”