Praline's Inc. has its eye on expansion
Praline’s Inc.’s strategy to take its ice cream into new channels and new markets calls for ‘controlled growth.’
Compared to many other ice cream processors, Wallingford, Conn.-based Praline’s Inc. runs a rather small operation. The 34-year-old company got its start with a single Praline’s ice cream store in Wallingford; it later sold that shop through a franchise agreement to exit retail — and enter the ice cream-making business full time.
Praline’s currently produces ice cream in a 5,000-square-foot manufacturing and warehousing facility that doubles as its headquarters. Customers include 11 namesake franchised ice cream parlors (including that very first Praline’s store) and about a dozen independent parlors, as well as select foodservice operations via a three-year-old distributor agreement.
But growth is definitely on Praline’s agenda. In fact, when founders Joe and Donna Torre moved to the current site from a smaller one 15 years ago, Joe Torre “loaded the place up with freezers” with expansion in mind, noted Donna Torre, now the company’s president. Joe passed away in 2004, but Torre and her team are now actively seeking out growth opportunities via new retail agreements for Praline’s stores and a number of other avenues.
Steady and sure
Because the nucleus of its business is along the corridor of Interstate 91 going north, it makes sense from a strategy standpoint for Praline’s to expand from that point outward, Torre said. After all, the company delivers directly to both its Praline’s and independent ice cream parlor customers.
And the goal is controlled growth versus aggressive expansion, particularly when it comes to new ice cream parlor retail agreements, Jalmar De Dios, chief strategy and marketing officer, explained.
“Our quality is everything,” he said. “If someone can’t do it right, I’d rather not open up that store and throw away 30-plus years of hard work.”
That passion for quality is something that’s been a part of the business since the very beginning, Torre noted. Her late husband Joe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., worked hand in hand with Maria De Dios, Jalmar De Dios’ sister and Praline’s executive chef and product officer, teaching her the “passion of the kitchen” and the attributes that make for a great ice cream with, of course, a cream-rich base.
That’s why even today — despite the availability of a wide range of automated equipment — skilled Praline’s employees continue to mix the variegates and inclusions into the ice cream by hand. Even some of the inclusions get the handmade treatment. For example, employees make the candy for Praline’s Coconut Bar ice cream, a Mounds bar-like product, from scratch in the processing facility’s kitchen.
“Nothing beats a handmade ice cream,” Torre explained. “We’re trying to show people what real ice cream is.”
The company offers its Praline’s and independent ice cream parlor customers 56 core flavors of that “real ice cream” (and some sherbet, sorbet and frozen yogurt), as well as 13 seasonal flavors. Foodservice customers, via the distributor, get a curated flavor assortment, Jalmar De Dios said.
Praline’s signature flavor, he noted, is “Beez Neez.” The ice cream features a graham-flavored ice cream with a graham cracker ripple and chocolate-covered honeycomb candy.
All ice cream is packaged in 2.5-gallon tubs. In addition, Praline’s makes a number of different ice cream pies and cakes. In 2017, its processing facility produced 34,000 ice cream tubs, 2,500 ice cream pies and 2,600 ice cream cakes, Jalmar De Dios said.
Keeping it current
New ice cream flavors, often introduced as seasonal offerings, also are important to Praline’s overall success and growth plans. Maria De Dios is responsible for much of the new flavor development, inspired by current market trends.
But the fun really begins after those new flavors are created. Praline’s opens up its doors to give people in the community a chance to sample the ice cream and weigh in with their opinions. Recently the company invited 15 children to taste-test three potential new seasonal ice cream flavors: a root beer-flavored product, an offering infused with Nerds candy, and a blue raspberry-flavored product, Jalmar De Dios said.
“Based on a ballot system, we were able to determine which one was a hit among the kids, which one needed a little bit of work and which one was flat-out ‘don’t bother,’” he explained. “We thought the blue raspberry was going to be a hit, but it turned out to be the one they didn’t like.”
The root beer ice cream was a winner, though. As for the ice cream with Nerds candy, the kids sampled two versions, one with a vanilla base and one with a sweet cream base. They preferred the sweet cream flavor, Jalmar De Dios said, and suggested a color change for the product.
As a follow-up to that session, Praline’s invited kids from all over Connecticut to taste the two winning flavors and suggest names for them. The winning names? Frosty Mug Float for the root beer flavor and Galaxy Explosion for the Nerds flavor.
“The seasonal flavors help us keep it fresh throughout the year, but also make sure we’re bringing in new innovative products and that we’re catering to different markets,” Jalmar De Dios explained. “If we get good sales on an item, then we’ll add it permanently.”
Flavor innovation also targets adults. In fact, Praline’s offers some decidedly grownup flavors such as White Russian and Rum Raisin, which include a splash or two of real alcohol.
Avenues for growth
Also key to Praline’s expansion will be getting into the mouths of consumers in new markets. The distributor relationship is making it easier for the company to do so, particularly in Eastern Connecticut.
“Once we get into those markets, it’s easier for us to go in and either open a Praline’s store or recruit another shop to sell our ice cream,” Jalmar De Dios said. “Once they taste the ice cream, people know there’s a huge difference.”
The relationship works well as a growth opportunity because the parties have separate roles, Torre suggested.
“They just want to stay with the restaurants; they don’t want to go into the full-fledged ice cream parlor business, which is us,” she noted. “It’s a great partnership.”
Another growth avenue lies in new retail agreements for Praline’s ice cream parlors. Right now, the company is evaluating — slowly and carefully — four such locations.
“We’re going through the vetting process of who these people are and whether they can accept the challenge — how is it that they’re going to be able to maintain the ice cream parlors up to par?” Jalmar De Dios said.
The ice cream parlors don’t operate as typical franchises in that Praline’s doesn’t charge a franchise fee, and the stores don’t possess a cookie-cutter appearance.
“Every store represents the personality of the owner of the store,” Torre added, “but the consistency in each store is the ice cream quality.”
Spreading the word
Marketing and advertising, too, are in the forefront of Praline’s growth strategy. The company is a heavy user of social media (Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn) for both marketing and advertising. And it’s in the midst of a website redesign to make it more modern and more user-friendly, Jalmar De Dios noted.
“We really try to make our marketing very interactive,” he said. “During the fall, we wanted to promote our fall flavors, so we started a ‘turn in your recipe using Praline’s ice cream’ promotion.”
Outside the online world, Praline’s is in the concept stages of a marketing effort fashioned after popular wine trail promotions, Jalmar De Dios said. If the concept becomes a reality, a customer could get an ice cream pass at any one of the Praline’s ice cream parlors. Every time she (or he) visits a new Praline’s store, she would get a stamp on her pass. Once that pass is filled with stamps, she would turn it in to get a chance to win a prize.
And the company helps its Praline’s parlors on the marketing side, too, he added. For example, it supplies them with marketing materials for current and seasonal flavors. Praline’s also plays an active role in the communities in which its retail partners operate — under what it calls its “Good Neighbor Policy.”
For instance, the company assembles and donates baskets filled with candy, toys and/or gift certificates for fundraisers tied to the causes of store owners’ customers.
“We want to have that personal touch where people can come into our stores and say, ‘hey, I’m having a fundraiser for this cause,” Jalmar De Dios explained. “We’re able to help with that.”
Praline’s has also has worked with the Connecticut Children’s Center to raise money for kids in need, he noted. And the company recently inked a new deal to recognize the center as its main charity.
“We don’t just want to sell product,” he stressed. “We really want to be part of the community. We feel like that’s going to be what drives sales.”
Managing the hurdles
Along with an abundance of growth opportunities, Praline’s faces a number of growth obstacles. One of those is maintaining the quality of its ice cream products while trying to keep steady pricing for customers, Torre said.
“We don’t want to squeeze our customers for every penny,” she stressed.
Staffing up for expansion also presents a potential challenge. Because the products are mixed by hand, it takes a full year to train a new staff member, Torre noted.
But Praline’s appears to be up to those challenges. It’s fine-tuned its product mix and defined its growth strategy, and is ready to take operations to the next level — even if that means employees must wear more than one hat.
“We’ve always had a family approach with our employees. We’re masters of our own departments, but we are jacks of all trades here,” Torre said.