At the height of the Great Recession, two MBA students — one of them a classically trained chef — put their heads together to try to solve a problem that was playing out in the foodservice industry: fewer “cooks in the kitchen” to support chefs. Their intention was to create a premium foodservice products company that would make chefs’ lives a bit easier.
The two entrepreneurs — Keith Schroeder, the chef, and Adam Hayes, an engineer — drafted a plan to start a super-premium ice cream company for chefs. And the two men’s brainchild — High Road Craft Brands, officially founded by Keith Schroeder and his wife, Nicki Schroeder, as High Road Craft Ice Cream in 2010 — has since met with much success.
How much success? High Road Craft Brands made Inc.’s annual list of the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies for the last four years straight. The Marietta, Ga.-based company expanded a whopping 399% in 2018 alone, according to the 2019 listing.
Despite the rapid growth, High Road Craft Brands remains committed to craft-style ice cream-making. The company still bases its ice cream mix on the traditional French pastry technique called crème anglaise, which it says results in a decadent base. In addition, High Road Craft Brands relies on “low and slow” vat pasteurization to maximize flavor. It also employs chefs who make variegates and inclusions from scratch in an in-plant culinary kitchen and dream up new flavor concepts in a pilot-scale operation. (See the Inside the Plant article)
CEO Keith Schroeder says the company now boasts approximately 60 SKUs across four brands: its signature High Road Craft Ice Cream, Ciao Bella (a gelato and sorbetto brand acquired in 2018), Wallops! (chocolate-enrobed ice cream and cookie dough novelties, new in 2019) and Helados La Neta (real-deal ice cream inspired by Mexico, debuting in March). Its customers include both restaurants (5-liter pans, 3-gallon tubs, liquid bag-in-box mixes and pre-formed single scoop ice cream) and regional and national retailers (ice cream pints and novelties). Premium private label is an additional focus.
Two of the company’s signature flavors are Bourbon Burnt Sugar and Caramel Pecan under the High Road Craft Ice Cream brand, Keith Schroeder says. The former is a leading foodservice flavor. And the latter is truly representative of High Road Craft Brands’ craftsmanship, with the company cooking up its own caramel and roasting the pecans.
“We actually pasteurize the mix for the Caramel Pecan for 24 hours,” he says. “So we leave it in the vat until it becomes like dulce de leche; it becomes amber by effectively overcooking the mix.”
Believe it or not, that flavor actually owes its existence to a mistake made in the company’s first plant. As Keith Schroeder explains, the mix was accidentally left in the pasteurizer post-cleanup — overnight.
“We came back the next morning, and the entire place smelled like caramel,” he says. “We couldn’t figure it out until we went into the raw room and found it. … And it was delicious, the best mistake ever.”
The company’s ice cream novelties — Wallops! and seven varieties of ice cream sandwiches under the High Road Craft Ice Cream brand — get the craft treatment as well. Speaking of frozen novelties, that’s an area of interest for High Road Craft Brands in terms of future product development. Three-to-four bite frozen novelties with a nod to portion control are a particular focus, Keith Schroeder noted.
“We want to work on a product that we used to make for fun called ‘Road Block,’” he says. “So a block of ice cream with a slice of stretchy, chewy caramel underneath, and enrobed in chocolate. Inspired by a candy bar.”
Building a fan base
It’s one thing to produce high-quality, culinary-driven super-premium ice cream. It’s quite another thing to get potential customers and consumers to try it. Fortunately, High Road Craft Brands understood from the beginning that it needed to take a creative approach to marketing.
In the early days, the company had no real aspirations to play within the grocery retail space, Keith Schroeder explains. But it did operate an online store that successfully connected “really serious food enthusiasts” with the company, so that store played a critical role in introducing the High Road Craft Ice Cream brand.
As the business expanded, High Road Craft Brands stepped away from the online store. But it opted to make a go of that again within the past year, with Nicki Schroeder, who serves as the company’s chief marketing officer, and her team reworking and relaunching the company’s website to share “a constant flow of innovation” with consumers, Keith Schroeder says.
“It’s been very fun to see it come back to life,” he says. “So we plan on investing a lot of time and effort into our online experience.”
As Justine Zarch, executive vice president of business development, explains, the store offers an opportunity for consumers to try out 30 different flavors of products.
“There’s the element of choice, I think, where people can test across all of our brands,” adds Nicki Schroeder. “So you can get a Ciao Bella pint with a High Road pint — with the Wallops!”
The reinvestment in the online store also means High Road Craft Brands has become very good at fulfillment, packaging and shipping, Keith Schroeder says.
“It’s not about making money; it’s about creating this ravenous community of fans,” he notes.
Getting the word out
But those “super fans” are critical to the company’s success outside of the online store, too. They tend to be experiential customers who travel and eat a wide variety of foods, Nicki Schroeder points out. And they spend a bit more money than the average consumer on food.
“They’re ingredient-conscious, too,” adds Hayes, who officially joined the company he helped plan a couple of years ago, as chief operating officer.
To connect to these (and other) fans, as well as potential retail and foodservice customers, High Road Craft Brands also has been taking a storytelling approach — sharing with consumers videos of what’s going on behind the scenes in the plant, for example, via social media, its website and other avenues.
“I think it’s very cool to be able to go on LinkedIn or something like that and see our products being made by our associates,” Hayes says. “We’re all out in front; everything’s open.”
Walter Biscardi, executive creative director, has been a powerful force behind the storytelling since his hiring in 2019, Nicki Schroeder says. He’s done a fantastic job with telling the “real” story.
“We’re not trying to be anything other than what we are, so you see our real people on the camera,” she points out.
The storytelling approach, particularly via LinkedIn, has been an important tool for attracting private label and other retail buyers. How important? Well, a Wallops-related story recently piqued the interest of a Walmart buyer, who ultimately reached out directly to High Road Craft Brands. As a result, the company’s Wallops! novelties will be available in approximately 1,200 Walmart stores beginning in March 2020.
High Road Craft Brands’ “Minus Twenty” podcasts, too, are a new marketing focus, Zarch says.
The three podcasts completed to date provide a behind-the-scenes peek at the company’s journey as an independent food business — from its early beginnings to retail expansion and more.
“I shoot them like a talk show in addition to the audio,” Biscardi says. “So you can watch it or you can listen.”
The podcasts reflect Keith Schroeder’s passion about entrepreneurship, too.
“I wanted to share the pain points that we experienced as a food company with the world to create a dialogue and just to build goodwill amongst the food entrepreneurship community,” he says. “That’s going really well right now — we’re getting more and more listeners and viewers by the day.”
Some of the company’s other creative marketing has been a little more spontaneous. For example, Nicki Schroeder and Biscardi decided to document on video the “roadshow” they embarked on in conjunction with the release of the company’s pints and ice cream sandwich products in Walmart
“We just captured the places that we were in, the food that was there, the art, the culture,” Nicki Schroeder says. “And then we brought that back into, ‘Hey, we’re also visiting Walmart, so we’re supporting the stores.’ Keith brought that little video in to show the Walmart people.”
Upon viewing that video, the Walmart folks got a little emotional, Keith Schroeder notes.
“They were so excited that a small brand was doing something to celebrate being at Walmart.”
Engaged in its communities
Today, High Road Craft Brands’ products can be found at retailers and foodservice outlets across the United States. And the company very recently entered the export market.
Despite the increasingly global nature of its business, High Road Craft Brands remains committed to supporting its local Atlanta-area community, says Christian Rodriguez, senior vice president of commercialization and a classically trained chef. He says the company not only participates in local food events, but also works with the Georgia Grown program, which supports Georgia agriculture, and is involved with local charities and their events.
“From a grassroots perspective, I think we do a pretty good job of community engagement,” he says.
But for High Road Craft Brands, the concept of community isn’t limited to the Atlanta metro area. For example, the company sources its vanilla directly from Tanzania and is very much an advocate for vanilla farmers within that East African country. High Road Craft Brands works closely with a Tanzanian cooperative on the holistic sustainability front, Keith Schroeder explains, with the goal of improving both the crops and the farmers’ lives.
The company is also engaged with communities across the globe in the spirit of discovery. Keith Schroeder and his team have traveled extensively — to Africa, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China, Italy, France and other countries — entrenching themselves in the various cultures and sampling the flavors of the local populations. On a recent journey, for example, the team tasted an avocado ice cream that served as the inspiration for its Avocado & Lime flavor under its Helados La Neta brand.
“We don’t really care much about trends or being trendy; it’s more about the process of discovery and then wanting to share that,” Keith Schroeder explains. “The spirit of High Road as a company, our whole corporate mission, is really to shine a light on the beautiful and diverse nature of people.”
Looking ahead, the Schroeders have lofty goals for their company. And continued strong growth certainly is one of them.
Thankfully, there’s no slowdown in sight here: Sales already booked for 2020 are already almost double of those for 2019, according to Keith Schroeder. But he has set a bigger target for five years or so down the line.
“I think in terms of ice cream, I would love to see High Road emerge as the No. 3 player in the industry,” he says. “Why No. 3? I think I’ve always been smitten with Dr Pepper/Snapple. … They seem to have permission to be as innovative as they want to be, where there’s a lot of pressure to be Coke or Pepsi.”
To get there, additional mergers & acquisitions (M&A) are almost a certainty, Keith Schroeder notes.
“I think what the Ciao Bella transaction taught us is that smart M&A should be part of any growth strategy,” he says.
Another major goal is finally expanding outside of the ice cream space, much like the original business plan called for. And that’s a particular M&A interest, Hayes noted.
“As we move outside of ice cream, there’s going to be tremendous opportunity for us to have capabilities immediately … talent, experience and manufacturing capabilities,” he adds. “We’ve kind of spent 10 years learning all new stuff. But we don’t want to spend 10 more years learning all of the other new stuff.”
That being said, not all expansion outside of ice cream will rely on M&A activity. In fact, expansion is already in the works internally, albeit in a smaller way. High Road Craft Brands soon will be introducing frozen cocktail mixers under the Mix’d brand. The 5-liter pouches contain no high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors and come in five flavors: Lemon Lime, Blueberry Hibiscus, Passionfruit, Blood Orange and Mango.
And yet another non-ice cream brand, High Road Craft Bakery, is currently in the works. In fact, on the day of Dairy Foods’ visit, Keith Schroeder had an appointment with a major grocery retailer to present a stuffed cookie product produced on the same line as the Wallops frozen novelties. He points out that the new brands build off culinary expertise and other capabilities that the company already has.
But as High Road Craft Brands continues to expand inside and outside of the ice cream space, craft will remain at its core. And the company will increasingly leverage its expertise here to assist others on the product development side.
High Road Craft Brands is already working with Delta Airlines — it developed a premolded vanilla ice cream scoop that serves as the basis for the ice cream sundaes the carrier provides to its First Class passengers. The company is developing some unique flavors for Delta, too, Keith Schroeder says.
Plans for the near future include the addition of a high-end lab and expanded pilot-scale operations in the plant. These add-ons will enhance High Road Craft Brands’ private label product-development partnerships with retailers.
“Vision-wise, I think as we have met more serious, sophisticated and experienced executives in the dairy world, they seem to be looking to us to be leading the charge in terms of innovation and product development,” Keith Schroeder says. “It’s like they’re saying to us, ‘You guys represent what’s next — we want to hang out with you.’ To some degree, that emboldens us to shoot for the stars.”