Throughout its 150-year history, Graeter’s Ice Cream has had to face “Black Swan” events to survive for another generation. COVID-19 is no different. It was unexpected, but not unprecedented. In 1918, Louis and Regina had to manage the business through the Spanish flu in an era before the miracle vaccines. They survived then, and we will survive now.
The Graeter’s brand has proven to be resilient through economic depressions, pandemics and world wars. It would be arrogant to presume that our success was due to brilliant leadership. As we celebrate our 150th anniversary, it becomes clearer that our success is driven by a steadfast dedication to preserving the quality of the product on which we have built our reputation, the level of service that we strive to deliver to our customers and the dedication of our team members that enable us to do both so well.
While we had planned to make this year a fun celebration of that heritage, now we have refocused our efforts to providing comfort in uncomfortable times. This crisis will surely pass, and when it does, we will return to happy days where our mission is to simply celebrate life with carefree joy. Until then, we must simply face the reality that it may be a long journey to get to those happy days. Until then, we need to simply persevere.
Following our rules
In the face of the present crisis, we have drawn strength from the knowledge that prior generations have faced and overcome even great challenges than we are facing today. Which leads to what has become our number one rule: Don’t panic.
The second rule is to remain observant for unexpected opportunities and ready to pounce when they arrive. For example, in the early days of the quarantine, the shelves in the frozen food aisle in Cincinnati Kroger locations were emptied by the initial wave of “panic buying.” I am sure that the same was happening all over the country, and while we could not do anything about it elsewhere, we had a freezer full of ice cream and an amazing dedicated team working overtime to fill up the freezers and empty endcaps. Endcaps, as everyone knows, are the most cherished premier territory in retail, and they were sitting empty.
For me, nothing breeds anxiety more than going to the store and finding empty shelves. We worked with our local Kroger team to get their shelves filled ASAP while most national brands struggled and, in many cases, failed to respond. When shoppers went to their local Kroger, they were able to find their local hometown brand on the shelf, and I have to believe that that gave them comfort and confidence that in spite of the bad news all around them, things were going to be OK.
In our retail stores, we were fortunate to have just rolled out a mobile app to facilitate home delivery. We were able to quickly pivot and adapt that app to also facilitate online ordering and curb-side pick-up — neither of which we had planned on offering that soon, but both of which helped our stores weather the early days of state stay-at-home orders. That is rule three: Be nimble and open to new ways of delivering products to your customers.
Finally, and most importantly, stay true to your values. Our strength as a brand comes from our stubbornness to stick to the values on which Regina Graeter built this company. From how we continue to use the French Pot process to freeze ice cream to the upscale fit and finish of our ice cream parlors — both unique in the industry — Graeter’s has remained a constant through 15 decades. It is at the core of who we are. And it makes a difference. It is, in the end, the true reason that we have been able to survive hard times in the past, and it is what will get us through these current difficult times.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been gifted this brand and to have had the opportunity to continue building its legacy. And I have been smart enough to realize that the strength of the brand comes from the dedication of those who came before me, and that my most important job as a leader is to simply be a custodian of that brand. I know that my partners feel the same way.
In conclusion, I truly believe that only a family has the patience to steward a brand like Graeter’s through generations. The French Pot process is a crazy way to freeze ice cream. It is small-batch, time-consuming, labor-intensive, horrifically expensive way to freeze ice cream. But it is the only way we know, and it is, for those who know the difference, what makes Graeter’s Graeter’s.
If equity capital ever got ahold of our brand, they would quickly demand that we compromise on our heritage process in search of ROI and short-term returns. And that may very well be the end of the Graeter’s we know and love. That is why my final goal as a leader of the fourth generation is to transition to the fifth generation, so the legacy of Graeter’s can live on for another generation of customers.