The path to success isn’t always obvious. When Brian Smith reached 40 years of age, he quit his job writing low-budget monster movies, took a weeklong ice cream chemistry course at Penn State, and co-founded — with his wife, Jackie Cuscuna — what has grown into the Ample Hills Creamery empire.
It was, to say the least, a very profitable midlife crisis.
The Brooklyn-based ice creamery was a hit from the day it opened its first store in Prospect Heights in 2011, with lines around the block. It had to close four days after opening because it sold out all its ice cream.
Last year was a blockbuster for the brand: It opened its second facility, in Gowanus, published a cookbook, and began selling pints online. (The cookbook, Secrets and Stories From Brooklyn’s Favorite Ice Cream Shop, was written by Smith and Cuscuna, formerly a schoolteacher, and illustrated by Lauren Kaelin, the ice creamery’s director of marketing).
This year is shaping up to be even bigger: Last month, the company received $4 million in seed funding from local firm Brooklyn Bridge Ventures. Just last week they released their limited-edition Star Wars themed flavors, The Light Side and The Dark Side.
Now they’re planning to open a third space, a 15,000-square-foot retail and production facility in Red Hook.
Ample Hills’ ability to invest in the space came in no small part from Smith’s relationship with fellow local businessman Charlie O’Donnell. A tech investor and a neighbor, O’Donnell began mentoring Smith. The relationship grew into $4 million for Ample Hills — once O’Donnell led the investment round through his seed fund Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.
It was the fund’s first project outside of the technology industry and it paid off, bringing in other well heeled investors like Lerer Hippeau Ventures (Warby Parker, BuzzFeed), Red Sea Ventures (Sweetgreen), and the founders of Seamless.
O’Donnell also introduced Smith to key Ample Hills investor and Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter. O’Donnell met Potter through a rowing club at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Ample Hills plans to start renovating its new warehouse in January and hopes to open the Red Hook facility by summer 2016, Smith told Brownstoner.
But Smith and Cuscuna’s ice cream aspirations go way beyond Red Hook. “Our goal would be to make [more] brick-and-mortar shops,” Smith said of future plans. “My wife and I are really interested in building community gathering places. Our real interest is building unique shops in different locations without diluting our authenticity.”
Filling a Waterfront Warehouse With Ice Cream
In late November, Ample Hills signed a lease for an industrial space at 421 Van Brunt Street in the Beard and Robinson Stores complex, just across from Hometown BBQ and Fairway grocery store.
“I’m putting down a much bigger stake,” Smith told Brownstoner of the new Red Hook space. “It’s a multiple-year lease and the factory will be able to make ice cream for us for at least the next decade.”
The new facility will incorporate many of the creamery’s defining amenities, like a retrofitted bicycle that churns ice cream, and party room outfitted for children’s birthdays and other family-friendly events.
The venue will include a retail shop, an ice cream factory, and a bakery dedicated to creating Ample Hills’ signature handmade inclusions, such as the namesake of its Ooey Gooey Butter Cake flavor. An interactive element will permeate the space as the working factory sections will be open to the public.
Plans include a self-guided tour that explains Ample Hills’ vision and process — “the narrative of how and why we make ice cream,” said Smith.
In addition to local entertainment and ice cream creation, Smith has plans for national production at the facility. Although he staunchly stands by Ample Hills’ Brooklyn roots and local energy, he’s working toward getting pints into stores across the country.
Currently, the pints are available for individual sale online nationally and they’re also in a few dozen grocery stores in the New York area. With the new facility in Red Hook, Ample Hills plans to expand its grocery store distribution nationwide.
Red Hook: Some of Brooklyn’s Priciest Manufacturing Space, But Worth It
Making ice cream in Red Hook won’t come cheap. Tenants in the area are paying anywhere from $20 to the low $30s per square foot, according to broker Peter Schubert of commercial property firm TerraCRG, who led the deal but declined to discuss the specifics of the lease.
With manufacturing space in the borough so scarce, Schubert insists the Red Hook property is a steal.
“It has three frontages,” Schubert says of the space, “fantastic ceiling heights, great visibility, great light. You don’t really have industrial space with light, and this even has views of the water on one side.”
Light and visibility aside, locations like the new warehouse location are extremely hard to come by. Demand for large spaces in Brooklyn is high, and the borough is exhausting its supply.
“Red Hook is really running out of space,” Schubert told Brownstoner, noting that the building’s landlord, Greg O’Connell, doesn’t have anything else available. That’s significant, because O’Connell, a Brooklyn native, is one of the biggest landlords in the area, with his family-owned empire the O’Connell Organization.
“We’re in the market with a lot of tenants that are being forced to think about new locations because they can’t find the space where they want to be,” Schubert said, further emphasizing the good luck and planning of Ample Hills’ new lease.
O’Connell commented on Red Hook’s popularity as well, noting the neighborhood’s decade-long resurgence as a haven for makers, especially for small businesses like Ample Hills that are looking to expand.
Adding to Red Hook’s Growing Foodie Empire
In particular, food- and beverage-oriented companies have poured into the neighborhood. These “make the neighborhood even more attractive for residents and absolutely bring an incredible amount of attention to the area,” O’Connell told Brownstoner. “Each summer, visitorship to the neighborhood grows because of these types of businesses and other creative small businesses in the community.”
While these new artisanal businesses fit the warehouses’ historic use as a manufacturing district, O’Connell noted, they are notably different from the buildings’ recent use for storage, supply and warehousing purposes.
Retaining Ample Hills’ Authenticity (a Brooklyn Identity Doesn’t Come Easy)
Can Ample Hills grow without compromising quality and authenticity? One of Smith’s biggest fears is expansion will lead to creating cookie-cutter shops and losing the ice-creamery’s Kings County identity.
“The thing that keeps us up at night is, how do we keep this very local and grow it without changing it?” Smith confided to Brownstoner.
Indeed, the business is named for a line in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “I too lived — Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine.”
Beyond its name, Ample Hills embodies Brooklyn’s spirit in its community-driven shops, with ice cream–themed toys and books in kid play spaces and contests to come up with new flavors. The menu includes flavors with local namesakes, like It Came From Gowanus (the name was also inspired by Smith’s former career).
No matter how large his ice cream empire grows, Smith plans to keep the business’s narrative in its home borough. “For a brief spell we certainly considered moving north, up to Hudson or upstate New York where we could build something for a lot less money,” Smith said of the decision to invest in pricey local real estate, “but at the end of the day we just felt it was so important to keep the story in Brooklyn, to keep the center of our production in Brooklyn. It’s where my wife and I live, it’s where our staff live, it just seems tied to who we are.”
Ample Hills, Smith dreams, “will grow in concentric circles out from Brooklyn.”
[Photos by Mary Hautman]
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