Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011, Hello 2012, It's nice to meet you.

Well, here we are again, knocking at the door of another year. Does it seem like each year goes by faster than the next or is it just me? This one, while fraught with highs and lows, was a blissful blur.

From the marketing high of scoring a spot on the Weather Channel back in July to the October Blizzard slash blackout and resulting ice cream Armageddon, this year was one wild ride.

While the cool rainy Spring made for a sluggish start, the stellar dry, warm, but not too hot Summer weather made for another record year of cone sales. Thanks to all of you who were part of that. I do this gig to pay my mortgage and a couple other bills, but the pleasure of making people happy with what I do is where the real satisfaction lies for me. Rarely does it actually feel like work, and for that I'm the luckiest guy I know. It's demanding and the hours are long, especially from May through October, which explains the need to claim January to recharge the batteries, but it's still great fun, so into year nine we go!

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't give credit to my awesome scoop crew for all their hard work and kind-hearted service all year. People often compliment me and Mt. Tom's about how nice the people are that work here. That one always makes me feel good (of course so does the one where people tell me they like my ice cream better than that other place in Northampton ;), because I really do want people to have an enjoyable experience when they come here.

Special thanks to Hannah, Mimi, & Amy for allowing me to have at least a little bit of a life during the Summer.

So as I sit here and reminisce over all that's happened this year, it's easy to let the news get you caught up in all the bad things that happened. tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, notable deaths. I'm sure we've all made a choice or two we'd like to take back. But as they say, what's done is done. And with the turning of the clock at midnight tonight, a shiny and untainted new year arrives, full of hope and expectation. What does it have in store for us, well, that is unknown.

And as I learned from a quote on a chai tea bag given to me by a good friend, 'When you are in tune with the unknown, the known is peaceful.'

May the new year bring with it all your heart desires, and may the unexpected turns that make you stronger do only that.

Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Finding the Holiday Spirit.

Season's greetings from my little ice cream workshop here in Whoville. Dogs are barking Jingle Bells on the shop radio. The Festivus and eggnog flavors are stocked and ready for scooping. I'm surrounded by half-eaten Christmas cookies and a small stack of holiday cards while behind me hundreds of jars full of sweet colorful goodness anxiously await the hands of many Santa's helpers. Before I get to the pepermint stick, er candy cane, ice cream pie making, I thought I'd jot a few thoughts into the trusty ice cream diary.

I'm sure you too are right now immersed in the sights and sounds and events that make this time of year so hectic. It's no wonder the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas go by so fast. Just too much to do - presents to buy, wrap, and ship. Cookies to bake, box, and share. Parties to plan and attend. And if you're in retail, this is it for you, make or break. That's a lot of pressure all around. No wonder why it can be such a stressful time of the year.

Having said all that, I also think it really is the most wonderful time of the year. And here are my whys...

It's a time when people think about others more than themselves.

What should I get for Mom? I just need one more little gift for my brother. A gift for the boss. At the surface, it may seem commercial and perhaps it's your least favorite part of the holidays. But thinking about everyone but yourself for a week or two can't be a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

Christmas day is the ultimate 'being in the moment' moment.

I remember when I was a kid, I looked forward to Christmas morning so badly it hurt. It was just about all I could think about. Is Santa going to come through for me? Was I nice enough for that Death Star Lego Set? Time seemed to move backwards for those days leading up to C-day. And when you finally woke up on Christmas morning, well before the sun and probably even before the dog, and dashed down to the living room to see what treasures lay beneath the tree, it just didn't get any better than that. And Mom and Dad always seemed to take forever to get out of bed. Once the eggnog began to flow and the gift opening frenzy finally began, it was pure and innocent bliss, even though it was over in an instant.

Christmas morning is the time when you don't wish for any other moment. You're in it. You're not thinking about the day before or December 29th.

Christmas makes living in the moment look easy.

People are generally a little nicer. At least when they're not fighting for a parking space.

If you consider Facebook a virtual mood ring as I do, there seem to be less status updates of woe and bad politics and more of an uplifting nature this time of year. Like the one I just read about a friend who was in Rite Aid with her young son. He was playing with a little Matchbox car in line until they got to the checkout counter where Mom made him put it back. When she began to pay for her items, the cashier told her the man ahead of her in line had left money for the little matchbox. By that time, he was long gone, never even turning back for a thank you. How can that not make your day.

People make time to spend time with their families.

When I was a kid, our family would go to Grandma's in Fitchburg every Christmas eve. Dad's entire family would congregate there for a day of winter holiday fun. Sledding and snowball fights served as appetizer for a giant Finnish dinner, culminating with the arrival of Jolly Ole Nick, usually in the form of a poorly disguised missing uncle. With all the predictable fanfare, Uncle Santa would ho, ho, ho across the lawn as he shook a belt of bells, giant pillowcase of presents slung over his shoulder. As a young believer, it was a brush with greatness. Eventually, it became more of a warm and entertaining photo opp, played out in the same way every Christmas eve shortly after the consuming of the roast beast and Lanttulaatikko. Santa would stay just long enough to pass out a single present to each person.

When his pillowcase was empty, Santa would stand up, wish everyone a very merry one, and dash out the door, disappearing back into the darkness of the backyard like a ballplayer in Field of Dreams.

Soon after, my brothers and I would be tucked into our action figure sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon, and home we would go. All along the way, we'd gaze out the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa's sleigh darting across in the sky. I remember thinking we saw him once, only to later be told by Dad when we got home to our still unvisited home that it was probably just Skylab.

It's a Wonderful Life.

What would a holiday season be without watching that timeless classic at least once. The line "No man is a failure who has friends" pretty well sums it up for me.

We dress up our houses to look bright and cheery.

You may think it's crazy the way some people cover their entire house and yard with lights and inflatable animated holiday characters, and perhaps you'd rather weed your lawn for six hours on a 90 degree day in August than stick a giant snowglobe on it. I will say, though, that I found myself last Christmas eve, sitting in my brother's SUV, over on Lawler Street, with he, his wife and their three kids, watching the thousands of lights flicker in time to the music playing on the car radio. I know it made me feel warm and Christmassy and a bit like a kid again. If you don't believe me, I recommend you do a driveby tonight yourself.

Our houses smell like the forest, only warmer.

A Christmas tree is the original aromatherapy.

While it's nice to receive, most of us really do find it better to give.

I don't know about you, but when I've found that perfect gift for someone, even if it's just a three dollar whoopie cushion for my brother to use to compete with the sounds his six year old son makes with his mouth on the side of his arm, it's way more enjoyable than opening up one of my own.

People reach out a little bit more to those less fortunate.

If only homeless shelters and food kitchens had as much help on a cold day in February as they do on Christmas or Thanksgiving day, this world would definitely be a better place. I suppose the same could be said about church or other structures of worship, but that's a whole 'nother topic. While it's hard to knock anyone for wanting to do something good on any day, wouldn't it be great to discover a way to harness that awesome giving spirit a little longer, even just to help get us through the cold New England winter.

A shiny new year is just around the corner, ready to offer up a fresh start.

Much more to say on that topic, but perhaps I'll wait until next week for that one.

In the meantime, I hope the spirit of the holiday season finds you and immerses itself deep in your soul right through into next year.

Life is just a precious collection of moments, and may these holidays bring with them a few more for yours.

From the entire crew and myself, Happy Holidays!


Friday, December 09, 2011

A Sunny Thanksgiving.

As the wrath of winter continues to elude us (hope I didn't just jinx it) and December rolls on somewhat uneventfully, I thought I'd post up a few photos from my recent trip to Florida for Thanksgiving.

It was a quick but very fun long weekend full of quality family time, amazing food and drink, beaching, and even a trip to the zoo.

I hope yours was equally as fulfilling. And if not, there are a couple other holidays just around the corner to get it right.

I thought I might share a few in hopes that it might give you a brief respite from the doom and gloom of your daily news and status updates. Worked for me anyhow.

After all, life is just too short for gloom.

My niece living in the moment...

Come here often?

Such a cool zoo that lets you pet the giraffes. Just don't linger or you'll feel the fury of the crazy lady in the red shirt..

Five nephews/niece and counting..

Cousins out for a sunday drive...

Table under the mango tree..

We may never know whether he was pushed or just fell into the pool during the group shot. In any event, the rest of the kiddos got a good laugh out of it..

Rock, paper, scissors, shoot...

I know these next few weeks get pretty hectic with shopping, parties, wrapping, trimming trees, and making cookies, but I hope yours are only the best kinds of hectic. Full of good family, friends, and cheer.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

The week the power went out. And stayed out.

It started innocently enough. Just a couple weeks after we were enjoying temperatures in the 80's, along come the weather forecasters with last minute predictions of a good old nor'easter snowstorm. I think most of us just assumed 'great, rain that changes to snow for a little while and looks nice on the rusty trees, then changes back to rain'. A little inconvenient but not a big deal.

The first signs of trouble came in the form of giant snowflakes to kick off the storm, hours earlier than predicted. Snow right from the start, ruh, roh. The driving got dicey within the first hour. No, this would not be any ordinary early season snow event.

By dark, six inches or more lay like a lead blanket on the ground and in the still leaf-covered trees. Outmatched limbs succumb to the weight, taking with them power lines, transformers, and garage roofs. Lightning and brilliant green flashes of exploding transformers lit up the sky. Winter had entered the building, and she seemed really mad about something.

By around 9 pm, most of Hampshire County was in the dark. Who would have thought that darkness would last for nearly a week.

Of course, losing power is one of the few major anxieties I have as the owner of an ice cream shop, a business that relies pretty heavily on electricity to make and maintain its product. The days of enjoying thunderstorms ended when I plugged in my first dipping cabinet freezer. It's hard to describe that sinking feeling an ice cream shop owner gets when their shop goes silent. We know the unique rattle and hum of each freezer under our employ, and when one sounds different when you walk into the shop in the morning, you know your day isn't going to go as planned.

The good news is if you don't open the freezers, the ice cream inside will remain intact for around 4 to 6 hours. Longer than that, and bad things start happening. The most common question I get is, do you have a generator. Well, yes, but..

It's definitely better than nothing and under normal circumstances, just the knowledge that it's at the ready calms my nerves during most power outages. It won't power all my freezers, so they take turns, two at a time. This will work for a day or two at the most, but things go downhill rapidly from there. Needless to say, four days without power led to the premature passing of many tubs of ice cream.

That was the downside of last week's crazy weather. We dodged the destruction of the summer tornadoes, hurricane Irene,and the earthquake, so I guess it was just our turn.

There were some bright spots in all that cold darkness.

Discovering the upside of social media.

I must admit, Facebook posts from friends and particularly Pat Brough and his Eastampton Good News Page, when the network would let you in, was my main source of power restoration effort updates. Few had concrete answers, but at least it gave you something sometimes soothing for the nerves. The 2011 version of sitting by the battery-operated radio. I've often questioned the good-ness of social media, but I must admit, Zuckerberg and his posse stepped up to keep us informed and connected this time. Of course, it was kindof nice to not have it so accessible. Everything in moderation, as they say.

Random displays of the kindness of friends and strangers.

During the first few days, most of us were in the same boat. Cold, dark, coffee-less, and basically clueless. Neighbors checked on each other. Mayor Mike set up charging stations, food shelters, and provided updates. As power started to return, those who got it back offered their homes to others without. Casey at the Apollo Grill, opened up his candle-lit restaurant to all who got the word. With the help of his gas grill, he sustained many through those first couple days. Weary townsfolk played board games, chatted, and enjoyed great food and beverages for gratis in his cozy respite from their cold and dark homes. Fun and heart-warming. Thanks Case.

A taste of the (good?) old days.

It really is amazing how attached we've gotten to our gadgets. I can barely remember life before the internet. We take it for granted now, like indoor plumbing and supermarkets. I wanted to write something and had to grab a pen and an old journal made from a tree. It felt a bit strange, slow, and inefficient. But wholesome at the same time. I'm not saying I want to go back to tapping on an old typewriter, but I do think my eyes, and soul, enjoyed a few days away from my glowing screens.

When the storm was over, an almost eerie calm settled into our small town. It was beautiful.

Life just slowed down.

Power was finally restored late last week. The weather warmed up, the snow melted, and Autumn resumed..

The storm of 2011 is gone, along with all the snow and that giant Mulberry tree in my backyard, but we won't soon forget the week the lights went out. It's something I hope to never repeat for as long as I peddle ice cream, but all fiscal losses aside, it was a life experience I think we will all hold onto for a long time to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Off-Season Begins.

With the first use of the word 'snow' by Ashley over at the 22 News desk today, Halloween next week, and the end of Daylight Savings Time not far behind, it seems safe to say 'off-season' has officially returned to Mt. Tom's and me.

The lines are rare from here until early Spring, and the crew schedule is much thinner. Meanwhile, the espresso machine steps it up for those deep dark hot chocolates, hot apple ciders, and Chai lattes. Thankfully, we live in New England where her hearty residents have been known to hold a cone with a down-filled mitten while walking through a blinding snowstorm.

May thru September are a whirlwind for we ice cream purveyor folk, and that's a very good thing. In these latitudes, you definitely gotta make hay when the sun shines from high in the sky. With your support, it's been another banner year. So a wholehearted thanks for coming out all summer. And for telling your friends about us. That's the part that really makes the difference, and I can't thank you enough. We'll keep making the best ice cream we can, and if you keep telling your friends, this little adventure I started now eight years ago will be around for many, many more.

Last time I blogged, I mentioned a few off-season projects I was kicking around for the trusty Diaries. One is the Sundae Experiment - stay tuned. That one, although takes some time, is really fun, and I still plan to continue it now that I've gotten my life back.

The other was to take a stab at a rewrite/reprint of the original Ice Cream Diaries. You may have caught the first episode here a month ago or so. After rereading a few more of those early rants, I've decided not to redo the whole set. Although there are definitely some great nuggets in there and it certainly captured those early days, at least for me, I realize they might be better left where they lie. You're welcome to peruse them at your leisure if you haven't already, and I have every intention of stealing material from them for future projects, but I'm scrapping plans for a rewrite. I wasn't technically a kid back then, but in entrepreneur time I definitely was, and while I've shaken those start-up jitters along with a bit of the thrill of the newness of it all, it's still a great gig, and I wouldn't trade it for eight years of weekends off.

Speaking of writing, next up, Novel-in-a-month, 50,000 words in 30 days, who's with me? If you don't see many blog posts around here next month, it's not for lack of writing anyway. Wish me luck. I have only scattered thoughts and random notes, but I figure I'll just hatch a few characters and see where they take me. Should be fun..

Along with burying myself in this challenging project, my other November goal is go on an internet diet. I can't deny that Facebook, email, Google News, MassLive, and the like have changed the way we live and interact. Sometimes, though, it just feels like too much information. I know that probably sounds a bit hypocritical coming from someone writing in his blog for anyone to see. I just thought it might be refreshing to see if I could live without constantly knowing what all my 'friends' are doing, or about the next war casualty that happened just twelve minutes ago. With all that reclaimed free time and a couple good ideas, 50,000 words should be a piece of cake.

Ice cream cake of course.

And if you're out and about for the upcoming Easthampton ArtWalk, I hope you can pop in and take peak at some of my favorite new and local images. My untitled show starts with the November ArtWalk on the 12th.

Thanks for reading, and hope to see you soon.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

Change Happens.

I bumped into a friend the other day in a local bookstore. She had just traded-in a box of books for cash, which she most likely returned to the owner of said bookstore for a smaller stack of books on the way out. 'I'm cleaning out my house, getting rid of all the clutter,' she jubilantly declared.

My response was, 'me too!' Clothes that haven't been worn in years, blog notes and to-do lists for things long done or left undone, weeds in the yard, expired condiment bottles turned science projects in the back of the refrigerator. Out with the old, make room for the new, as they say.

A friend/customer came in the other day and was giddy about the dumpster that just got delivered to her driveway. 'I can't wait to clear out the house of all my old stuff!' She could hardly contain herself.

It seems the change in seasons often finds us hankerin' for change in our own lives.

So we attack the things under our control. Like the basement. Or the garden. Underneath the driver's seat of our Honda.

Saying goodbye to that which no longer serves us well. Although I've yet to see a scientific study to verify this, it seems the changing of seasons is a common trigger. Case in point, 'spring cleaning'.

Right up there with sports team collapses.

As I try to write about change and cleansing and rebirth, my mind can't help but return to the Red Sox and their 'historic' meltdown. Like a train wreck you just can't look away from, I can't seem to stop listening to the constant barrage of angry and broken-hearted Sox fans venting on talk radio or ranting through the comments section of the endless sports pieces from every analyst and blogger who ever heard of David Ortiz. It seems clear. Someone must take the fall for the fall. In a desperate attempt to gain some control over the situation, we fans, die-hard, bandwagon, pink hat or otherwise, speak our minds - 'Theo must go. Tito must go. Crawford must go. It's all Lackey's fault.'

Ah, if only we had keys to that cluttered Red Sox locker room, could we do some cleaning.

No one likes to feel helpless, so we fester and try to tell ourselves it's just a game. It doesn't matter. There are way more important things to get worked up over. We'll get 'em next year.

Perhaps they will or perhaps they won't. It seems clear, though, that when you don't get what you ultimately desire, you can either do the same thing again and hope it works out better on its own, or you can make changes you hope will improve the odds.

Last time it was art imitating life. Today it's sports.

I think 'Hoop' summed it up pretty well over on I found this in the comments section of one of those countless post-mortem pieces..

John Henry may look like a milquetoast, but you don't build that kind of wealth without stepping on a few folks, and knowing that change is always needed from time to time to keep an organization on its edge. This organization has lost its edge, that is clear. It doesn't mean Tito and Theo are not immensely talented, it simply means it is time to refresh and rejuvenate.

Refresh and rejuvenate, I like that. I had to look up the word 'milquetoast', but I totally get the rest. I'm not going to lay all the blame on Tito or Theo or Letters to Cleo, but the point is clear. Change for change's sake isn't the answer, and cleaning your garage is much easier than facing a dysfunctional relationship or improving your self-confidence. But when things aren't working, perhaps a little closet cleaning may just be the gateway change needed to steer the ship toward what it is you seek, whether it be a world series ring or your own happiness.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ice Cream Diaries - Issue 1 October 7, 2003.

So it began.. It's hard to believe it's been eight years since I first set foot in the ice cream world. If I wasn't already feeling nostalgic, re-reading those first Ice Cream Diary installments has certainly done the trick. Here's the very first installment. I resisted the temptation to edit or contemporize it. I did correct a typo or two, but I wanted these old entries to stay true to the spirit of that moment, even if a few of those moments don't really make sense anymore. Fear not, I think they get more entertaining after the first couple. I may even sneak in a few more photos as I re-immerse myself in those 'good ole days'...

October 7, 2003

Hello from my new hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. I thought it might be fun to try to capture and share with my buddies a little bit of my new life as engineer turned ice cream man. Writing about myself may seem a bit self-indulgent, and I suppose it probably is, but I got beyond that by convincing myself it would be a good way to keep up my writing skills between batches of ice cream. You may remember last year at about this time reading my Dingo Notes and Kiwi Notes. Well, unfortunately I’m not now sitting in a cyber café, half-drunk on New Zealand house white, living out of a big green backpack with painfully dorky detachable day pack. Which also means I won’t be sharing stories of exotic tramping adventures atop majestic glaciers in New Zealand or dodging venomous snakes (or crazy young British tourists) deep in the Australian bush. Instead, as you probably already know, I am just about to start an adventure of a much different flavor. I have just completed the purchase of a candy store! I thought doing an email journal to capture the experience would be fun (and perhaps functional) for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, since my new business is in western Massachusetts, near the hip town of Northampton, I am now about eight exits west on the Mass Pike from most of y’all, and I thought this might be a way to help me keep in touch. Of course, I hope this will be just one of many ways to do that. Consider this an open invitation to come out for a visit anytime. Let’s just say I didn’t get a second bedroom for my fish.

The second reason for what I'm calling 'the ice cream diaries’ is to record the trials and tribulations and exhilarations of starting a business – a travel journal of sorts that I can pull off a dusty bookcase in thirty years to remind myself how naïve I really was back then. And for you, I wanted to find a way to share the experience, whether you simply enjoy reading as a distraction from an otherwise dull email box or you too are a closet entrepreneur and are hungry for a behind the scenes look. You might even learn something from my mistakes, er experience. I won’t even make you co-sign for my bank loan.

The final rationale for the IC Diaries is the romantic notion that no matter where this little ice cream adventure takes me, to success and eternal bliss or just another lesson to tell my little brother, it will most certainly provide fodder for future writing projects, perhaps even that prize-winning screenplay, “Ice Cream Diaries”. In any event, I hope you enjoy them, and if not, I won’t be at all offended if you send me an email saying “Stop spamming me with your endless ice cream drivel!” And if this is the only installment you get from me, that probably means it turned out to be much more work than even Dad had warned me about!

Having now set the stage, let me bring you up to date. If I haven’t seen you in a while, your first question probably is, how did you go from supply chain engineer (you probably never really knew what that meant anyway) to ice cream guy? It’s hard to say exactly, but it all started somewhere along my seventeen month sabbatical (that has a nicer ring than 'unemployment'). In the midst of travel, writing, socializing, moving, and watching reruns of the The Facts of Life, I finally realized my calling of engineering was not calling me anymore. Not even late at night when it was drunk and horny.

So as things went, I finished my travel adventures (rather anticlimactically at the Blytheville, Alabama WalMart where I quietly commemorated the completion of my quest to visit all fifty states), wrapped up my little coffee table book project, and next found myself being evicted from my cool apartment in Charlestown with just 30 days to figure out how to avoid living in an old couch under Storrow Drive. Rather than seeking writing fodder on the cold, hard streets of Boston, I decided that rather than move to a new apartment and be faced with another move when I got a job, I chose to go home again. Yep, I’ve been living in the folks’ basement for the past few months. And as 'unnatural’ as that sounds (credit to my Aunt Alma for that fitting adjective), it synchronicitly (I think I just made that word up) put me again under the same roof as one famous ice cream man, my Dad. He has been in the ice cream business for forty years. As it turns out, ice cream truly is in my blood.

My Dad, ‘Dave’, created a couple different shops, the second one he sold just a month before I was laid-off back in April of ‘02. So I’m knocking around the folks’ house in Mansfield, picking up old copies of the National Dipper, a magazine made by and for ice cream makers, and I come across an old box of MBA school notes. In the box is a complete business plan that I wrote back in Entrepreneurial Studies class. The business I chose was ‘The Ice Creamery’, one of Dad’s shops. You don’t have to hit me over the head three times to get my attention. From there, I started peppering Dad with ice cream shop questions. For the first time, he didn’t try to talk me out of something, like when I wanted to put a hot tub in my bedroom back in high school or when I threatened to quit college to become a rapper. Dad still did his best to talk me out of it by painting a picture of long hours and Johnny Damon-like headaches that come with running your own business, but I could always tell he was secretly hoping his illustrious ice cream career might just have one more chapter to be written.

From there, the search for the perfect location to bring my ice cream dream to life was on.

In the next installment (should you decide to stay with me), I’ll tell you how I ended up in Easthampton, give you a taste of the twist of fate it took to land my first ice cream gig, and tell you why I am have quickly become my nephew's favorite uncle. Hint: it has something to do with the fact that my new ice cream shop is also a candy store…

Have a great week, go Sox!

Your bud,
CSO – Chief Scooping Officer
Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream, Inc.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sunrise's Sunset - a brief follow-up.

As we all adjust to life after Sunrise, I find myself still in a bit of a nostalgic mood. The Gillette Restaurant Supply trucks and crew that spent a few days last week disassembling and hauling off most of the kitchen equipment from Carl's bakery basement are gone. My electrician is right now rewiring one of his walk-in freezers to my electrical panel.

All that remains upstairs of what was a homey little bakery cafe is a nearly empty room, a few retired coffee makers awaiting delivery to the land of misfit appliances, some display cases destined for Craigslist, and a fading Dear John letter in the window.

The cycle of life, small biz style.

Like the end of any relationship, we find ourselves longing for the good times we won't get to have again while we lick the wounds and desperately try to focus on how we've grown through the experience. We take solace in knowing the person we are no longer with is ultimately better off, and that we too will find that same place when the dust is all settled. Endings are never easy, but to coin a kitchy song, 'Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.'

Ok, it was just a bakery, perhaps I'm being a little melodramatic. I just know that if it were the end of my biz, mixed in with the relief at no longer having the 24/7 responsibility would be many of those same feelings one gets during a breakup. As I mentioned in the last blog post, we were all surprised at how abrupt an ending it was, but I have to give Carl credit for pulling off that band-aid fast. Rumor has it, he's already got a 'normal job', 8-4 five days a week, and is quite content to have such a better shot at a work/life balance.

And we all anxiously await the introduction of the next residents of the Sunrise space. I understand there is quite a lot of interest, and our landlord is not taking the decision lightly. I, for one, look forward to that new beginning.

In the spirit of beginnings, I've started re-reading my original Ice Cream Diaries from those exciting and scary first days in biz, when Mt. Tom's was just a kicking and screaming infant. One of my writing assignments for the Fall is to dust them off, clean up a bit, and republish those meanderings for all who care to relive the early days along with me these nearly eight years later.

Oh, and there's my little Sundae Experiment I need to get back to as well. Volunteers anyone? I have a few people on my list who will be hearing from me soon, but there are plenty more free sundaes to be had. Just drop me a line at or mention it to me next time you're in the shop.

So stay tuned, lots of fun writing assignments to keep you warm like a comfortable old dog hair-covered afghan during those chilly nights that lurk around the bend.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Carl & Sunrise Pastry Shop - Thanks for everything.

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Carl & Sara, owners of Sunrise Pastry Shop on Cottage Street here in Easthampton, have decided to call it a day.

To paraphrase the piece in the Republican, Sunrise has ridden off into the sunset.

The signs may have been there for a while, but few of us thought it would really happen. Fifteen years in this little downtown these days puts you firmly in the category of local institution. Say what you will about the place, and perhaps you haven't been there in months or even years, but I think the town lost a small piece of its charm this week. Carl, the owner, chief baker and bottle washer, took a chance on Easthampton when she was still rough around the edges, with the kind of downtown so sketchy parents of Williston students were given directions to the campus from the Mass Pike via route 10 even when they were coming from the East. When I started Mt. Tom's nearly eight years ago, I had the benefit of trailblazers like Sunrise, Smokin' Lil's, and the Nashawannuck Gallery to cushion my landing here. There are still a few holes to fill downtown today, especially on Union Street, but I'd argue it's daring entrepreneurs like Carl who were the real risk-takers, and the ones who should get the lion's share of the credit for downtown Easthampton's renaissance.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't also give credit due to all the 'starving artists' who took up residence in the reclaimed mills around town. These are the other fearless pioneers who discovered Easthampton in her tougher days, bringing with them a creative energy that has become the pleasant undercurrent of the city.

So why will I no longer enjoy the comforting aroma of baking donuts wafting through the walls of the bakery I share a basement with? Carl shares some of his thoughts over at MassLive. In a nutshell, he says it just stopped being fun. I think most of us who start our own business say it at the outset, but I also think few actually live by the words - 'When it stops being fun, I'll get out.' Too often businesses fail or in some ways worse, they survive while their overworked owner watches the years of their life zoom past at warp speed as they play the wizard behind the curtain for 83 hours a week. Let's face it, owning your own business is a lifestyle, and anyone who tells you otherwise, hasn't done it, or if they have, it probably wasn't for long.

When my Dad owned his ice cream shop with Mom back when I was in my 20's, I saw how chained he was to the business. He loved it. His favorite line was, 'I'm not going to work. I'm going to play.' But it baffled me why he never just hired a manager to run things so he could have a 'normal life' and have more time to do the non-ice cream things he enjoyed like fishing and reading a good book on a hammock in the backyard. It's the same problem I find myself struggling with today. I get it now. It's just not that simple. If you read the E-Myth by Michael Gerber, it's the classic entrepreneur's dilemma. Work like mad with a ton of passion and excitement for your new 'baby'. It becomes a success, and you end up working like crazy all the time. You finally say 'enough', then hire a manager and begin to off-load tasks. If you find the right person, they will do an adequate job, perhaps even a very good job. But they will never be you. They will never have your level of enthusiasm and stake in the game. Almost inevitably, just as you start to feel a bit of work/life balance returning to your life despite the negative impact on your bottom line, the dam starts to break in your business. The place isn't quite as clean as it would be when you were there all the time. Quality of the product starts to deteriorate a bit. And so begins the slow and steady slide to mediocrity. If you're not paying attention, by the time you realize what's happening, you've lost customers, the numbers are in the tank, and your biz is at the brink of self-destruction. Once it gets to that point, there are really just two options - say goodbye to your reclaimed personal life and jump back in to save your baby, or let it go.

During the short conversation I had with Carl in the parking lot the day he made the big decision to shutter Sunrise, he described his frustrations with staffing. In the colorful way only Carl can. Anyone who's come in contact with him knows, what you see (and hear) is what you get. He may sugarcoat his pastries, but never his words that's for sure. That may have alienated a customer here and there, but to his credit you always knew where you stood with Carl. Cross him and you'll feel the wrath of his words. Passive aggressive would never be used to describe him. But he always seemed to have time for his customers. Most mornings as I gazed over to his window, I could see him standing at a table of his regular customers, telling stories a mile a minute. That's the Carl many of his patrons will miss.

As for the staffing issues, I've always said it's the best and worst part of the gig. When you have a great crew, your job and your life is immensely easier. When it's not so great for whatever reasons, you find yourself working much longer and much harder to keep the ship righted. The ironic part is I believe I have Carl's staffing Achilles' heel to thank for my ice cream shop being in Easthampton.

You see, Mt. Tom's was actually started in a way by Carl ten years ago. He is the one responsible for the candy store part. He called it Sunrise Sweeties, and it was meant to be primarily a way to peddle his own homemade chocolates, truffles, petits fours, and other confections. He rented the space from our landlord after buying out the Northampton candy store Sweet Expectations. He cleaned it up nice, filled it with all their shelves, jars, and displays, added a few tables and counters, and Sunrise Sweeties was born.

Since he spent most of his time baking and operating Sunrise Pastry shop, he hired a manager to run his new candy store. From what I understand, that worked pretty well the first year, until that manager quit. The manager who replaced her wasn't up to the task in the same way. The business soon became a burden, and he decided to shop it around quietly. Around this time, I just happened to wander out here to visit a friend in Worthington. She owned a bed and breakfast and got her pastries from Carl. She just also happened to sell real estate on the side. Carl had mentioned he had a candy store to sell. My friend mentioned it to me after I described my so far fruitless search for a suitable location to bring to life my ice cream shop dreams. Voila, the stars had lined up, my friend made a call, I stopped in to see the place the next day, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My first look at the future Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream & Candy Store..

I didn't want this to read like an obituary, but more like a 'this is what Sunrise closing means to me'. When I saw Sara sitting on the back step of Sunrise the day they closed, I asked how she felt. Her response was simply, 'it feels weird.' Owning a business is, as I've said a million times, a lifestyle. The good news is it's a lifestyle you get to choose. I enjoy it because I still feel the passion for creating, for making people happy, for employing local youth, and for being able to spend my time in a happy and social place. It comes with the price of long hours, hard work, risk, and physical labor. I admire Carl for creating something from nothing, for taking a chance on this little town that couldn't, for putting his skills for creating amazing culinary treats to good use, and for getting up at 3:30 am nearly every day of the week for over a decade to do it. I'd guess he and Sara are feeling an emotional hangover of relief, sadness, guilt, angst over the future, and just plain 'weird'. Endings are never easy, but they do give us a chance to stop for a minute and reflect on how far we've come and what we've learned, before we decide where we're going next.

Carl and Sarah should feel good about all the great memories they've provided to Easthampton over the past twelve years. The idea of Sunrise not being around does feel weird, but I admire them for what had to be a very difficult decision. Life only moves forward, and I wish them the best of luck with whatever new lifestyle they choose, whether it be Hawaii, Florence, or a small culinary college in Vermont. Thanks for the impact you've had on my life and the many in town who will miss your talent for creating great sweets. May the road ahead be everything you hope for and more.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mt. Tom's on the Weather Channel. Wait, what?

This is probably old news to most of you, especially if you are a Mt. Tom's fan over on Facebook.

Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream went national last week! During a series of segments over the course of last Sunday morning (and repeated throughout the afternoon), the Weather Channel sampled and rated a few of our flavors as part of their 'Ice Cream Sunday' program. You can check out the highlights here...

Thanks to Pat Brough for putting this video 'highlight film' together. Not sure how you did it, but it's great to have it all in one place (at least until youtube takes it down). As you can probably guess, their 'ice cream show' was shown in little segments between extreme weather reports, news, and local weather on the 8's, so it would have taken you two hours to see what Pat compressed into that little video.

I must admit it was pure, unadulterated awesome and a bit surreal to flip on the Weather Channel that morning and see their little freezer open and overflowing with tubs of ice cream.. with one of those pints showing off a big Mt. Tom's logo on it. Marketing nirvana.

It just got better from there.

To be honest, until I saw my logo in that freezer on my TV screen in my living room, I wasn't even sure it had even worked. After all, I'd never even attempted to ship ice cream. All I knew was it wasn't easy, and it was expensive. But I did have two aces up my ice cream covered sleeve - a source for dry ice. I've had this on my wall for a few years now...

.. And a very good friend at Fed Ex. Liz Jenks, who just happens to be an expert on overnight shipping with all things considered hazardous (e.g. dry ice). She helped me box up the pints, add all the right labels and markings, and even drove it over to the Fed Ex office for me. I'm still thanking her for going way above and beyond the call of friendship.

So let me back up for a second. I'm sure you're wondering how I was able to get Mt. Tom's ice cream on the Weather Channel in the first place. I wish it was a more gripping story, still, given the odds of landing such a market coup, I may never know the extent of synchronicity involved in my getting the call.

'The call' came on a Wednesday, from a Weather Channel producer. 'I'm working on an ice cream tasting segment to be aired live. Part of it will involve different brands of vanilla. The other part will include unique ice cream flavors. I see that you make Maple Bacon ice cream. Are you interested in having your ice cream be part of the show?'

It can be tricky because as every small business owner knows, you get calls from strangers promising things all the time. Usually it's lower credit card transaction rates or shady low interest loans, but once in a while real opportunity is at the other end of the line. I had no way to know for sure on this one, aside from the fact that the guy who called had a voice that sounded like a smooth radio announcer. Obviously not indisputable proof the call was real, but enough to make me say, 'let me figure out how to get you some pints, and I'll call you right back.' I quickly determined if I was ever going to ship ice cream, this would be it. I called back and said ok. I picked 5 of what I consider my best (had to use the special flavors I had that day since the box had to be in the air the next morning, luckily Maple Bacon was made and ready to go!). So Brian the scooper packed up the pints, put them in the blast freezer to freeze them up to a solid twenty-six below zero, and after a trip to American Ice for dry ice then Manchester Hardware for a small cooler the next morning, I had everything I needed to (hopefully) safely ship ice cream to Atlanta in July. I called the Weather Channel producer guy and told him it was on the way, and if he could just unload the pints into a freezer as soon as they arrived. And I also asked if he could just give me a quick call to let me know it wasn't just a big puddle of sour milk with bits of bacon in it when it hit his 95 degree doorstep.

Late Friday morning, the Fed Ex tracking number said the package was left on the steps of the guy's house. I never did get that call, so I literally had no idea if Mt. Tom's would have anything to do with 'Ice Cream Sunday' a few days later. I was afraid to tell anyone because I just didn't know.

You can imagine my relief when I saw that tub sitting in the Weather Channel freezer.

Not only did the ice cream make it in its frozen form, the crew on the Weather Channel loved it.

Chalk one up as another great 'start an ice cream shop life adventure/journey' moment. Made even sweeter by being able to share it with the many friends and customers who are the reason my little ice cream shop adventure is still here and still growing after almost 9 years.

And to answer the one big question, how did Mt. Tom's ice cream end up getting that call from a national network based in Atlanta in the first place? All I can say is, the guy who called had somehow heard we made Maple Bacon ice cream. He had seen a few of our other 'non-traditional flavors' on our website and thought they would fit in well with the 'non-traditional ice cream flavors' piece he was charged with producing. It could have been one lucky web search, a friend-of-a-friend who works at the Weather Channel who comes here, or something else. I did hear a story from a guy who was here a few days ago who said he thought there was a weather forecaster who used work at Channel 40 Springfield and moved to the Weather channel that loved coming to Mt. Tom's. If you're reading this, and you happen to be that guy, I can't thank you enough. Next one's on me...

Thanks to all that have shared the great comments about having seen it (we were in Vermont on a trip and saw it in the hotel. My mom in Iowa saw it..). I guess time will tell if the exposure will lead to anything else. Has it boosted business? Hard to say, although it certainly hasn't hurt. Just being able to be part of putting Easthampton on the 'national weather map' for a day is in itself pretty satisfying..

Thanks for listening, and watching, and hope to see you soon, Jim

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Graduation Speech.

As predicted, ice cream making and shop running duties have kept me from the trusty Ice Cream Diaries, and more importantly, from my latest little writing project, The Sundae Experiment. It's been a fun little writing adventure so far, and I look forward to continuing it soon. Well, if not soon, in the Fall when some bit of balance returns to my life. In the meantime, I've had a writing idea swirling around in my head, since I caught the cool and inspiring graduation speech by Alan Alda at the Williston Northampton School a few weeks ago.

If you want to check it out, here it is...

It got me thinking, and it could pass as a Sundae Experiment question, what would I say if I were ever asked to give a high school graduation speech? I don't expect that to happen anytime soon, but I thought it might be fun to ponder what kind of advice I might espouse if given a podium overlooking a pond of caps and gowns.


Of course, it's crazy to even think of posting it here right after Alan Alda's great speech, so hopefully you haven't watched it yet. What the heck, life is about taking chances, so let's give it a shot..

Congratulations, class of 20(xx). You're about to commence upon the next leg of your life's journey. You've successfully made it through most of your adolescence in one piece. The person you see in the mirror is starting to look very much the likeness of the character you will play in the lifelong reality show called 'You'. Today, you're not so much celebrating the past four years of high school as much as your commencing into the world, like toasting a ship's maiden voyage rather than the four years in dry dock it took to build her. No matter what's next for you, college or working world, your scholastic obligations to society and to your parents have been met. You are free to go where the wind or your whims take you.

You should feel both liberated and terrified.

Let me administer my first advice with the following: take a deep breath, and enjoy this moment.

Your life's party is just getting started.

I can assure you there will be highs, and there will be lows. The good and bad news is both will pass. And when they do inevitably pass, let them go. Feel free to savor the good times, tell stories and look at photos. Don't be afraid to think about the not-so-good times too, for those will provide all the insights you need to navigate whatever lies ahead for you.

Sure, I've read all the best self-help books from Chopra to Gilbran, and you can too if you that's what inspires you. But I thought rather than lean on Steven Covey for his seven habits or drop my favorite Anais Nin quote, 'There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom', I'll save you some time by summarizing it all here - all the answers you seek are already inside you. I'm nearly certain this statement means nothing to you, but that's ok, you'll figure it out in your own time.

After high school, I went to college. Why? 2 reasons. One, because my parents never once made me think there was any other option. They weren't Mommie Dearest about it by any means. For them, it's just what you did to prepare yourself for a successful career, a solid way to provide a comfortable lifestyle for yourself and your future family. End of story.

The second thing that convinced me college was the best next step, believe it or not, was playing the Game of Life. If you remember playing that game, at the beginning you are faced with the choice of going down the college path or the career path. The college path almost always leads to bigger paydays for the rest of the game. After all, the object of the game of life is to have the most money when you reach the end, retirement.

I'm here to tell you that life doesn't always mirror movies, books, or board games. Sure, money can bring a certain amount of happiness, but not if it comes for the price of a job you hate that keeps you from being with the people you care about or doing the things you really want to do. To quote myself (although I'm fairly certain that's a blatant speech faux pas), 'there are plenty of unhappy people in big houses.'
LinkThat's not to say that I don't still recommend college highly. It can and will open doors for you that might otherwise remain closed or be much tougher to push open.

And just like the board game of Life, you will be faced with many other decisions. To marry, to have children, to buy a house, to save for retirement, to change careers, to get a tattoo. Some will work out better than others, but all will serve their purpose in your life. I went to college for engineering, graduate school for business. I worked at a giant company called AT&T for over ten years. Was I unhappy there? No. Could I have worked there my entire career and been fairly content? Sure. But a little voice kept whispering to me, 'there must be something more for you.' Had I not taken the action to look for another job, I would have missed out on an amazing start-up experience followed by two years of world travel which ultimately lead to a career 180 into ice cream and all things sweet.

My message is pretty simple. You may feel pressure right now to make this huge decision about what you want to be for the rest of your life. And if you know exactly what that is already, that's great. But no matter whether you do or you don't, it's fairly likely you may be doing something completely different in ten years anyway. Or twenty. Which, as you will hopefully learn, is one of things that makes life great.

Make the best decisions you can for the reasons that matter (hint: it's not about the money).
In the infamous words of fictitious fun-lover Ferris Bueller, 'Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.' True dat.

Push yourself to be better but don't beat yourself up too much if things don't work out exactly as you had hoped.

And remember, wherever you are in your life is exactly where you are meant to be. Don't let anyone try to make you believe otherwise.
Congratulations, Godspeed, do some good, and have some fun.