KSU Executive M.B.A. alums churn ice cream venture

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Entrepreneurs turn class project into dream job Keith Schroeder has always loved the kitchen….

Georgia (Oct 27, 2010)Entrepreneurs turn class project into dream job

Keith Schroeder has always loved the kitchen. Trained as a chef, he dreamed up “50,000 ideas” for an ice cream business of his own. Hunter Thornton worked in corporate sales for seven years after graduating from college. He longed for a more rewarding and “wholesome” career.

In fall 2008, Schroeder and Thornton enrolled in the Executive M.B.A. program at Kennesaw State’s Coles College of Business. They met on the first day of class, both assigned to Team Oxygen, and worked together on their master’s project. By the time they graduated in May 2010, the chef and the salesman were business partners.
 
The company that Schroeder and Thornton created as an academic exercise –– a manufacturer of organic, premium ice cream and sorbet that caters to high-end restaurants –– is now a fledgling start-up with headquarters in Dunwoody. Over the past few months, the duo has raised more than $150,000 in capital, signed up their first dozen customers, visited suppliers, hired an operations manager and conducted taste tests all over Atlanta. High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet will start this fall churning frozen treats, one micro batch at a time, in inspired flavors such as caramelized peach, Greek yogurt, malted maple cinnamon, and Asian pear and peppercorn.
 
“High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet came about, after countless iterations, from our capstone project,” says Schroeder, who works as executive chef at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North. “Our professors provided invaluable guidance and feedback, and some of our classmates are now investors in the company.”
 
The entrepreneurs, who dub themselves the “Sweet Dream Team,” were back on KSU’s campus in late September, four months after graduating, as featured speakers on the first day of school for the Executive M.B.A.’s class of 2012. They shared tips –– along with scoops of blackberry-sweet tea sorbet –– on how to succeed in the 18-month program. They advised current students to hold their team members accountable; to learn more about themselves; to push the envelope; to let others succeed; to leverage their strengths; to understand other cultures; and to get used to doing things over and over.
 
The business plan for their venture –– the Executive M.B.A. capstone project requires students to prepare a detailed business plan for an emerging company and make an oral presentation ––  was one thing Schroeder and Thornton had rewrite over and over. The plan’s “38th iteration,” Schroeder recalls, failed to impress Charles Hofer, Regents professor of strategy and entrepreneurship. Hofer worked with the duo for months to prepare them for a venture plan competition at the University of Nebraska. They won the competition, beating 12 other graduate school teams and winning $7,000.
 
Professor Gary Roberts, who teaches Executive M.B.A. students how to develop business plans, says he was impressed with Schroeder and Thornton’s concept from the beginning. “As soon as I heard this idea, I knew we had a winner,” Roberts says. “This is a product that the market was ready for. The business-to-business ice cream market is dominated by Häagen-Dazs, and High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet is well-positioned to succeed in this niche.”
 
A key to the entrepreneurs’ partnership is their blend of skills and styles. Schroeder, 36, is a trained chef who has worked at hotels and fine restaurants. Thornton, 28, is a skillful salesman who learned the trade from his father and older brother.
 
The chef and the salesman are virtual opposites in their working styles, they say. Schroeder describes Thornton, the company’s chief revenue officer, as mild and reserved, “but he’s also tenacious, focused and organized. I’m more creative, a little bit more outlandish and eccentric.” Thornton says he partnered with Schroeder, who serves as CEO and crunches the numbers, because he admired that Schroeder wanted to make his dreams come true. “I could see the passion in him,” Thornton says. As team members throughout their M.B.A., they got to know each other well, with the program’s one-week trip to Romania and the peer evaluation in their managerial coaching stint providing opportunities to get to know everything about each other.
 
Schroeder and Thornton run their new business out of a 2,200-square-foot facility that was once a Church’s Chicken R&D lab. In early October, in a kitchen appointed with a huge mixer, a 30-gallon Vat pasteurizer, a blast freezer and giant whisks and scoops, they were getting ready to start production. Over the next few months, they expect to ratchet up production to 600 cases of ice cream and sorbet a month. The goal, Schroeder says, is to make 2,000 cases a month by early spring. High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet is in the process of getting USDA 100 percent organic certification.
 
“We will be the only business-to-business manufacturer of USDA-certified organic ice cream and sorbet in the Southeast,” quips Thornton, adding that they will use only fresh, local ingredients to make their frozen treats.
 
While pursuing his M.B.A. and working full-time as executive chef at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North, Schroeder labored meticulously to come up with the perfect texture for his frozen treats. He says he was inspired by the fresh-fruit sorbets and ice cream he tasted while visiting with a chef in Montreal. The Canadian confections were produced in huge quantities when fruit was at its peak to preserve the flavor. Schroeder has followed that recipe, using a wide variety of fresh ingredients, such as Georgia pecans and peaches, maple syrup from Vermont, and organic milk delivered from a farm in Alabama, to test dozens of ice cream and sorbet flavors, altering the ice cream’s fat content along the way. After months of tests and a significant reduction in the butterfat content, he came up with the perfect flavor profile.
 
“It’s more akin to a fresh gelato,” Schroeder says, referring to the Italian ice-cream-like dessert that is less dense and lower in butterfat than ice cream. “Before, it was closer to a Häagen-Dazs style.”
 
As Schroeder and Thornton taste-tested batches of various recipes in places such as salsa dance studios, they discovered that the demand is larger than they had expected. So they have somewhat altered their business plan. While the retail market was not originally their target, the duo is now considering merchandising their treats in smaller packages at retailers such as Whole Foods Market and the Decatur Farmers Market.
 
“We didn’t have any intention of going retail, but the demand is there,” Thornton says. “The overwhelming response has been, ‘When can I buy it? Where can I get it?’ It’s been a humbling experience.”
 
For more information on High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet, please go to
http://highroadcraft.com/index.html.

-- Aixa M. Pascual



 

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