This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
After leaving her architectural job at Disney in 2009, Natasha Case founded Coolhaus with her friend Freya Estreller.
They launched their architecturally inspired ice cream sandwich company at the Coachella Music Festival, selling ice cream sandwiches to a crowd of 100,000 festivalgoers out of a nearly inoperable postal van. After Coachella, social media caught fire, and they quickly built a loyal and enthusiastic following in the Los Angeles foodie community. Since then, Case has received a host of awards and honors including being named a Forbes “30 Under 30” in food and beverage, Zagat’s 30 under 30 and LinkedIn’s “10 Under 35” for food and leisure. Coolhaus’ pre-packaged ice cream sandwiches, hand-dipped bars, and hand-packed pints can be found in more than 6,000 stores nationwide.
In her role as CEO of Coolhaus, Case is involved with everything from new product development to design, in addition to ensuring that Coolhaus remains on top of its game as it continues to expand and grow.
When I spoke with Case, she told me about why she is so passionate about architecture and the way that influences Coolhaus. She discussed what she hopes to accomplish with the brand and how leading a company the right way is so important to ongoing success.
Why are you doing this crazy thing?
She explained to me that she really had two reasons.
“When we started, our early brand mission was to make architecture more fun and accessible through food. My background is in design and architecture. I wanted to make sure that the ideas that we were talking about, were very much able to translate to the public.”
“I think what really speaks to our brand and what we’re doing here, is taking something like ice cream and folding the really cool visual components of design and architecture into that. We’re making a great product that anyone can appreciate and enjoy. Not just a niche of people who are already aware of the design stuff we think is so cool.”
“That dovetails nicely into number two, which is that we are interested in making something undeniably great. Make it very, very cool and engaging, and really use the product to tell the story of who we are and what we’re all about.”
Why ice cream?
“Ice cream is such a great, great product. It has a nostalgia. It has so much ability for experimentation. It’s fun and engaging. It should be the best it can possibly be. And that’s our mission at Coolhaus.”
“Ice cream is the ultimate unifier. It speaks to so many people. There’s so many memories and so much meaning encoded in it and that emotional side just really appealed to me. On a personal level, I grew up eating ice cream every day, basically, and I love it.”
“Ice cream lends itself very well to experimentation. We wanted to make a brand that pushed the envelope, do something different and ice cream was just a great fit for that.”
Coolhaus, is that a play on or an homage to Bauhaus architecture?
“Exactly. We say it’s a triple-entendre. You’ve got the Bauhaus element, which is one of my favorite design movements because it is so broad-thinking. It’s about lifestyle. It’s about sculpture and painting and architecture. And, it’s named after one of my favorite architects, Rem Koolhaas. Again, a very out-of-the-box, interdisciplinary thinker.”
“This one’s a little bit of a stretch, but you can say the sandwich kind of looks like tiny, little, cold houses with the ice cream walls and cookie for a floor and roof. So, triple entendre.”
What’s the key to growing the brand?
“The number one thing to me is always culture. In any enterprise. It’s what I always go back to. Keeping the culture exciting so your people stay engaged, positive, passionate. That’s within your team and your audience. So, making sure you know your audience and making sure that you’re interacting with them, that they’re really feeling engaged with your brand. That’s the most important thing when it comes to keeping a brand strong.”
Case added that another key component is “quality control. Staying on top of everything about the product, every aspect of it, to make sure it is what it’s supposed to be.”
What lessons have you learned?
“A huge part of the learning process for me has been learning to manage people and learning how to interact with people. You must be patient with yourself. You need to let time go by and you need to grow up and grow into that role. You need to figure out who you want to be as a manager.”
“And, obviously, it’s always challenging financially, especially in the grocery business. It can be such a shakedown. Trying to say no to just straight-out pay-to-play situations, like in so many grocery stores, where they just want you to buy shelf space. You should really commit to your principles and believe in your product and what you’re doing and trust that you will get into those stores based on consumer demand, on merit. But, it’s very, very tough.”
What advice would you offer budding entrepreneurs?
“Keep thinking big. Try to get your business to a place where you’re working on it, not just in it.”
Case went on to offer these bits of wisdom:
- “Hire people who are better than you at the elements of the business where you are weak.”
- “Get a minimum viable product going and then always keep innovating and improving what you’re working on. It’s not a static thing. Keep evolving.”
She wrapped up our interview by saying, “Nurturing a brand is almost like a spiritual practice or religion. Like a cult but not in like a creepy way. People want to be part of the club and our club is not about exclusivity. It’s very inclusive.”
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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution, build velocity, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.
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