Since opening Izzy’s Ice Cream Café in 2000, Lara Hammel and Jeff Sommers have watched as their business has become a Twin Cities favorite. Along the way, the company has remained committed to community through many charitable initiatives, including its 13 Days of Giving (held each year in February, Izzy’s donates $2 of every cone sold to a different nonprofit each day). Greater Twin Cities United Way was honored to be the beneficiary this year on Feb. 17.
We had a chance to catch up with Jeff to hear more about how Izzy’s got its start and the unique ways the company approaches business, onboarding, and giving guests something extra. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: When you had the idea to open an ice cream shop, Lara was clerking for a judge in Hennepin County and you were teaching in Minneapolis Public Schools. How did you make the leap to become entrepreneurs in the ice cream business?
I was in my ninth year of teaching in the district, and my goal was to teach 10. Lara and I talked about what to do next and we agreed on the idea of ice cream for our neighborhood. So we did a survey in the neighborhood to see what people thought of the idea and what they would like. Then we mortgaged our house twice, and I taught part-time in the schools that first year of the business, while Lara was at Izzy’s full time. Lara would make ice cream all morning, and then I would come home from teaching and work on the ice cream until about midnight and then teach the next morning.
Q: How have you managed the growth you’ve experienced since you started Izzy’s?
The business is more successful than we had set it out to be, which is both amazing in its own right, and extraordinarily challenging in its own right. Early in business the themes are different. As you mature and you have more employees the themes of those organizing set of principles transition to far more complicated organizational objectives. Very early on in the business we made the decision to be open minded to opportunities. And I think recommitting ourselves to that opportunity on multiple occasions is why we are where we are today.
Q: Can you talk about the onboarding process for the youth that you hire?
When we hire anyone under the age of 18 at Izzy’s I call home and have a conversation with each guardian about our expectations. We talk about the schedule, vacations, the demands of the training program, and our culture. Each young person we hire is our new most important customer. And in the time that each young person is with us, it’s our goal to give them a world-class experience that allows them to set high standards of expectation for future employment. And we show gratitude towards families for sharing their young person with our company. I think it’s an outgrowth of me having been a teacher, and Lara having worked as a student advocate at one time. We want this to be a world class starting point for young people in employment.
Q: The Izzy Scoop® is an extra 1 ½ ounce scoop of ice cream you provide your guests, but it’s also a metaphor for your approach to business. Can you say more about that?
With the Izzy Scoop, we give our guests something extra. The Izzy’s mission is to make great moments for individuals and small groups through great ice cream and great customer service. So we really dwell on that both internally as a company, but also with our guests, our customers, our partners and our stakeholders. We’re trying hard all of the time with our brand to give our guests and our employees that something extra.
Q: What guides you as you look to the future?
Izzy’s is bigger than Lara and me. It’s truly a brand that’s engaged with thousands and thousands of people. We have the great privilege of taking care of it and handing it over to whomever will take it from us someday. I think that in all the public enterprise that people can pursue, it’s good to think of starting from scratch each day to earn the privilege tomorrow. I don’t think it’s a right to be in business, I think it’s a privilege, and it commands the humility to earn it tomorrow.
United Way has also benefited from Izzy’s approach to employment—our own online giving specialist, Cece Klueh, is an Izzy’s alum! She worked there throughout college, eventually as a shift lead. Cece says working at Izzy’s taught her the value of excellent customer service and treating every person with respect – assets she still uses in her work building pathways toward prosperity and equity.
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