Building a Joy Factory: Kari Crowe Seher on Growing Melt

Two flagship stores and three kitchens later, Kari Crowe Seher says her Melt Ice Creams has caught up to its growth and is set for the next several years. Next up: store No. 2 in Dallas and a new food truck.

Melt Ice Creams likes to call its new headquarters and kitchens — opened last year in the historic O.B. Macaroni pasta factory building on Fort Worth’s Near Southside — the “Joy Factory, where the magic happens.” Getting to the Joy Factory, the company’s third kitchen since founder Kari Crowe Seher opened Melt in April 2014, came after a string of unexpectedly robust sales gains that led her to move Melt’s flagship store two years after it opened.

Melt outgrew the 89-square-foot kitchen from Day One at its original Near Southside store on West Rosedale Avenue; then it quickly outgrew the 350-square-foot kitchen in its new West Magnolia Avenue shop after Crowe Seher moved Melt’s flagship store there in July 2016. The store, with other new restaurant tenants added by developers Will Churchill and Corrie Watson, helped dramatically increase activity on West Magnolia, with lines out the door a common sight, particularly during the summer. The 3,000-square-foot Joy Factory, which Melt moved its operations into in March 2018, should serve the company for several years and set it up to serve several more stores, Crowe Seher says.

“We think we can be DFW’s ice-cream brand,” Crowe Seher says, comparing the growth possibilities to the popular Amy’s Ice Creams chain, which has 15 locations, mostly in Austin. Melt is opening its second store in March in South Dallas’ Bishop Arts District. The company also is outfitting a food truck that it’ll launch this spring, significantly expanding its ability to handle catering, which it added after a year in business. Melt, which had two employees at its start, has 20 during the offseason and “upwards of 40” during the warmer months, Crowe Seher says.

With the infrastructure for growth in place, Crowe Seher, whom Fort Worth visitor and economic development organizations tout as exemplifying the raft of emerging entrepreneurs that make the city an attractive place to grow a business, has also been spending time honing the company’s culture.

“Our goal is to be a best place to work,” she says. Smiling faces are everywhere at Melt, known for its bright yellow West Magnolia shop. “We want to be the place of happiness,” thus, the nickname Joy Factory. “Ice cream can melt away people’s problems. Sometimes, [customers] walk in the door, and they’ve got the whole weight of the world on their shoulders.”

Many of her employees are students. Melt’s “team leads run a business.” Crowe Seher hosts a book club for company leaders. And the company chooses a charity each year that it contributes a portion of profits to, and volunteers at. Previous years have been The Gladney Center for Adoption and The Net, addressing poverty. This year’s: The Center for Transforming Lives, also addressing poverty among women and children. “It’s a real privilege to have high school students” as employees, Crowe Seher says. “Part of that is to show them how a business can be impactful in the community.”

Crowe Seher, 35, joined the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Fort Worth Chapter’s Accelerator program for entrepreneurs who haven’t yet hit their first $1 million in sales. She left that last year to participate in the prestigious week-long James Beard fellowship for food entrepreneurs at Babson College in Massachusetts, where she learned alongside entrepreneurs including the pastry chef Kelly Fields, owner of the Willa Jean restaurant in New Orleans, and Emily Blount, owner of the Saint Leo restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi.

Road trip: Before she launched her own shop, Crowe Seher hit the road for two weeks, visiting independent ice cream shops in Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. “My husband rented me a car because he didn’t think my car would make it. I would just drop in. I really wasn’t thinking of it from the business perspective. I couldn’t tell if they were successful or not. My goal was to see what their experience was like.”

Interning for a week in the kitchen of an Ohio couple relatively new to the business “Nobody who’d been around with any longevity would let me come.”

Her original idea “Ice-cream cart and catering events. That was the industry I knew. But it really capped us out at our potential.”

Opening on West Rosedale, apart from the budding West Magnolia. “There was a coffee shop closing, and they were looking for someone to come in. The numbers made sense, but nobody in Fort Worth would loan me money. I think I went to five or six business banks. [Husband Mark Seher, who left his job and came on board full time two years after the business launch] had done the financial analysis. We had a really hefty business plan. Nobody would give us a loan. One particular banker told me she thought it was a bad idea, and that it would never work on West Rosedale.”

Starting up, Crowe Seher estimates it might have cost $100,000-$300,000. She did it for somewhat less “We probably started for less than $20,000. We didn’t even have a cash register. We had a cash box and Square. I did trades with people. I traded a photography session. I watched YouTube videos on how to patch sheetrock. We did pizza [and paint] parties. We didn’t do anything we couldn’t afford. As we made money, we put everything back in the business.”

The launch “We had a line out the door the day it opened. We had two employees at the start. We went to seven to nine more within two weeks. There were nights when we ran out of ice cream. We would have to close our doors. The kitchen [was so small], you could touch the sink, the freezer, the ice-cream maker and the prep area. We had five parking spaces. We were losing customers because they didn’t feel safe parking on West Rosedale.”

Moving to West Magnolia “We were approached [in 2015 by Churchill and Watson] to move to West Magnolia. I was very opposed to it. My husband was very for it. I was terrified. I just didn’t think a business needed to move its flagship. We knew we had to do something. Our kitchen was too small. We were trying to figure out what to do next. We weren’t going to leave the Southside. The Southside is home.”

Outgrowing the West Magnolia kitchen “We thought we would have enough space in that kitchen to go another four to five years. Right off the bat, we outgrew that production space. We had to immediately start looking for off-site kitchen space. The new [O.B. Macaroni] kitchen allows us to bake more. We knew we wanted to offer an ice cream sandwich and ice cream cakes.”

Filling out management as the company’s grown “We’ve added a delivery driver, shop manager, shift leaders, kitchen manager. Mark built all the inventory systems from scratch.”

Finding store No. 2 in south Dallas’ Bishop Arts District “As a single location, there’s not a lot of upward growth. We wanted to find a community-driven place. We wanted to find a community and neighborhood where people care about each other. Locations matter. We wanted a walkable street. Mark and I had spent a lot of time going on dates” in the Bishop Arts District. “Bishop Arts didn’t have an ice cream shop.”

Learning from the James Beard and EO programs “The importance of growing strategically. I learned a lot about building the financial side and building confidence. At the end of the day, most people struggle with the same things. The James Beard exposed us to tell our story really well. It was almost like a mini-MBA in a week: P&L, pitching to investors, culture and thinking bigger than ourselves, what we need to do with resources, strategic relationships, next steps.”

Those next steps “The next five years, we hope to look at six to nine locations, depending on size.”

Whether she still scoops ice cream “I wish I could. We’re very hands-on, in the shop multiple times a week. My role has evolved in the last few years for sure. We’ve built a really good team.”