Here's a chilling economic development even kids can understand: Rocio and Greg Cropp are expanding their role among El Paso ice cream purveyors through the Arizona-based Cold Stone Creamery franchise.

They've just opened their second Westside store, at 7040 N. Mesa in the Colony Cove Shopping Center.

The Cropps, former Diary Queen franchisees in Arkansas, came to El Paso in 2003. Rocio was born in Mexico and grew up in El Paso, where she still has family.

"I was pregnant at the time and I told my husband I wanted to be around family," she said. "It was time for us to do something on our own, because we had partners in the three Dairy Queens we owned."

The Cropps love ice cream. Rocio said they were looking for a business in El Paso that was devoted exclusively to the treat, rather than including the fast-food menu that Dairy Queen also offers.

"My husband went on the Internet and checked some websites and he found Cold Stone," Rocio recalls. "He fell in love with the company. And we searched a little more for information and found there was an opportunity in El Paso."

They opened their first store here, at 2625 N. Mesa, about a year ago.

Custom creations'

Kevin Donnellan, spokesman for Cold Stone Creamery corporate headquarters, provided some company history, saying a small-business entrepreneurial couple not unlike the Cropps, Don and Susan Sutherland, had opened an ice cream shop in Tempe, Ariz., in 1988.

The Sutherlands' concept was to offer customers super-premium ice cream along with an opportunity to watch as special ingredients Oreo chunks, M&Ms, Gummy Bears were blended into their favorite flavors on a cold granite slab. The end result is called a "creation."

"The success of their first store led them to open a few other locations," Donnellan said. "Then a chance meeting with Doug Bucey, our CEO, led to a partnership and laid the foundation for the franchise organization."

Although the Sutherlands have since retired, they still sit on the board of the privately held company, which has been offering franchises for the past decade.

Cold Stone Creamery, now with 220 employees in its Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters, now has 1,125 franchise outlets in 47 states as well as the Caribbean and Guam, with plans to open its first store in Tokyo in November.

Last year the company added 362 stores across the country and it's slatedto open 365 this year, with an additional 1,000 franchise agreements recently awarded and in various stages of development.

"Our system has more than doubled in size over the last three years," Donnellan said, adding that the company's official vision statement proclaims that it will be America's No. 1 ice cream brand by Dec. 31, 2009.

Franchising

He said the up-front franchise fee is $42,000, "which is relatively low compared to other national brands," while the average start-up cost for a store, depending on the local real estate market, ranges from $250,000 to $400,000 on top of the franchise fee.

For that kind of money franchisees get detailed help and advice with all aspects of the business. For example, Stone Cold headquarters sends out photo instruction cards on such topics as how to properly wash your hands.

But Rocio says the biggest impact from headquarters comes monthly in the form of custom ice cream flavors and instructions for working in the pre-selected toppings and ingredients into fanciful creations.

"July was national ice cream month, and they sent us five new flavors," she said. "One of them was wasabi ginger. It was a very, very special flavor. Not for everybody."

Donnellan said the wasabi was the brainchild of Cold Stone's on-staff food scientist, and it was aimed squarely at that small segment of consumers who crave hot and spicy flavors contrasting with the smooth and creamy texture of ice cream.

Rocio admits to becoming hooked on a special flavor that first appeared in March cotton candy. She added that her mother-in-law developed a fixation for black licorice.

Wasabi and licorice aside, Donnellan said the cotton candy and another recent specialty, tangerine sorbet, were so popular that the company has added them to its list of flavors available year-round, at the discretion of storeowners.Cold Stone's ice cream is made locally with mix prepared by the company.

"We make it fresh every morning," Rocio said. "The production depends on how much we sold the day before, but we can spend from two to four hours making ice cream in the morning."

Their local Cold Stone stores open at 11 a.m., but she said her husband or an employee is there at 9 a.m. to make ice cream and the company's trademark waffle bowls and cones. "We also bake brownies every day in the store," she said.Amazingly, Rocio Cropp claims that despite her addiction to cotton candy ice cream and the myriad other temptations that surround her every day, she hasn't gained weight since they opened their first shop here.

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