A Conversation With Chef Keith Schroeder of High Road Craft Ice Cream
By Widge - posted 01.03.12 @ 1:47 pm
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When we first stumbled across High Road Craft Ice Cream, it was almost as if they were targeting us specifically. As stated in our initial review, when you have "caffeine" in the name of your ice cream flavor, prepare for me to get engaged. And we've been hooked ever since. It's been fascinating to watch the company explode--indeed, between the first time we visited them for their factory tour a few months back to just a few weeks ago when we went back for this interview...if it hadn't been the same front of the building, you could have convinced me we were in a completely different space. They're recreating themselves to deal with their increasing demand. And good on them. Here we got the opportunity to chat with Chef Keith Schroeder about...a little bit of everything.
Widgett Walls: So you got started as an ice cream creator/supplier for restaurants only. Can you tell us about that?
Chef Keith Schroeder: We didn't have intention to raise a lot of money, so we raised $250K to get the business off the ground...[that's the equivalent of] a nice house, you know? And it was sufficient...it was sufficient to buy the machinery, hire the first couple of people, roll up your sleeves and...and make it happen. What happened was we...we kind of plateaued fast in the food service side of things--restaurants aren't doing that well as a category in the Atlanta area (or in the [rest of the] country, for that matter). When I talk to my suppliers about what's going on in food service out there, hotels that used to be really robust this time of year with tons and tons of parties are not--I imagine Papa John's is doing real well right now. This time of year, right? And so things have devolved a bit. But what we found in our discovery--that food service isn't doing as well as we would all hope it to be (I mean, my background is as a chef, so I'm sad...I'm sad that restaurants aren't doing awesome)...[but] retail's actually doing pretty well. And not only is retail doing well--our category in retail is doing incredibly well...it's up like 16% year-to-date as a category. So Haagen Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, and such--because people aren't going out to eat, so people say "Let's rent a movie on Netflix and we'll each get a pint of our favorite stuff." So that's our big discovery and learning. So our plan was: go get food service in the Southeast and do business with this-and-this distributor, and we did it! And they were like, "Now what?" "There's not enough money in that!"
KS: Oh, of course. Yeah, yeah. And there was a poll by the consumer base because of the product that we were making, you know, "Where can we get this?!?" And we didn't have an answer. The answer was, "Right now, you can't...and not only can you not; it's illegal." Because we can't fill pints by hand in the state of Georgia based on the fact that the state of Georgia has adopted the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and has made no concessions for small food processors. Other states like Oregon and Washington State and Ohio make all kinds of concessions for that. In fact, if you see the Graeter's brand (and here's the strangest thing in the world), Graeter's pints are hand-packed in Ohio and end up on the shelves in Atlanta.
WW: Because the law will let them do that.
KS: Because the law allows them to do that.
WW: So if you were just across the border in another state, you'd be fine.
KS: Yes, we would have been fine. Government is...a powerful force....
WW: The kindest thing that we've said about them this week.
KS: I think that...the new Georgia Department of Agriculture, though, is [going in] the right direction. Under Gary Black's leadership, things will change. But it still is a bureaucracy, but, you know, the people from the department understand what the small processors are going through, but the law is the law. So, you know.
WW: Hence the acquisition of the machine we saw on the tour that you just sit there and it takes care of the pint for you.
KS: That's right.
WW: Just out of curiosity, apart from the fact that there's not a human doing it...what is the difference between the two types of packing...other than one probably is faster?
KS: There is an argument that one is safer (microbiologically speaking), which...
WW: If you remove the human element, I guess it...
KS: The argument is...yeah, but there are similar kinds of nooks and crannies on the machine as there are on the human hand--government trusts machines better than they do people; I don't know why, but that's okay. Um... [pause] nothing. I mean, there's no difference. I would say, however, that I think a hand-packed pint might be of a slightly higher quality because things have to be at such a viscosity that they'll actually flow through machinery, where when you do it by hand, you can really push the limits, right? You can make things very, very viscous, very, very frozen, and come out with something amazing and jammy and dense that you can't necessarily accomplish as well with a machine...I mean, this is like getting at a connoisseur level, here, but our customers are connoisseurs, right? So we want to fight to do the best of the best. That's the fun part.
WW: Right. And I was reading that Dean & DeLuca can't keep you in stock at present.
KS: They sold out. And it was nice...because, first of all, just to be in Dean & DeLuca is awesome. That, for a kid who lusted after that catalogue—I mean, that was my pornography.
WW: Go in your room, look at the layout from Dean & DeLuca...
KS: "Look at that smoked salmon, man!"
WW: "Look at these little cakes...aren't they amazing?"
KS: Right, right. It was. It was one of those things I'd flipped through over the holidays and said, "Yeah, I think I want to do something with food." And I remember my graduation present from culinary school was the whole monster spice collection from Dean & DeLuca: it's like the big Lego set that all the little kids want but I got the one with, like, the eighty spices on the rack. I'm like, "I'm the man. I have these knives, I have the Dean & DeLuca little spice tins...done. "
WW: "I am ready to conquer the world now."
KS: "I need no money....just spices...just give me chicken!" So it was cool. So being in there was one of those "pinch yourself" moments. And honestly, reflecting back on it, when they expressed interest the first time, I thought to myself: "We can't possibly be good enough yet, you know, given the age of the business. We're babies; we're still learning. Manufacturing is new to all of us....yes, we've made tasty plates of food, but this is new, so it's not good enough yet."
WW: So the business is at this point how old?
KS: A year.
WW: A year old...not bad.
KS: So our one year anniversary present is the back cover of the Dean & Deluca catalogue.
WW: You are now officially food porn.
KS: We're food porn. And again, we didn't know we were getting the cover either, so it wasn't one of those things where you lobby for the cover...this was a very, like, serendipitous thing.
WW: It's the food equivalent of Rolling Stone, basically.
KS: People call up and go, "Holy shit, dude! Did you see it?" "Yeah, I know we're going to be in there...." "No, no, no....did you get your catalogue yet?" "No, I didn't get it...take a picture!" Thank God for camera phones. "Send it to me!" And I show it to everybody here and they're like, "No!"
WW: "You Photoshopped that!"
KS: Right. So yeah, it was neat. And then to get phone calls from people in the industry. Like Sadie Kendall, who is the founder of Kendall Farms Crème Fraîche out in California (I mean, she's like a legend in food) sends me an e-mail congratulations. That's cool. And Natalie Dupree gave me a hug and a kiss and I used to watch her...these are like all of those moments where you go, "This is exactly why I do this." Just for the peer-to-peer, like "I wanted to know more about you, and how you make your crème fraîche, and your farm, and now I feel like I can call you and ask you how you do it," you know? That's neat.
WW: That's fantastic. Now, backing up a bit to go back to the "secret origins" of High Road, I guess...was going into ice cream your plan all along? Because you were there with the spices and ready for chicken....
WW: And then how did you get from there to...ready for ice cream?
KS: I've always been very entrepreneurial, so I've had dreams of doing restaurant groups, breweries--you know, I'm the culmination of every idiot entrepreneur who has too many ideas and no idea how to make money at what he's doing. And so I tried to take chef jobs that allowed me to be experimental and very free, and so I did have the blessing and luck to be able to do that most of the jobs over the course of my life, and the one that really sparked me to think about myself doing a product was when I stopped working for chefs and I started working for a caterer in New York City; I was the executive chef for a catering company called Table Tales, and it was the first time that I was in a food-centered environment that wasn't chef-driven, it was food-driven...and that was very, very different. And I decided that day philosophically that I wasn't a chef anymore; that I was a food person. And I think that being a food person is a lot more visceral than being a chef. I think being a chef to some degree has become--you know, I used to be the executive chef at New England Culinary Institute--has become...has become "Look at me." Right? And the reason that I became a chef is diametrically opposed to the reason a lot of kids become chefs today.
I used to watch Great Chefs of the World, and [in] that show, the chef was a discreet character. He didn't say anything; he didn't look fashionable....and the camera was all about the plate, the food, the technique, the love, the sort of reverence...and that was the thing that was always, like, very magical to me. And then when it shifted and it became rock stars and tattoos, I was like, "How the hell did this happen?" With all due respect to that community, it's not me and it never will be me. And so all of a sudden I recognized that I have more in common with the person who fell in love with how to bake this loaf of bread or how to make this beaned bar of chocolate or how to brew this beer...I had more in common with them. And this was inspired by these two catering companies and the owners' pursuit of perfection and really calling me on the carpet--like, "All your 'chef stuff'? It's bullshit." The owner saying, "You said you could cook. Those chicken breasts are very inconsistent and very sloppy. You're not good." Really probing and prodding, I think knowing that I had more potential...that if I'd get out of my own ego's way and just focus on "I want you to put perfect diamond lines on those chicken breasts because you're not going to get to go hang out with the people in the office building who are eating those chicken breasts. They should look like a picture." And that was like, oh....everything perfect!
She would say stuff like, "I want people to still look beautiful when they're eating." So every hors d'oeuvre you make should be discreet in the way it's consumed. It should be one bite, dissolved, gone. That level of detail...that's different. That's different. Then I started being so inspired by that level of detail, I said, "I don't think I'm ever going to get good as a chef," because to pursue that level of excellence, you can only make one thing--you have to make bread or chocolate or beer or wine or ice cream. And it was 2001...it was the summer of 2001, and I had convinced the owners that we were going to do it and open a company called Cobblestone Creamery in New York. We were in South Street Seaport. In September of 2001...the world changed a bit...and so plans changed. And my wife and I were living in New York at the time and decided that this is a scary world; let's go somewhere more quiet. So we moved to Vermont for a while. Because it was tough....it was a weird place to be and it just didn't seem right to be thinking about opening an ice cream company in the ashes of two large buildings; it seemed selfish and ridiculous.
And so we just put it on the back burner and thought about the bigger picture in life and all that stuff. And so just time evolved; I moved and had new chef jobs in different places and came back to the table here. I ultimately moved back to Atlanta because this is where my career got sparked and I love this city. And I get mad when people say that Atlanta is boring--this is a city you have to scrape away at. Right? You can't just show up on a business trip, take a taxi downtown, stay in a hotel....everyone will leave thinking Atlanta's boring. But if you comelive in Atlanta, it's amazing. And so I wanted to come back, because I used to talk about it all the time and people would say, "You love it so much. Why don't you go back?" And I actually, influenced by that decision, went and talked to my wife and said, "Someone said, you know, I talk about Atlanta a lot," and she said "You do." And I said, "Do you want to go back?" and she said "Sure." And we came back. And that was it. So that's the long round-about story about "Why ice cream?" And so it got percolated when I was in grad school. I had seen a lot of my friends fail in business and in fact I had failed in business along the way in my early and mid-twenties, and I said, "I don't want to fail again, and what skills am I missing...so I'll go to grad school." So I went to business school and my founding partner, Hunter Thornton, said, "Hey, you had that ice cream idea....why don't we do that as our business plan?" Because the other idea was some kind of battery technology and we were at the end of our MBA program I don't think anybody wanted to think about hard homework and battery technology...
WW: Thinking about ice cream is a little more pleasant.
KS: Right, ice cream was a little more pleasant. And it's really that simple: just someone in my life who had listened and said, "You have a good idea and none of us have any plans to do anything entrepreneurial, so why don't we at least leave you with your plan." So that's what we did and put together that plan, and the story goes on from there. So we won some business planning competitions on the graduate level and the school asked us to represent Kennesaw State, and we won $7,000 in a competition called the International New Ventures Competition at the University of Nebraska. I had no idea of its influence because I was working full time as a chef and getting my MBA part-time, so the school said, "Will you go?" And I said, "Yes, I'll get out of town for free and you're putting me up in a hotel and buying me breakfast...sounds great." And we did that, and it ended up being a big deal. We got tons of great feedback from angel investors and venture capitalists, people who get business and how to keep one alive. And so that's where we are at today, trying to make sure this stays super, super passionate and real and based on the artisan and people and artistry and sharing cultures and creating flavors without turning it into something ugly. Ever.