The Fantastical, Stupendous, Wonkariffic Tale of How Ample Hills Creamery Raised a $4 Million Venture Capital Round

...At least, that would be the title if somebody made a kids movie out of it.  

It just seemed like a fitting title for a company built around narrative by a founder who used to write stories for a living.  It's a story that just hit a milestone--a $4mm round of venture funding that I'm ecstatic to say Brooklyn Bridge Ventures just led.  I'm joined by Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Red Sea Ventures, NucleasHG, the founders of Seamless, a host of extremely helpful angels, and a CircleUp syndicate led by my friend Tom Potter, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery.

Brian Smith was a science fiction movie screenwriter, penning low budget alien movies starring the likes of Lou Diamond Phillips.  He started Ample Hills Creamery four years ago with his wife, Jackie Cuscuna, after turning a home ice cream making hobby into a reality with a cart at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park.  

When they first opened, they ran out of ice cream in four days and had to close the shop to make more.  That kicked off a story that would take them up to two consecutive Zagat #1 ice cream in NYC ratings, the Food Network calling them the #1 ice cream shop in the country, and a prime spot on Oprah's List of Favorite Things.  

So what makes Ample Hills so special?  After all, there's lots of good ice cream out there these days, right?

First off, you have to think of Ample Hills as a destination--and it was designed that way.  It's a place that you go to and want to hangout.  You take your kids there.  They have birthday parties there.  It's a part of the neighborhood--not just a dispensary of ice cream.  

I'm always struck when I visit their two main locations in Gowanus and Prospect Heights how much sheer human joy is being created.  The human joy per square foot metric is one we'll be tracking closely over time here.  You see people sitting around with smiles, laughing, and all looking like little kids, no matter what their age.  

That's their target market--little kids and the little kid in you.  There's a little girl who I've seen in their Gowanus shop who always gets chocolate in a cup.  No spoon.  Just face + cup.  By the end of her snack, chocolate covers her entire face.  That's Ample Hills.

Creativity is at the heart of everything they do.  When the Mets got to the World Series, they release a kettle corn flavored ice cream with blue and orange M&Ms and a contest on social media around naming the ice cream.  Party Like It's 1986 soon joined their rotation.  That's Ample Hills.

I ran the Staten Island Half Marathon and came to the Gowanus shop after.  I asked for a large.  The guy behind the counter asked me if I was sure, because their large is large.  I told him I just ran 13 miles and I was quite sure.  He said, "Oh, wow...  Well, then we're going to do something special for you."

That's Ample Hills.

It's also Ample Hills to get into a debate with the staff as to whether or not there was any shame in taking a cup just in case these scoops should topple.

I did not take the cup, just for the record.  Nor did I spill it.  Cone game strong.

Everything sold at the store is made from scratch.  When you get something with a brownie with it, they don't buy the brownie from other suppliers.  They make it right there.  That's what makes the quality so high.  When they needed Nilla Wafers for their banana flavor, they made their own.  That's Ample Hills.

Ample Hills is a mass appeal brand that, unlike a lot of other artisanal NYC places, you could see anywhere in the country.  It fits just as well into Gowanus, Brooklyn as it does Iowa, Kansas, and Wyoming.  It's not "intellectual ice cream", as Brian likes to call some of the more unusual high end flavors you see in NYC these days.  With flavors like Snap Mallow Pop, which is essentially a deconstructed Rice Krispy treat melted down into ice cream, he told me that he never lost out on a sale to a five year old.

But just because you could see them everywhere doesn't make them an obvious venture bet--nor does it tell the story of how the round even came to be.

That story actually begins about eleven or twelve years ago, with a little bit of VC mentoring.  I was working for the GM pension fund, an institutional LP, as an analyst, doing a research project on consumer private equity and venture capital investing.  I was researching consumer focused funds, building and fixing brands, and talking to just about every consumer minded investor I could find.  

The person who spent the most time with me in my research was Jerry Gallagher from Oak.  Jerry took two phone calls with me and his enthusiasm for the space was infectious.  He had been an investor in Dick's Sporting Goods, Office Depot, PetSmart, P.F. Chang's, Potbelly, and Whole Foods and he inspired me to get interested in the space.  Over and above the numbers, he talked about the importance of consumer love for the product and also how key it was to work with great quality founders who were just as good at being people as they were at running a business.  Jerry was a great guy and his love of retail investing kind of stuck with me.  Sadly, he passed away last year, but I think he'd really love Ample Hills.  He certainly would have been my first co-investor call.

Still, I followed the space closely.  At GM, I actually got onto the buyout co-investment team that worked on AMF, the bowling company--so I know more about the retail economics of bowling than most people and I still have a bowling pin deal toy in my apartment.  I've been fascinated by the growth of consumer retail plays like Jamba Juice, Soul Cycle, and Shake Shack and have done some ecommerce (chloe + isabel, Bezar) and retail tech (Singleplatform, SocialSignIn, Homer Logistics).

Leading an investment into an ice cream chain, however, that's another beast.  At least, I thought it was.  What made is possible was actually my investment in another food company, Hungryroot.  After getting to know Ben from the tech community, he pitched me his concept for a CPG food company.  Thinking that it wasn't "tech enough" for my investors, but loving the concept, I passed it on to my LPs as a potential deal for them to do directly.  They came back with a lot of support for me to do it through the fund as long as I felt like it met our return criteria.  They said they trusted me and that they signed up for great opportunities in great startups, not just specifically tech.

So when I got introduced to Brian and Jackie from Ample Hills, and fell in love with their business for the second time, that opened the door for me to consider it for the fund.  For that connection, I have to thank Amy Bennett, the co-founder of Shopkeep.  After talking to them about how much they should raise, who they should hire, and what they should focus on, I realized that this was the very same kind of conversation I have with all of my other early stage founders.  I made a decision to not only help them raise a round, but to be a part of it.

I'm actually coming in not just through the fund, but also personally as well.  It felt better to invest my LPs money in a company a little outside of the fund's normal target area with a little more skin in the game of my own--to assure them, and myself, that this was something I felt strongly about.  That actually makes Ample Hills my first ever angel investment.  

I'm also excited to have shared this opportunity with a fantastic syndicate of investors.  One of the earliest meetings I ever took with Ample Hills was a working lunch with Tom Potter, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, who I co-founded the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse with, and John Stage, founder of Dinosaur BBQ, just down the street.  They provided terrific guidance and Tom decided to come into the round through the CircleUp syndicate platform.  

The round really got momentum when I got a note from Taylor Greene of LererHippeau on how he heard I was doing Ample Hills and as a frequent Brooklyn customer, wanted to come in as an angel.  He said he had to run it by LHV first, as it turned out, they wanted to come in with a significant investment.  We're also joined by Red Sea Ventures and the founders of Seamless, as well as a bunch of angels and limited partners from my fund.  It's the second deal I've done side by side with the founders of Dos Toros and former USHGer Camilla Marcus as well, as we all invested in Homer together.

While this is a company already making millions of dollars, there is so much to be done.  I'll be heavily involved as a board member, helping them see through the opening of a local production facility, new stores, and most importantly the buildout of their management team.  We also need to codify and implement process around exactly what makes Ample Hills so special, so it can live on in every single customer experience, no matter how far from Brooklyn that experience might get.  

This is one small step for cartoon cows, chickens and pigs everywhere, and hopefully one giant scoop of ice cream everywhere.