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Ample Hills Founders Open Up About Separating From Their Cult-Favorite Ice Cream Brand

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“It definitely feels like the real loss of a family member”

Jackie Cuscuna and Brian Smith
Ample Hills co-founders Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna
Alex Staniloff/Eater

Whimsical, Brooklyn-based ice cream purveyor Ample Hills officially has a new owner following a bankruptcy sale in which the decade-old company sold for $1 million to Schmitt Industries, a manufacturing company based in Portland, Oregon.

As the sale was being finalized, Ample Hills co-founders Jackie Cuscuna and Brian Smith announced that they would be leaving the company altogether, after originally hoping to stay on in a creative leadership capacity under new ownership.

It was an unexpected end for Cuscuna and Smith, who built up the buzzy brand from its pushcart beginnings in Prospect Park to a dozen shops scattered throughout the city, plus a location in Disney World. The founders have admitted that they made business mistakes along the way; most notably, building out a gigantic ice cream factory in Red Hook that cost far too much to maintain and ultimately paved the way towards the bankruptcy filing earlier this year.

In an interview with Eater after the sale was finalized, Smith talked through the outcome of the bankruptcy sale, why he and Cuscuna left the company soon after, and how they are gearing up to start another ice cream-related business in the future.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Eater: Is this the outcome you were expecting to happen? Were you happy with it?

Brian Smith: No, it was most definitely not the outcome we were expecting. Ultimately, the price that they got the company for was very low compared to what we had certainly hoped to do.

As you can see from the public filings, the debt on the business was considerably more than the million dollars that they paid for the business. Certainly, the hope at the beginning from all parties involved was that they could sell the company for two or three times that to return more money to the lenders and the creditors.

Again, I think [everyone involved in the sale] was operating in a pre-pandemic mindset at the beginning. All of our shops were profitable and in a normal scenario, when there’s such a clear path to getting back to profitability, it would be a much easier sell out of a bankruptcy. But with the pandemic, I think it was just too hard for people to see a quick pass to getting people back into the shops at an order of magnitude that was enough to value the company over a million dollars.

To be perfectly clear, for the record, Jackie and I did not get one single dime from the sale, nor should we have. Every single dime went to pay our lender and our creditors and so we do not benefit from the sale and wouldn’t have benefitted from the sale under any scenario. That was never the point.

Did you know at the time of the sale that you would be leaving the company?

No, I didn’t. We had always hoped to find a buyer that would want to work with us in a spirit of partnership moving forward. So, no, we very much hoped to continue on with the company when we started the sale process.

And then at what point was it clear that you wouldn’t be continuing on?

We spent three to four weeks of really working with Schmitt Industries on the sales process once it became clear that they were the winning bid, and up until the point when they closed the sale this past week. So, we got to know them and work with them and spend time on that process. And it became clear to Jackie and I that as absolutely painful as it was to walk away with nothing, it would have been more painful to go to work for a company that we couldn’t believe in anymore.

Can you talk more about that? What problems were there, and what concerns did you have about the new ownership?

There’s a lack of food service experience. They’re a machine-parts company in Portland, Oregon. I think that they’re absolutely well-meaning and they’re good people. There’s just, you know, there’s people that you can work with and there’s people that you can’t work with. And I know that at the end of the day, we would have driven them crazy probably by sticking around, and they would have driven us crazy by sticking around.

Now, we know full well that they owned the company, but it was more about finding a spirit of partnership, because it’s the brand that we created. At the end of the day, there’s nothing proprietary about the brand that we created, right? It’s all milk, cream, sugar, and eggs. All the recipes have been published in cookbooks and online.

This is a brand. It’s a story. And if you’re not in agreement with the people that you’re working with about what that story is, it’s just hard to continue. In the best of circumstances, I’m aware that it would have been hard to go to work for somebody else after having built the company from scratch and having it be ours. But this just wasn’t the best of circumstances.

How are you feeling right now? The sale just finalized and you’re officially no longer connected to Ample Hills in any way.

I mean, it’s hard. It feels like a real loss. People often say that in some ways divorce is harder than the death of a spouse because the spouse goes on living and you’re reminded of their presence and that loss and that’s what it is. It definitely feels like the real loss of a family member, for sure. Something that we will mourn for a time and then get back on our feet and try to start something new. It definitely hurts. It’s something we obviously lived, drank, ate, and cared about deeply from the very beginning. And we own the mistakes that we made that got us to here so we we do not blame anybody but ourselves.

I know this is early, but have you started talking about what’s next yet?

Yes, I mean, we’ve got ideas. The only good thing about leaving with absolutely nothing was that we also left without a non-compete so we can start something up new, and we certainly hope to. We’re just trying to put together an idea and formulate a plan and, you know, try to decide whether it’s going to happen before or after the pandemic passes through New York. We’re anxious to do something and it’ll certainly be ice cream-related because it’s the only thing we know right now.

So you both are definitely thinking about starting something from scratch again?

Yeah. You get back on the horse and do it again. We care about ice cream. We care about community and about creating space. And we want to do it again.

As a mom-and-pop, we let ourselves get too far ahead of ourselves, right? I mean, we’ve got all the cliches: Too far out in front of your skis, flying too close to the sun, growing too quickly, eyes too big for your stomach. We checked them all off as we grew. I think this is about going back to our roots and, and doing something real mom-and-pop, something that we own and control and can create and share with people. It’s tough to do and also pay the bills and feed the kids and take care of the normal day-to-day. But we are here. We are down but not out.

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