Enter: Yum Actually – a better-for-you ice cream with fruits or veggies as its first ingredients.It was exactly three years ago when Nicole Frankel stood in her kitchen in a scenario that would lead to the birth of this innovative ice cream brand. Like many parents, Frankel was navigating her picky four year old’s recent fruit and vegetable strike, in which she refused even typically innocuous produce like apples. The lack of nutrients and fiber was causing stomach issues for the finicky preschooler, and stressing out her mom. Frankel was determined to find a solution.
Inspired by her daughter’s love for ice cream, Frankel bought an ice cream maker and began experimenting by mashing creamy fruits and vegetables into tempting but wholesome treats. “I used enough fruits and veggies to make it nutrient dense,” Frankel told me, but she included a small amount of sugar, which she learned is necessary for the proper consistency. “I limit the sugar, but ice cream needs some sugar or it turns into a block of ice,” she explained.
Frankel used sweet potatoes in her first homemade ice cream flavor. She presented the unfamiliar orange substance to her reluctant daughter, and awaited in suspense to see if the new food met her demands. Frankel’s daughter took a few bites and quickly declared, “It’s yum, actually.”
In addition to creating a solution to her daughter’s dietary needs, Frankel had just invented a brand new product, which is named after its very first rave review. “My daughter devoured the sweet potato ice cream, and I came up with this concept,” she recalled. “And the name stuck.”
When this business brainstorm hit Frankel, she wasn’t working full-time but certainly was busy — juggling her four-year-old as well as newborn twin boys. Motivated by the concept of a novel “mom startup” and many of her friends with similar nutrition struggles with their kids, she started doing research about both business formation and ice cream food science — a story that reminds me of Diane Keaton’s baby food biz in the hit 80’s movie Baby Boom.
Frankel was about to enter a field in which she had no experience. With a background in financial technology, she was more accustomed to measuring data analytics for banks and hedge funds than the ratio of fat to air in an ice cream recipe. But her experience working with startups in financial technology did prove useful as a “mom-trepreneur.” She began to establish her business plan and worked toward obtaining a license and trademark for Yum Actually. This new territory quickly felt like a sweeter deal. “Ice cream is so much more fun than financial technology,” Frankel admitted to me, laughing.
I recently had a chance to try Nicole’s creations, and understand why she takes such pride in this product. “It’s unique and just about everybody loves it,” she shared proudly. Unique indeed, and enjoyably satisfying as well. While Yum Actually is marketed with kids in mind, grownups are welcome too! Yum Actually comes in four flavors (so far) which offer something for every little, or big, palate. There’s Yummy Mango (my five year old and I both love this one), Creamy Honey Banana (a favorite of our entire family), Caramel Sweet Potato, and Butternut Squash Butterscotch (the favorite of the butterscotch-loving Grandpa in our crew.) As Frankel’s colorful packaging says, Yum Actually is “for kids and those that love them.”
Nicole Frankel is not just selling ice cream but a philosophy in which she strongly believes. The idea of teaching children balance – something I believe in as well – is important to the ice cream inventing mom. Frankel prides herself in creating a product that is enjoyable but also incorporates vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, showing kids that food groups do not need to be mutually exclusive.
Looking at a package of Yum Actually reminds me of the important lesson that no foods should be vilified for kids – something I noted when talking to Frankel. “YES, I’m so glad you said that!” she responded passionately. “It’s about balance!” While Yum Actually keeps things healthy by being one of the lowest sugar ice creams for kids, it doesn’t believe in categorizing any food as “bad.” Frankel has also encountered many questions about why her product is made with dairy. “It’s so frustrating to me defending dairy,” she admitted. “Unless a child has an allergy or a sensitivity, dairy is good for kids, pediatricians recommend giving kids milk.” These unique sweet treats are like little cups of compromise for kids and parents, that remind consumers of every age that it is possible to nourish our bodies and enjoy all types of foods.
Frankel has put in a formidable amount of work between the inception of her product in 2017 and the time it first hit shelves in March of 2020. She read countless books on the very scientific process of making ice cream. She experimented with batch after batch in her kitchen and hired a food scientist, who had previously worked at Ben & Jerry’s, to advise her on things like ingredient suppliers and the viscosity of her ice cream. Her time was now filled with tasks like generating nutrition labels, sending her product to labs, and establishing focus groups to test her prototype.
Frankel next began searching for a co-packer (a company that packages and labels products for clients) which she explained was no easy feat. “Co-packers are not easy to find because they want to remain hidden,” she explained. “I became like a private eye hunting for them!” The co-packer search was time-consuming, as were other steps she recalls. “Establishing the business took long, developing the flavors took long, the formula development took ten months,” she explained. “It was late last August (2019) when we went to markets with a prototype and we tested it until March of this year.”
With very strict dairy laws in New York State, the production of Yum Actually could not remain a mom (or pop) operation. Frankel began producing her product at a factory in Upstate New York, but soon found a factory in Warwick, Rhode Island which better met her standards.
Frankel had selected her factory and a co-packer, and even secured a warehouse in Brooklyn where the ice cream is stored before it is transported to supermarket shelves. Two and a half years after making her first batch of sweet potato ice cream in her kitchen, Yum Actually was well on its way!
Nicole often makes local store deliveries herself, which she says has been a secret to her sales success. “I’ve personally met with buyers and merchandisers and dropped off samples to make sure my products are well-merchandised in stores,” she explained. While large orders do require distributors to handle the deliveries, Frankel learned early on that the owner of a company has better control over its sales than a delivery driver. “When a new product is just starting out, stores will often give it bad shelf space,” she explained. “But I found if I delivered it and asked to set it up somewhere in particular I was successful most of the time, and I encourage everyone to do that at the beginning.”
Although the pandemic hit the U.S. just when Yum Actually hit the shelves, the business has weathered the storm. “There was a food brand spike in sales in March,” Frankel explained. “Then it slowed down a bit but in June things picked up again.”
Nicole has managed to turn her dream business into one which works fairly well with the role that is her first priority – mom. While she has an office in midtown Manhattan, she is able to run 95% of her operations, sales, and marketing from home and on the road. And as the only full-time employee, she does so impressively. With the exception of a few freelancers, consultants, and brand ambassadors, Yum Actually is a one-woman show!
Yum Actually is currently sold in 55 retailers in New York and has begun inching into New Jersey. Despite all the ice cream she’s tested, Frankel is still hungry for more – growth, that is. She has big goals for Yum Actually. “We’re taking on investors in the next twelve to eighteen months,” she shared. “In the most immediate future we’ll be working with a bigger distributor that will open us up to outside the NY area.” Frankel has hopes of expanding into food service, hospitals, schools, and even airlines. And once her brand is more recognizable, she’d love to do e-commerce. “Ice cream is very expensive to ship so once we’re a bigger name with a loyal following we can expand to third party distribution to have Yum Actually sent straight to customers or stores all around the country.”
Now that Nicole can add “Mom Startup” to the top of her resume, I wondered what advice she has for others with entrepreneurial dreams. Here are some of her top tips:
- DO YOUR HOMEWORK.“I got some great books and started reading and doing my research from the get-go. I’d switch back and forth between a practical, scary book to an inspiring book that would make me feel better when I was down.” Some of Nicole’s book and podcast recommendations are:
- Inspired by Vik Venkatraman. “This one really helped me turn my idea into a business and motivated me to actually make it into something,” she says.
- Cooking up a Business by Rachel Hofstetter
- 1 Page Marketing Plan by Allan Dib. “This is a MUST READ for those starting a business,” Nicole advises.
- The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Farris. “This one gives a lot of pointers on saving time when you’re a solo-preneur doing it all yourself!”
- The Ultimate Guide to Co-Packing by Michael Adams “This gave me a lot of insight on how to choose a co-packer,” she recalls.
- The Magic of Thinking Big, You are a Badass, Crush It!, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. ,”These are all good motivational books for entrepreneurs.”
- Podcast: How I Built This by Guy Raz “This podcast is very informative and inspirational. I listen to it often to hear about journeys of other entrepreneurs.”
- JOIN A PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION. “I joined a specialty food association early on.”
- TAKE CLASSES. “I took a couple of business boot camp courses that were helpful.”
- KNOW YOUR MARKET. “Investing in a business requires a lot of market research.”
- START LOCAL. Frankel learned the benefits of starting a business in her area while learning how to branch out. “I’d advise others to stay in your backyard as long as possible.”
With Frankel’s ambitious approach to her new business, I’m sure it won’t be long before customers start seeing Yum Actually in supermarket freezers across the United States. And the flavors will likely be expanding. Perhaps some avocado ice cream for our friends in California, I wondered? “I’ve been working on an avocado,” Nicole exclaimed laughing. “The problem with avocado is that it browns so quickly and commercial puree just doesn’t taste right, so we’re working on a fresh version.”
Nicole Frankel is a great example for other hopeful entrepreneurs dreaming of building businesses that work for their family and help them find their joy. She has literally built a growing brand from a sweet potato and an ice cream maker in her kitchen. “It was bootstraps,” she shared. While she humbly admits she regularly makes mistakes as a new business owner, her positive attitude helps her overcome those hurdles and serves as great inspiration to other parents with entrepreneurial dreams. “I learn something new everyday,” she says. “It’s a fun, fascinating journey.”