When John and Nancy Edney purchased Tropical Dreams Ice Cream Co. in 2001, they viewed it not as a risk, but a delicious opportunity.
Never mind that the previous owner, an Ohio couple, had the gourmet ice cream manufacturer, then based in Kawaihae, for a year and a half. Or, that the Edneys had never owned an ice cream business.
Nancy has experience in a myriad of careers, from being a flight attendant and a secretary to working two years for celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and owning her own catering business. John, on the other hand, has 30 years of senior management experience in the transportation industry and ran the Leeward Bus Co. on Oahu from 1976 to 1980.
When the bus company sold, John said he had no intentions of retiring. The Edneys bought land in Hawi because they had wanted to live on Hawaii Island since 1978, when they were married at the Kona Village Resort. At first, they considered running an ice-making operation and then owning a bakery in Honokaa. But after doing roughly two months of due diligence, looking into Tropical Dreams, they discovered the company, founded in 1983 in Kapaau, had a solid reputation and was “a diamond in the rough,” John said.
In the past 12 years, the Edneys have indulged in sweet success — something that has not gone unnoticed. The U.S. Small Business Administration recently named them Hawaii County’s Small-Business People of the Year.
“This is a significant award, and it’s nice to have the recognition,” John said.
The Edneys have grown their business into a household name beyond the Big Island. Their extensive product line has more than 200 flavors of ice cream, sorbets, yogurts and gelato, which can be found in grocery stores, restaurants, resorts, coffee and specialty shops, and health food stores throughout the state, on the mainland and in Japan. Their favorites include Tahitian vanilla, lemon and salted caramel.
Truth be told, John said the process for making ice cream is simple. Within 10 to 15 minutes, 20- to 40-quart machines mix cream, sugar and flavoring into the decadent dessert, later hand-packed into 4-ounce and 3-gallon containers. The Edneys purchase a mix of cream produced 100 percent by Big Island dairies and processed by Meadow Gold. Tropical Dreams’ ice cream contains 18 percent butterfat. Their gelatos and sorbetos contain less than 10 percent butterfat. Locally grown fruit and nuts are used as much as possible. Tropical Dreams is the only ice cream company in the state Department of Agriculture’s Seal of Quality program, John said.
About a year ago, at the suggestion of well-known chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman, the Edneys started making small batch, premium butter, called Hula Cow, from 100 percent Big Island cream. To make it, they purchased a churn from Holland. The butter is now used by local high-end restaurants and resorts, John said.
The Edneys purchased Hilo Homemade Ice Cream in 2003 and Big Island Ice Cream in 2010. They also have a small operation in Kugenuma, Japan, as well as three licensees in Sacramento, Calif., Knoxville, Tenn., and Salt Lake City.
In their first year of operation at their small Kawaihae facility, the Edneys had one employee and produced 5,000 gallons of ice cream. Today, they have 15 employees and produce 100,000 gallons of ice cream annually. They purchased and moved to a 5-acre property on Lalamilo Farm Road in Waimea six years ago. There, in one of 15 greenhouses, is where Tropical Dreams is now located. A bread company, fitness center, theater group and bus company are among the 13 other tenants there. Last year, the Edneys installed a solar system at their facility that generates more than 70 percent of their electricity, John said.
Despite the economic challenges, the Edneys have not seen a dip in sales or people holding back on their favorite treats.
“Ice cream is still a relatively inexpensive indulgence. People still feel like they can enjoy it even when things are hard,” John said. “I would also like to think we have the greatest ice cream available. But I think 50 percent of our sales are from our customers in Hawaii and the other half has to do with people’s fond memories of Hawaii.”
For the Edneys, their recipe for success includes having a hands-on approach, whether it’s fixing a broken machine or working alongside employees, as well as honoring each others’ strengths when building a company, splitting the responsibilities and promising not to take too much of it home.
Their advice to entrepreneurs: Never buy a business that requires refrigeration. John said refrigeration always breaks and at the worst times. He tends to get alarm calls around 2 a.m. and has to personally investigate them. The Edneys also stressed the importance of understanding the business you intend to purchase, which includes cash flow, and being vigilant about maintaining good customer satisfaction.
For more information about Tropical Dreams, call 885-8820 or visit tropicaldreamsicecream.com.