Chris McKellar, left, and Callee Knoll churn Amaretto Cherry vegan gelato at Love’s Ice Cream. The product features Michigan Balaton cherries and organic toasted almonds in an almond-flavored coconut milk base. Photo by Jim Gebben
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Chris McKellar almost didn’t go to the Making It In Michigan Conference and Trade Show in Lansing last November. He was booked as an exhibitor at the National Ice Cream Retailers Association trade show in Kentucky on the same day.
Then he was tipped off that he would not want to miss the Michigan show, which is put on each year by the Michigan State University Product Center. McKellar, founder of Love’s Ice Cream, knew he had been nominated for an award, but he was focused on the Kentucky show as a good prospect for expanding his business.
So McKellar dispatched a staff member to man the booth in Lexington while he went to Lansing, where he picked up the 2014 Start-Up To Watch award.
Westborn Market, a family retail business specializing in fresh and gourmet foods with three locations in southeast Michigan and a fourth in the works, selected three of the foods featured at Making It In Michigan for possible addition to its shelves — and Love’s Ice Cream was one of them.
McKellar launched Love’s Ice Cream in August 2013 just days before Downtown Market opened. Love’s Ice Cream debuted there and has a growing customer base.
Love’s is open every day of the year and employs seven, although that climbs to about 10 in the summer months. McKellar said he and his staff make a few 15-gallon batches of ice cream each week, but production probably is close to 100 gallons per week in the summer.
McKellar was looking for an opportunity to invest the proceeds from his sale of an earlier business he had launched when he heard about the future Downtown Market looking for retail tenants.
“I said, ‘OK, I can do the ice cream thing because there is no one doing it the way I would want to do it here in West Michigan,’” he said.
A 34-year-old Grandville native, McKellar concludes that he did not so much start an ice cream business but rather, “It found me.”
Love’s Ice Cream is McKellar’s “second serious business.” His first start-up was a website development company that created marketing sites for clients who wanted online sales, which evolved from his first marketing job out of college with Firehouse Guitars in Grand Rapids.
The Firehouse Guitars job also introduced him to good food. He attended musical instrument trade shows in Nashville and Anaheim and often dined at fine restaurants with reps from well-known guitar companies such as Fender and Taylor. Then began a personal quest to learn where great food comes from; he eventually enrolled at the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College.
With what he learned at Firehouse about web development and online marketing, he started a website development company, which was successful — so much so it was bought out by a competitor. That’s where the capital came from for Love’s Ice Cream.
Then there was a three-year span starting in 2007 when he toured the U.S. with GR-based rock band AG Silver, which he had been a part of since his teen years.
Today his mission is preparation of ice cream from scratch, using organic ingredients and cream from cows fed on grass. He has a passion for supporting Michigan agriculture “as much as I possibly can.”
In addition to homemade ice cream, Love’s Ice Cream produces vegan gelato, using organic coconut milk instead of cows’ milk.
“We have a growing, enthusiastic fan base,” he said, mainly because of the bold flavors of the products, which is achieved through use of costly ingredients.
“No doubt about it,” said McKellar when asked if his ice cream is expensive. Love’s pints of ice cream sell for $9.95, more than double the cost of Ben & Jerry’s.
He said there are major differences between him and other ice cream makers, most of which are highly mechanized and use machines capable of mass producing “a ton of commodity product.” Their ice cream is also “highly processed” to extend its shelf life. He said Love’s uses simple recipes, but his ingredients are of a “completely different caliber” than those of his competition.
Married with two young daughters, McKellar said when he had his web development business, he was sometimes putting in 15 or 16 hours a day.
“This time, I’m just trying to work a manageable pace and not wear myself out,” said McKellar. It helps, he added, that he has a great staff, which means he does not always have to be at the shop.
He is quick to point out that while he uses organic ingredients, his ice cream is not yet certified organic and may not be for a while. To achieve that will take “a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy” involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and McKellar obviously would prefer to spend his time just making the most delicious ice cream possible.
The MSU Product Center hosted its seventh annual Making It In Michigan conference and tradeshow at the Lansing Center. It provides specialty food entrepreneurs with an opportunity to showcase their products and connect with buyers. The Start-up to Watch Award recognizes an emerging company that has made tremendous progress but has even greater potential to expand the business.
The MSU Product Center Food-Ag-Bio provides business development services, market assessment and research in the food, agriculture bio-based sectors of the Michigan economy. It is supported by MSU Extension, MSU AgBioResearch and Project GREEEN.
The MSU Product Center Food-Ag-Bio was established in 2003 with funds from the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and Michigan State University Extension, to improve economic opportunities in the Michigan agriculture, food and natural resource sectors. The Product Center can help entrepreneurs and established companies develop and commercialize high value, consumer-responsive products and businesses.
Brenda J. Reau, senior associate director of the MSU Product Center Food-Ag-Bio, told the Business Journal Grand Rapids is one of the strongest venues in Michigan for entrepreneurs starting a new business.