Napa man refocuses lifelong struggle into successful ice cream venture

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A knock at death’s door led George Haymaker, founder of Napa-based Re:THINK Ice Cream, to a new life path. Re:THINK, which launched on July 21, 2018, so far looks to be a hit with a combination of low calorie and sugar content without sacrificing flavor.

To date, the business has brought in $500,000 in revenue, Haymaker said. And on the company’s one-year anniversary last month — which also happened to be National Ice Cream Day — Haymaker added national online ordering to his mix of offerings (rethinkicecream.us).

The brand name stems from Haymaker’s journey back to health from a crippling post-traumatic stress disorder caused by childhood trauma that the now almost 59-year-old said he tried to mask through alcohol and pain pills. In 2012, Haymaker tried to kill himself.

“I didn’t want to go any further,” he said, emphasizing that through a lot of support and hard work, that darkness became the best thing that ever happened to him. It’s been seven years since he went through rehab and began working on his recovery. “Through hitting that wall, I had to rethink my life.”

Haymaker, who admits to a lifelong fondness for ice cream, noted that alcohol contains a lot of sugar, so when he stopped drinking, his body was “screaming” for anything to make it feel better.

“I was eating a lot of unhealthy treats and getting fat,” Haymaker said. “I realized that wasn’t sustainable, so I used my recovery skills to live healthier in mind, body and spirit.”

LESS SUGAR, MORE PROTEIN

Haymaker’s nutritious version of ice cream replaces sugar with natural agave syrup, which is three to four times sweeter than regular sugar and requires less to achieve the same sweetening effect, he said. The agave sweetener is derived from large, spikey plants that resemble cactus or yuccas, but are actually succulents similar to aloe vera. Haymaker’s ice cream product also contains 30 grams of protein per pint, and incorporates antioxidants and anti-inflammatories through noncaffeinated green tea extract.

Re:THINK comes in nine flavors, with three more in the pipeline, and is sold in large grocery store chains, including Raley’s, Whole Foods and Nob Hill, as well as independent grocers, such as Molsberry Market in Santa Rosa, Petaluma Market and Big John’s Market in Healdsburg, among others. His first taker was Brown’s Valley Neighborhood Market in Napa.

“I knocked on a lot of doors and met a lot of people,” Haymaker said. “It takes a lot of persistence.”

That drive to succeed doesn’t surprise Terence Lundy, a behavioral therapist and Haymaker’s sponsor for a popular 12-step recovery program.

“I find it to be very heroic and courageous that he put himself on blast like that,” Lundy said, adding that Haymaker’s recovery is a statistical miracle in that about 5% of addicts stay in recovery for longer than a year. “He’s (very) transparent ... sometimes I think it might be to a fault. He’s not hiding from his past, and he’s certainly not allowing it to define him any longer.”

FROM BURGERS TO ICE CREAM

Haymaker’s been an entrepreneur since the age of 30, working in several enterprises before teaming with business partner Peter Katz in 2006 to build nine Northern California franchises of The Counter Custom Burger, a high-end casual dining restaurant chain based in Culver City.

Three years ago, while continuing to work full time as an operating partner for The Counter, Haymaker started tinkering with trying to find a way to make a healthful and delicious ice cream. He did a lot of internet searching, making connections in the ice cream industry, finding a food scientist, a flavor specialist, a manufacturer and distributor.

Haymaker’s hobby began morphing into a viable business. About 18 months ago, he formed Re:THINK Ice Cream as an entity with the state.

“I was kind of doing double duty for a year and a half, and then resigned my active post with The Counter about six months ago,” said Haymaker, who retains his ownership interest in the business.

ALL ABOUT THAT BASE

Haymaker, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, said he is very committed to growing his business.

“I have spent about $1 million of my own money to date, and I just raised another $1.5 million through an SBA loan,” Haymaker said. “I would say the lion’s share of all of that money will go for marketing-related payroll and other marketing-related activities, public relations, social media, and event fees. It’s expensive.”

Haymaker employs about 30 people, all working in some aspect of marketing. He has eight full-timers and 22 part-time brand ambassadors, who give out samples at groceries stores, farmers markets and various events.

“We spend all our marketing dollars on giving people samples,” Haymaker said. “People will not believe it until they taste it. So we give them free ice cream so they can try it, tell their friends, and hopefully go out and buy it.”

Haymaker works closely with his Oregon-based food scientist and has come to understand the chemistry and processes involved in developing the healthy ice creams and flavors he chooses.

“The real magic is not so much in an individual flavor; it’s in the base mix,” he said. “All of the ice creams are 98% made up of base mix, and then you flavor it.”

Fruit-flavored ice creams are the most difficult to make, Haymaker said, because he wants to keep the sugar content low.

Tony Bonviso, founder of San Rafael-based Fiorello’s Artisan Gelato, initially made Haymaker’s ice cream, which has a suggested retail price of $6.99 a pint.

“He was very helpful to us in terms of helping us understand the business,” Haymaker said. “It’s one thing to design an ice cream, but it’s another thing to make it in a high-production environment.”

Re:THINK eventually outgrew Bonviso’s moderate-sized facility, so Haymaker now has Pittsburg-based Ramar Foods International making the ice cream. Preferred Freezer in San Leandro stores the ice cream until it’s time to deliver the product. Bonviso delivers to the independent retailers, and Rhode Island-based United Natural Foods, Inc. delivers to the large grocery chains from its warehouses in Rocklin and Gilroy. For flavoring, Haymaker works with Jogue Inc., headquartered in Plymouth, Michigan.

SEEKING A SALE, STAYING SOULFUL

Haymaker and his wife, Kimberly, had to put their Napa home up as collateral in order to secure the SBA loan, which he got through Redwood Credit Union. Kimberly works in sales at Logitech, a maker of computer products, so isn’t actively involved in Re:THINK, but Haymaker said she’s fully supportive of his business. In fact, his long-term plan is to grow the business to the point where he can sell it and she can retire.

Right now Haymaker is focused on bringing in enough revenue to make his company an attractive sell for a “big conglomerate” so he can afford to spend the rest of his days giving back to those battling addictions like he did, but don’t have the resources to get help.

In order to eventually sell his business, Haymaker said he is focusing on revenue, not profit.

“The idea behind these brands is that you grow them for six to eight years and then sell them to a large conglomerate,” Haymaker said. “In consumer packaged goods, that is generally what happens. In the interim, you are spending every dollar you make investing in marketing to grow the brand even more. All you want to do is grow the sales as high as you can because the company you sell it to cares about sales, not profit.”

Haymaker said that, generally, large businesses will pay four to eight times of a consumer packaged goods company’s sales. Even now, Haymaker already is making good on his promise to give back and express gratitude.

It was during his time working with Katz at The Counter that Haymaker took a 60-day leave to enter rehab.

“Peter was very supportive and kind,” Haymaker said. “He gave me the leeway to go work on my recovery.”

As a token of his gratitude, Haymaker said he gave Katz a small investment share in Re:THINK.

Katz knows firsthand of Haymaker’s business skills and thinks he has the chops to succeed.

“His strength is that he’s incredibly analytical,” Katz said. “That’s how he thinks about everything: What’s the root cause? How do we back up and find a solution? He’s strong operationally.”

Katz said Haymaker also has strong negotiating skills and can be a “tough guy” when it comes to making sure all vendors and suppliers live up to their performance criteria. The man who can be tough also is a big softie, especially when it comes to his dogs, Midgie and Maggie, who he said help with his recovery.

“They’re my spiritual beings. They’re always in the present. They teach me how to open my heart and live life from my soul,” Haymaker said. “Nothing bad happens if you live your life from your soul.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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