Maraline “Mimi” Olson opened Screamin’ Mimi’s ice cream shop in Sebastopol in 1995 on Sebastopol Avenue. at the juncture of Highway 116 from Petaluma and Bodega Highway from Santa Rosa. “I did everything myself, painted the walls, chairs and tables,” Olson said.
“People would stop to tell me what a bad location it was. We would joke about it,” she said.
But she held to her long-term branding vision, and the location turned out to be brilliant, visible at one of the town’s busiest intersections where hundreds of drivers see her sign.
“At that point this was a dead corner. But as far as ice cream goes, you want more exposure. You want people to see it. People will drive to get ice cream,” she said. “I didn’t have to be on Main Street.”
She wrote a business plan before opening the shop.
“My estimates were within $500 of what I thought I was going to do” in the first year, she said.“It has grown a lot. There was never a time when we were down.”
The small corner shop pulls in revenue exceeding $1 million a year, she said, with 28 employees, mostly part-time, open about 12 hours every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Screamin’ Mimi’s rotates through nearly 200 recipes to arrive at a daily selection of 16 flavors of ice cream and four sorbets. “The front right corner (of the freezer) is always going to be a mint flavor” out of about 10 minty options, Olson said.
Five flavors never change: vanilla, Deep-dark Secret (chocolate), Galaxy (chocolate chip), strawberry (local berries) and Mimi’s Mud, the most popular flavor with coffee, chocolate chips, cookies and fudge. That flavor accounts for nearly a third of the shop’s overall sales. “Besides our location, it’s the reason we’re still open after 24 years,” she said. “That’s our signature flavor.”
She developed Mud at her house before opening the store. “We have changed nothing,” she said. “That’s my breakfast ice cream,” she said, in lieu of morning coffee. “One little scoop, real caffeine, real coffee. People who eat ice cream for breakfast are more mentally alert,” she said, citing a study in Japan. Olson draws on local ingredients. “We take what’s available, what’s fresh,” she said, particularly fruit in season. “I make what I feel like making.”
Using a coconut base, she is developing new sorbet flavors, such as orange blended with coconut, “a creamy orange sorbet,” she said. With ice cream, she recently developed a double-burnt caramel. Last year she made Pretzella — chocolate-covered pretzels in a caramel-chocolate-chip ice cream.
“We put way more vanilla than anybody in their right mind,” she said, chuckling, “especially when vanilla is $700 a gallon. Our chocolate is much darker than you’ll find anywhere else. It needs as much chocolate as possible. I am a chocolate lover.”
One flavor she calls White Tiger, a Grand Marnier ice cream with candied orange rinds and fudge. “We put a sign up. Usually we have to take the sign down the same day,” she said. “It sells fast, crazy.” Scarcity of some flavors whets demand.
Sugar drops the freezing temperature of ice cream, and Olson leans toward lower sugar content. “You add a lot of chocolate and a lot of sugar, you are going to make a milkshake” that won’t freeze hard, she said.
Overrun (the amount of air incorporated into ice cream by the manufacturer)for Screamin’ Mimi’s is near 25 percent, extremely low, resulting in only about 20 percent air compared to nearly half air for non-premium ice cream. “We sell by weight,” Olson said. “It’s uncommon, very dense. We have people who get a very small dish of ice cream — a golf-ball-size scoop. But they come in three times a week. Their indulgence is on a smaller level but more often.”
The average sale is $3 per customer.
A quality fanatic, she works in the shop much of the time. “I interview and train everybody who works here,” said Olson. “They practice. I push them along. We don’t allow them to serve customers until they’ve been making coffee for a month. Ice cream is a bit more forgiving. If they make a bad shot of espresso, I don’t want that to go out with somebody.”
She and her husband Kurt personally make most of the ice cream. They barely meet demand, especially in summer. “It’s a lot of work — physically exhausting,” she said. “Everything going in that case tastes the way it should.” Her husband schedules staffing. A son, 18, sometimes runs the store. One employee sports a black T-shirt with magenta lettering: Eat dessert first.
A seasoned entrepreneur, Olson, 54, owned a vintage-clothing store for eight years in upstate New York before moving to California. She had been a fashion stylist in New York. “I was good at it, but I don’t love it,” she said. “I really love ice cream, my favorite food. I love my job.”
Olson has no interest in expanding with other shops. “I love being the destination people want to go to,” she said, “that small feeling, but national recognition. Spreading out would compromise quality.” Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa and Petaluma customers, accounts for about 75 percent of the business, she said. “We have seen a big increase the past five years.”
She had a mentor. “I asked him how to avoid becoming 300 pounds, opening an ice cream parlor,” she said. “I never have it at my house. My kids are very disappointed. If I have it at home, I’ll sit down and eat the whole thing. Here, I’m too busy. I’ll have a couple of spoonsful.”
James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4257