The woman: Amy Simmons, founder of Amy’s Ice Creams – which, if you’re from Austin, needs no introduction.
The mission: Make your day.
The commitment: “People have very different ideas of success. Ours is to educate and elevate our employees.”
Top 3 ways she’ll change your life:
- Indulge in Austin’s original local ice cream; support future entrepreneurs.
- Every flavor comes with a free mash-in of eccentric Austin.
- Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.
In sum: You know you’d never want to live in a world without Amy’s Belgian Chocolate. But you might not have known that this is about more than ice cream. Today Amy’s is focused on educating, inspiring, and empowering a new wave of Austin entrepreneurs. Simmons says it best: “Ice cream’s sexy.”
Behind the scenes
It is any hour of any day, and I am craving a scoop from Amy’s Ice Creams.
More than 25 years ago, Amy Simmons (then Amy Miller) descended upon Austin and, like the British East India Company smuggling opium into 18th-century China, created a rampant addiction in the capital city. (We all have that friend who gets twitchy without his Mexican Vanilla.)
The good news is that this ice cream addiction is a healthy one – at least, for Austin entrepreneurs.
Rise of the empire
As products go, ice cream falls on the frivolous side of the spectrum, and three cheers for that. But the woman behind Amy’s Ice Creams is not frivolous. She is focused.
Had things gone as planned, Simmons would be a doctor today. But as a premed student in Boston, she took on a part-time job at a locally-owned shop called Steve’s Ice Cream. It was there that she learned the ice cream business, and more importantly, the value of educating and nurturing employees. She swears that Steve’s was the original Amy’s.
When the shop was bought out, she and a coworker decided, in a rush of youthful idealism, that they should start their own. Simmons deferred from medical school, chose Austin as the home of her future ice cream empire, and took the plunge.
Normally, this is the part of the story where we expect our heroine to fall into her first pit of snakes. But by and large, aside from a few of the predictable growing pains, Amy’s Ice Creams just… took off.
What can we say? This city likes its ice cream.
It’s also a hotbed for businesses with big personalities. When Simmons first visited, she noticed Austin’s warm embrace for local ventures like Chuy’s, Good Eats Cafe, and Texas French Bread. Even more remarkable, the founders of those businesses welcomed her with friendship and collaboration.
“We’d been everywhere in the U.S., looking for a place to start,” Simmons says. She snaps her fingers. “It took that long to realize Austin was it.”
This is not your average day job
Simmons is from Ann Arbor, Mich., but Amy’s Ice Creams is pure Austin. Scoopers are tattooed and pierced and disarmingly unaffected. They will lean against the counter, despite the fast-multiplying line piling up behind you, to ask you about your day. In New York City, they’d probably be assaulted. Here in Austin, we love it. The line, the careful agonizing over which crush-in to order, the down-home pace of the whole thing; it’s all just part of the experience.
As Simmons tells it, these employees are the real mission of the business.
“People usually measure success in wealth,” she says. “But that wasn’t ever going to be my measure. I had to decide: Why am I doing this? What’s valuable?”
In the beginning, Simmons’s goal was to help her employees – often, wet-behind-the-ears college students – develop a strong work ethic. The tactics have become something of a legend in Austin. Amy’s employees are known for spontaneous acts of customer service; for the highly competitive paper bag application (you are given a white paper bag; the rest is up to you); theme nights; even, once, breaking into an impromptu tutorial of the Time Warp dance from “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” (Employee Rick Redman locked customers into the store until they got the hang of it.)
In recent years, Simmons says that she’s focused on attracting entrepreneurial employees, giving them some business know-how, and then supporting them in their endeavors beyond Amy’s. Jack Stack’s book “The Great Game of Business” has informed her methods, articulating an open-book management technique (literally, the books are open to everyone – including payroll), which teaches employees to think and act like owners.
So while the storefront is ice cream, behind the scenes, Amy’s is something of a business internship. Two managers, a husband and wife team with their own ideas for a startup, have proudly noted, “We came to Amy’s for our education.”
“Growth itself is not one of our measures of success,” Simmons reiterates. “Elevating our employees is.”
The official Amy’s Ice Creams mission statement is three words long: Make people’s day.
Simmons remembers meeting two women who purchased “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” t-shirts at the Arboretum store. Chatting at the register, she discovered that they were in town for a funeral, and had sought out the t-shirts in honor of their friend who’d passed away. He had lived his final months in assisted living, they said, and took just one outing a week – to see his friends at Amy’s.
“Amy’s was all he talked about in the last year of his life,” they told her.
“At Amy’s, we get to be part of so many memorable experiences,” Simmons says. “People don’t eat ice cream because they’re hungry. They eat it because they’re happy, or they’re celebrating, or they’re spending time with their families.”
This rings true. One of my favorite childhood memories is being packed in the backseat of the family car during a violent summer thunderstorm, hell bent on reaching the mom-and-pop ice cream stand two towns over. Substitute ice cream for anything else, and would we have been so motivated?
For 28 years of memories and supremely satisfying addiction, Amy’s – we thank you.
Locals supporting Locals! Amy’s Ice Creams has paired up with Tito’s Vodka (#40: The Vodka Bootstrapper) to create a White Russian flavor called Tito’s The Dude. It’s available now and will be on rotation all summer.