Dan Beem flew into snow-storm-battered New York this week to talk about ice cream.
It's been f-f-f-freezing and snowing across much of the nation. But Beem, 41, has to keep up his act as president of Cold Stone Creamery, Scottsdale, Ariz., which has about 1,500 franchised ice cream stores worldwide.
Last thing I want to do on a week like this is drive snow-packed roads to watch kids chop candy bars and expensive chunks of frozen dairy on a frosty granite slab.
Oh, and they do this while singing for tips, including this ditty sung to the tune of "Hokey Pokey:" "You put your left spade in; You take your right spade out; You put your mixin's in and you swirl them all about."
If that doesn't give you the shivers...
But at least the economy may be thawing.
"People feel better now that the market is near 11,000 than they did when it was 6,000," Beem said in a telephone interview. "But I don't think they are as happy as they were when it was 14,000."
Beem joined the premium ice cream purveyor in 2003 after stints at Planet Hollywood, TGI Fridays, Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. and NASCAR.
He was hired by Doug Ducey, who joined Cold Stone in 1994, built it into a household name, and brilliantly sold it near the peak of the boom in 2007. (Today, Ducey is not only counting his money, but Arizona's money as the state's new treasurer.)
The buyer was Kahala, a company that holds several franchises, including Blimpie's Sub Shop, Taco Time and Cereality, which, yes, is a cereal bar. (For some of us, life is just too short to be pouring wet milk over dry flakes at home.)
Kahala promoted Beem to president in September 2007, just in time for the big economic crunch bar.
Cold Stone doesn't disclose financials. But international market-intelligence provider Mintel reported that Cold Stone's sales dropped 11.8% in 2008 to about $430 million as consumers flocked to less-expensive frozen treats at places like Dairy Queen. This plunge came against a backdrop of 20.3% sales growth at Cold Stone from 2005 to 2007.
Beem said he loaded his executive team on a bus. They drove to 16 major cities in three months, getting their ears to the ground, and doing everything possible to keep franchisees profitable against the tide of rising unemployment and spiking gasoline prices.
Besides selling a nonessential product in a chilly economy, Cold Stone faces ubiquitous competition against Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's, Haagen-Dazs, and other chopped-on-a-stone shops such as Maggie Moos and Marble Slab.
But Beem said Cold Stone has fared well during the downturn, and sales are picking up. The company just posted its best October sales in four years, he said.
"Families are giving up that five-star dinner, or they're giving up that seven-day Caribbean cruise, but they still want time with the family," Beem said. "They need that bonding, that cocooning, so they are coming to Cold Stone."
Next month, Cold Stone is rolling out warm treats to counter the cold weather: brownies, churros and funnel cakes. Come Spring, it will add yogurt to compete with the frozen-yogurt craze that Pinkberry has re-ignited.
Still, sometimes when you go Cold Stone, the songs sound a little desperate:
To the tune of "She'll Be Coming Around The Mountain": "We'll be mixin" at the Cold Stone when you tip, when you tip; We'll be singin" at the Cold Stone when you tip, when you tip..."
To the tune of "La Cuca Racha": "I got a dollar, I got a dollar; We hope you like our little song; And if you tip us another dollar; We'll keep on singing all night long."
Amid these difficult times, Cold Stone has turned abroad for growth.
"In three to four years, our international business will eclipse our domestic business," Beem said.
The songs go overseas with the stores. In the more reserved cultures of Asia, they're not always welcome, at least not at first.
"'We can't do this at our stores,'" Beem said he hears. "What we've found every time...is that we come back three months later and they just have mobs of people around the store watching the crew members sing."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)