Las Vegas small business owner Robert Bateman has a passion for Italian ice. It all began during his childhood days when he would help his uncle with his Italian ice stand back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“He would set up push carts around (Pittsburgh) festival areas and I’d go down and stand with them,” said Bateman. “Sometimes, they’d actually let me serve it.”
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Bateman, 40, no longer needs his uncle’s permission to serve the popular desert. Along with the help of fellow business partner and best friend, Jean Bridges, Bateman decided to open Tiki Ice, a line of naturally flavored, soy and gluten-free Italian ice sold right in the middle of Las Vegas' Town Square Shopping Center.
According to a January 2010 report from Packaged Facts, a firm that publishes market analyses on a wide range of consumer market topics, the U.S. market for ice cream and frozen desserts increased by 2% in 2009 to $25 billion, with forecasted revenue of $27 billion by 2014.
“Summers in Pittsburgh are pretty short,” said Bateman. “It seems like a natural product for the West coast because we have a longer summer season.”
Bridges, who handles the business side of the company, approached Bateman about the idea of opening up an Italian ice stand during her time as an MBA student studying entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She submitted the business plan for Tiki Ice into the 2010 Governor's Cup, a regional college competition for entrepreneurs, and beat out fellow competitors to win $5,000 in prize money in April of that year. She credits the victory to a "detailed" business plan that enabled them to get the business up and running just a couple of months later in June of 2010.
"We already had the leases signed, we knew where we were going to be in Town Square, everything was ready to go," said Bridges.
In the past year, revenue for the company totaled approximately $40,000. But it took nearly $60,000 to open the business, with the two business partners depending on family, friends and their own personal savings to compensate for the costs of paying nearly $4,000 a month to operate the stand, since they weren’t able to get additional funding from the banks.
"I think the biggest challenge is money for expansion," said Bateman. "Being a small business, banks don't really look at you until you've been in operation for at least two years."
In an attempt to produce year-round revenue while reducing operating costs, Bateman and Bridges decided to diversify the company's portfolio by selling the cold dessert in grocery stores throughout the Southwest. The product can already be found in the sorbet section of Whole Foods stores throughout southern Nevada and will soon be sold in 245 Albertsons grocery store locations throughout southern Nevada and southern California.
“The stand is very labor intensive. You’re paying rent and making sure product is there,” said Bridges. “A lot of the things we do now with (the expansion) to grocery stores is just factory production, so we’re able to cut down on costs for staffing.”
And according to Bateman, this is only the beginning.
"I think that would be in our future plans to expand nationwide and to get the product into different stores," said the Pittsburgh-native.
Until then, Bateman says he will continue to enjoy being a part of a business that he grew up admiring and now gets to share with individuals on the opposite side of the country.
“I think actually seeing it come to life is really amazing,” said Bateman. “One of my favorite things is actually being at the retail stand, seeing the people try it and the reactions that they have. It really makes me feel proud that we have a great product.”