Robin Rose is a sweet and feisty entrepreneur, the head of Robin Rose Ice Cream & Chocolate, with half a dozen stores in Southern California, two in Japan, and more in the works. She's been praised by People and Los Angeles magazines as having the best ice cream in Los Angeles. She recently received a governor's award as an outstanding California woman entrepreneur.
All of this came about in part because she has excellent products to sell and there is a market for quality ice cream and chocolates. But there's a little more to it: marketing savvy, a magnetic personality—and, of course, a rocky road to travel.
Rose's father was an entrepreneur. He started a furniture business, in which her mother also worked. It wasn't a luxurious childhood, but her father's work fed the family and gave then-Robin Friedman a model of ethical business conduct. "My father never hurt anybody, he never owed money that wasn't paid back, he gave people jobs, he took care of everybody fairly," she says.
She majored in economics at Stanford—where she also took ROTC courses in tactics and guerrilla warfare—and then earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. A long-time libertarian, she went to Chicago partly because of Milton Friedman. But her passionate view of business wasn't shaped in the classroom.
"If I taught econ, I would make value judgments—which, God bless Milton Friedman, were absolutely banished from his class. I am terrified that America is not going to be competitive past the year 2000. I am sickened at the size of the government, but I don't see that it's reversible."
So what would Robin Rose do? "I would give students a pep talk: Go out there and try to excel. Give 110 percent instead of 90 percent. Try honesty instead of deceit. It is its own reward, and it's a very invigorating way to live.
"When I went to Japan, I got goosebumps—people 80 or 90 were out early in the morning washing their sidewalks—the work ethic is so ingrained there. I see us as a flabby country.…Are we really prepared to be a second-class economic power?"
Despite her strong views, however, Rose's stock in trade is ice cream, not ideology. "I can't afford to worry about it. I'm just going to collect my royalties from Japan, where they love my ice cream and call me 'Lobin Lose.'"
She got into the business after five years designing sales promotions for Gallo Wineries and a brief stint as a liquor-industry consultant. In the beginning, Rose planned to sell chocolate truffles, a product she thought would capitalize on the boom in gourmet food.
She mortgaged her condominium, raised $200,000 in investment funds, and got the liqueur manufacturer Cointreau—one of her consulting clients—to donate $2,000 worth of their extract to the enterprise. She rented manufacturing space, where she experimented with a staggering 500 batches of truffles before settling on her recipes.
That done, she approached "every candy company in the western states" and offered a deal—they would make the chocolates and she would market them. "I just had one door after another slammed in my face."
So she rented her own warehouse near the beach in Venice, California, and began large-scale production with the help of her parents and a makeshift chocolate melter—a steam kettle rigged to an electric motorboat propeller. Her lease required that she buy $16,000 worth of ice-cream-making equipment already on the premises; she then found herself forced to spend an extra $20,000 to get the freezers to work. (People in the marketplace sometimes misrepresent things, she says dryly.)
The money spent, she began making ice creams, some with liqueurs. And in a serendipitous moment, she melted down a batch of raspberry truffles that didn't look good enough to sell and threw them into the ice-cream maker. When she began retailing ice cream a week later, Raspberry Chocolate Truffle sold out first. Within a few months, ice cream sales overtook chocolate sales.
In its early days, the business was called Via Dolce (Sweet Street), but love soon led to a new name. When a closed-circuit television salesman named Roy Rose came to install a new security system, Robin Friedman drafted him into helping her make ice cream. (She also instructed him to strip down to his shorts lest he ruin his clothes. The salesman complied.) "I knew I was in love within three weeks of our first date," she says. Robin Friedman became Robin Rose—and so did the store, which happened to be located on Rose Avenue.
In less than five years in business, Rose says, "I seem to have skirted one disaster after another, most of them from disreputable salesman." About two years ago, two men offered to set up a partnership deal to take her business national, then tried to squeeze her out. Rose has since looked with a jaundiced eye on "partnership" offers.
Lately, Rose has taken on her large competitor, Baskin-Robbins, which came out with liqueur-flavored ice creams, as well as a Raspberry Chocolate Truffle flavor. "It's not wrong for them to imitate me. It's wrong for them to say they created it." The press, with discerning palate, has sided with her.
Rose says her respect for the free market has been battered by the marketplace, but it survives. "My accomplishment is that I didn't become a statistic—I didn't become one of the four out of five businesses that fail within the first five years. I don't want people leaving high-paying jobs, putting everything at risk, so that they can become a failure, a statistic," she says. "Laissez-faire means 'watch it.'"
John Dentinger is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.