Small Business Stories ǀ FREDDY PAPEN
Saffron & Rose
Freddy Papen is the Co-Owner of Saffron & Rose ice cream. In this episode, Freddy gives us the scoop on what it means to keep his grandfather’s legacy alive while offering his customers authentic Persian ice cream with a modern twist.
Read the transcript
Jeff Israel, host of Small Business Stories:
How do you keep the story and spirit of a family business but usher it into a modern era. Our next guest did just that. Welcome to Small Business Stories presented by Vistaprint. My name is Jeff Israel. Joining me today via Skype is Freddy Papen, the CoOwner of Saffron & Rose Ice Cream. Freddy, thanks for joining me.
Freddy Papen, co-owner of Saffron & Rose Ice Cream:
Thank you for having me
So Freddy, let’s start at the top. What exactly is Saffron & Rose?
Saffron & Rose is an ice cream shop that specializes in Persian ice cream, so most of our top sellers are Iranianinfluenced flavors. The technique in which we make our ice creams is consistent with Middle Eastern products, Middle Eastern ice creams and desserts.
My grandfather started the company and it was his recipes. We’ve been making ice cream in LA since the mid70s and we’re still doing it today. Over the years we’ve expanded the menu to a bunch of different flavors but our best sellers are still the original, classic Persian flavors like Saffron & Rose, so that’s why we’ve named the place Saffron & Rose.
Amazing; now let’s take a step back and go back to the beginning and I’d love to know a little bit more about your grandfather’s journey into starting a Persian ice cream store in the States?
My family is from Iran. My grandfather was born in Teheran and he had two kids, a daughter and a son, so his daughter is my mother. In the early ’70s my uncle moved to the States to attend a university. After a couple of years my grandfather wanted his family to stay together, wanted everyone to be under the same roof and he decided to get my grandmother and my mom and move everyone out to the States.
They were in Southern California and ever since then he’s always been very good at business. Opened up a couple of different businesses, but then after a few years he wanted to go back to making ice cream, which is what he did back in Iran.
He opened up a store, like a grocery store where he did a lot of, you know, fruits, vegetables, milk, bread; you know things you’d find in any other store but he also had a little ice cream case in the front where he would sell scoops of ice cream. Since Iranian culture and Persian culture was what he knew he made his store kind of a specialty Middle Eastern store.
Now, giving you a timeframe of when we’re talking about, this is about ’74, ’75. If you open a store on Westwood Boulevard – now, if you come to Westwood Boulevard today it is essentially, you know what we think of China Town for Chinese people or, you know, Little Italy for Italian people, Westwood Boulevard today is Persian Square.
The City of Los Angeles named it Persian Square. You walk up and down the street, it’s tons of Persian restaurants, Persian bookstores, art galleries, but back in the ’70s there were two Persian businesses. One restaurant and next door to that was my grandfather’s grocery store.
You know, business wasn’t that great because there weren’t that many Persians, but fast forward a few years later when the revolution hit, you know, then you have hundreds of thousands of Persians leaving the country and moving all over the world, a lot of them ending up in Southern California. And then that’s when the business began to, you know, grow more and more and more.
Over the years other people were opening up Persian and Middle Eastern grocery stores on Westwood Boulevard, so the competition became really stiff. That’s when my grandfather realized that the one thing that he had that stood out from everyone else was the ice cream. So it was 2006 he sold the grocery store, got a smaller little – you know about a 1,000 square foot shop a couple of blocks up, still on Westwood Boulevard and he turned it into just an ice cream shop.
When did you get involved working with Saffron & Rose?
So I was 19 years old at the time and I became the Saturday morning delivery driver for my grandfather’s business. So to catch you guys back up, ever since there was a huge influx of Persian immigrants in Southern California a lot of restaurants and supermarkets and bakeries and things of that nature were opening up all over Southern California and they would send orders to my grandfather.
They would say, “Hey, we want your ice cream in our restaurant. We want your ice cream in our grocery store,” and the same way, you know, you and I could walk into an Albertsons or a Ralphs and see like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the same concept. I would come in Saturday morning – and this is, mind you, before smartphones, before GPS – I would literally get a piece of paper with handwritten directions, you’re going to take this freeway, you’re going to exit here, you’re going to go to this place and a huge stack of invoices and I would have to go and drop off all this ice cream to different grocery stores. That’s my first taste of the business.
Awesome; and flash forward to 2020 you’re a coowner, what do you see now as the owner of a business, particularly a family business, what sort of things have you implemented into this business that you would say are yours?
The way the business was – let’s say 2007/2008/2009, it was a real mom and pop operation. We had ice cream going out to a couple of different places throughout, you know, Southern California. We were running our shop. Most of our clientele were Iranians; very kind of like a low key operation. We were wellknown but it wasn’t necessarily, you know, hand over fist as far as the money coming in.
So I was actually studying business management and when I finished all my prereqs and I was really into my core classes of learning how to manage a business and different marketing strategies, things like that, unfortunately it was around the time my grandfather passed away. So it was the beginning of 2010 he passed away and, you know, everything went upsidedown at that point.
We had to come together as a family and figure out who is going to take on which roles, what are we going to do. There were days where I would wake up. I would go open up the shop. I would work for a few hours. I would wait for my mom to come in so she could watch the shop. I would drive to school – it’s like an hour away. I would take some classes. I would drive back in the evening, watch the shop so my mom can get home and take care of my grandmother.
It was just like a whole project. I would have 18 hours days where it’s back and forth, back and forth. It was exhausting but, you know, I went from helping out a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, to now it’s become – if I’m not at school I’m at the shop, so it’s like a seven days a week operation.
That’s when I really started to not only understand changes that need to be made, but go ahead and take things that I learned in school, things that I was learning in school and trying to implement them into the business. We were still using a dialup credit card machine so it was like every time we would swipe it would have to go through a phone line. It would take between one and two minutes for a credit card to go through. Now, that doesn’t sound too bad, okay, one minute, but when there are eight people in line waiting to pay, you know, that last person in line is going to be pretty frustrated by the time he gets to the front.
So you know, I kept telling my family we need to do this, we need to do that, we need to change this, we need to change that, and you know at first they were like not really too accepting of my recommendations. They thought that I was, you know, Mr KnowItAll and coming in and trying to make all these changes.
I remember it was 2014 I told myself, all right, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to come up with a full game plan. I’m going to approach my family with a little more of a logical blueprint and a business strategy on what we need to do, how much it’s going to cost, what I anticipate, financial forecasts, things of that nature.
I bought myself a binder from Staples or Office Depot or whatnot, and I got graphing paper, I got notebooks, I got all sorts of – you know all these stationery goods and I created this fullon game plan. Any idea I had I would write down and, you know, I said, okay, we need this piece of equipment. We need that piece of equipment. We need a construction crew. We need to remodel. We need to rebrand; new logo. I had all these ideas and I wrote them all in this binder.
What’s funny is, to this day I still have that binder and it is just bursting at the seams with all my notes that I’ve taken over the years. I sat down with my family and I said, “Okay, guys, for about two or three years I’ve been trying to tell you these are the things we need to do,” and they kept shutting me down and I said, “This is what we’re going to do. This is how long it’s going to take. This is the changes I anticipate to see.” And finally they said, “Okay, you know what? Let’s give it a shot.”
What do you think changed their minds?
Well, to be honest with you I told them, I said I’ve put in my time and I think that my voice isn’t being heard. If we’re going to work together then I need to have some sort of say in the day to day operations and if you guys can’t, you know, necessarily respect my decision then maybe I should go work elsewhere.
Now, that was like my trying to bluff strategy because I didn’t want to leave, you know? I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to help my family. I believed in the product. I saw how much hard work everybody put in, but you know, sometimes you’ve got to put something on the table for someone to take you a little more seriously.
So I think they saw that I wasn’t just all talk at this point; I actually had a legit strategy and plan in place. The way that they looked at it was – okay, so my idea was close the shop down for a few weeks, remodel the place, pay a construction crew, and pay for all this equipment. And not only are we putting all this money into this project, but if we’re going to be closed for a couple of weeks then no money is coming in.
But the way I told them was to think about a bigger picture; it’s like, okay, you know we’re going to have a swing as far as money putting in, as far as – you know money coming in versus the money that we have to put up, but just trust it, let it happen. And a couple of months down the line, once the weather gets warm and business starts picking up we’re going to see that money come back twice, three times over.
And I think that maybe I just caught them on a good day; you know I don’t know what it was but they were in it. I still remember it was January 12th of 2015 that we closed the shop down and it was the first time we had ever closed the shop down ever since we had opened in 1974, so it was a bit scary for everyone. There was a lot of pressure on me as well, you know, and there was a decent amount of money invested into the remodel.
While we were remodeling I was working with a graphic designer, coming up with a new logo, rebranding the whole business, you know? There was a lot going on during that time. And what was crazy is right before we opened Business Insider did an article with the Top 100 restaurants in the United States based on Yelp reviews, and we actually were Top 20 -
- in the US and that article came out about a week before the shop was reopened for business.
So I mean, it was a gift and a curse. There were tons of people coming and the doors were locked, and you know, it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t have finished our project a couple of days before the article came out. But once the doors opened I will tell you, thank God, that line has never died down; the line has only grown and business has seen a huge increase as far as people were very receptive to the new design. They liked the new logo; they liked the new rebranding.
And the one thing that I did notice the most is the diversity of our clientele just exploded; it went from 95 percent Middle Eastern/Iranian customers to now we have people from all walks of life. They all come in and they love the ice cream, and that’s the reason why I wanted to do this was because I believed in the product from the beginning.
I just thought that if we made somewhere that’s a little more inviting as far as aesthetically pleasing, that people from different backgrounds would be a little more receptive to it and they’d be a little more willing to come and give us a shot.
Thank God the business has become so popular over the years that about seven, eight months ago I actually opened up a second location and that place has been slowly growing as well, so it’s been quite the journey for three generations of my family.
Yeah; it seems like it, and also it’s almost exactly the five year anniversary of this remodel and when you shut down and took that leap, so I wanted to, one, say congratulations because it’s a pretty big milestone, but also two, just curious when did your family or did your mom and your uncle finally turn to you and say, “Freddy, you were right?” Are you still waiting on it?
I love this question; I love this question. You know, I never expected them to say it but I will give you a perfect example. You know, you reached out to me and said, “Hey, we want to have you on our podcast,” and we’ve had different opportunities like this over the years, you know? Different publications, newspapers, TV shows; you know they come out and they reach out to me and they say we want to do an article or we want to film a TV show with you, so on and so forth, different amazing opportunities we’ve had for exposure for our business.
Every time it happens and I’m with my family – let’s say we’re having family dinner – I say, “Oh, by the way, guys, New York Times is going to do an article about us next week,” and everyone says, “Oh, you know, that’s great, amazing.” And I look at them and I go, “Oh, you know, The New York Times never would have reached out if we wouldn’t have taken that leap.” And everyone kind of smiles; they never acknowledge it but everybody knows.
You’ve talked about a design a couple of times, both design of stores and design of your new logo, and I was curious if you have a design background or how you went about rebranding the look of Saffron & Rose, what was that process like?
It was a difficult process for me specifically because, A, it’s a family business, B, I don’t want people to think that this younger guy came in and completely erased all the history that his family has established, so I had to create a new design and a new logo that kind of appealed to the general public. But I also had to keep that, you know, authenticity of my culture, my background, my family, everything that they have done and so that was the challenge as far as the rebranding goes.
So one thing that I wanted to do was I wanted to create a nice simple kind of eyecatching logo but I wanted to also incorporate the old kind of, you know, history behind the business into this new logo. So you know, it sounds easy but it was very hard; like the graphic designer that I found, there were days where I would work all day and then go to class in the evening and then meet with her at a coffee shop at nighttime.
It took like probably 40/50 hours together before we came with a design that I liked. So what I did was I took the original name of the company, the name that my grandfather used back in Iran, like in the ’50s and the ’60s, I used that original name that was written in Farsi and I incorporated it into the logo that we have today, so it’s almost like a hidden kind of message.
So if you can read Farsi you can see it inside the logo now, so I thought it was kind of cool. The biggest challenge to that is I can speak Farsi but I can’t read and write. I had to find a graphic designer who could read and write and I had to explain my idea to her. I was sitting there drawing – and it’s like imagine you’re trying to create a logo in a different language. It was very difficult for me and I’m sure it was very challenging for her as well but that was kind of the process we took.
You know I love the logo. I really like it a lot so I actually got Tshirts and hats and all this stuff made. I actually wear the Saffron & Rose hat all the time, even when I’m not at the shop, you know, even when I’m out. And it’s kind of funny, actually a few weeks ago I was at the gas station and some random guy comes up to me and goes, “Oh, I’ve never seen that team before. What is that team for?” and he’s referring to the logo on my hat. I was like, “Oh, no, this is my company, my brand.” He’s like, “Oh, can I buy one of the hats?” I was like – and I gave him a business card and I said, “Go to this address and you can buy one.”
But you know, if you have a vision and you have an idea work on that and don’t be afraid to make mistakes on the way until you find something that you’re happy with, so that’s what I did and there were so many times my graphic designer created a logo where, you know, I showed it to my friends and my family and they all loved it, but I didn’t like it and that’s important that you find something that not only does the consumer and the people around you approve of, but you know, it also makes you happy as well.
Great piece of – and it’s a great logo and a great piece of advice. I know you’re trying to almost hit two different audiences, right; like the old world and the new world and it’s great to incorporate feedback from both of those end users, I guess. It sounds like the logo has been a hit. People are asking you about it at gas stations and buying that; it sounds like you did a good job.
Thank you, yeah; I think so too. I appreciate that.
Well, I wanted to ask a couple of questions because I think a lot of businesses listening will just find them interesting and find them potentially inspirational. One, you mentioned Yelp and sort of how Business Insider found you guys on Yelp, high Yelp reviews. Do you do anything on Yelp to – I mean you have a great product that people love but sometimes that’s not enough. What do you do on Yelp to ensure your favorable reviews there?
I’ve never done any sort of like additional advertising with Yelp. I’ve never tried to you know give any sort of incentive to my customers to leave us a review. What I did do though is I’ve always believed in our product. I’ve always thought that our ice cream was superior to a lot of other ice creams in Southern California.
I knew that, especially in our society, that when someone walks into a business it’s not just the product they’re buying; it’s an overall experience, you know? We need all of the five sense to be stimulated, so visually I wanted the store to look good. Tastewise I believe the product tastes good and so on and so forth.
But the one thing that I did differently – anytime that I hired an employee to come in, and even if it was like a part time 18/19 year old kid coming in just to run the register for a couple of hours, I always told them – and still to this day I always say the same thing. I say, all right, guys, look, I expect a few things from you but the number one important thing that I expect is you have to give good customer service. You have to really stay calm, keep a smile on your face. Understand that if a first time customer is coming in they might be overwhelmed with what’s going on. You really have to give the best customer service you possibly can.
And whenever someone goes on our Yelp page and looks at the reviews the majority of them are five star reviews and it’s always the same two things. They always say the ice cream is great, the customer service is really outstanding, and those are the two things that kind of got our Yelp reviews so high.
As far as the quantity of reviews – I think we’re number three in Los Angeles and we’re in competition with like 70/75 different ice cream shops, so to grow that rapidly – it was completely organic. And you know, you have to understand from a consumer standpoint that when you walk into a business, you know and you’re willing to give that business your money that you need to be able to ensure that the customer is happy on all fronts. Not only with the item that they’re buying, but that the customer service has to be on point.
That’s fantastic advice. Another thing I wanted to ask you about a little bit more specifically is the exciting news that you’re opening a second location, which is fantastic. I wanted to know we have a lot of businesses that listen to this podcast and they might be going through some similar situations, whether it’s growing pains or realizing that they want to be in more places. When did you realize a second location was right for you and how did you go about securing it?
So in 2015, the beginning of 2015 when we finished with our remodel, within the first I’d say 18 months we had doubled our annual revenue, so that was like a humungous jump as far as sales goes. The one thing that I guess I noticed is after, you know, customers started seeing our growth a lot of my customers would come in and say, “Hey, are you open to franchising? Would you like to partner up? I would love to have a store like this in …” – you know, whatever city that they’re from and so on and so forth.
That’s when I really realized that there definitely is a demand for our product in different regions. Now, I could very easily partner with someone or I could give the franchise rights, but you know it’s hard to go from one store, a flagship store to having a franchisestyle business.
So the way I looked at it was I can handle three, four, five shops under my own supervision and management and put the right people in place to make sure these stores are running smoothly. So it was when I was getting feedback from people I don’t know continuously asking me to open up a shop in their neighborhood or to partner with them and so that they could have a shop of their own is when I realized that there is that demand for our business in different regions. Not only in Southern California but, you know, amongst other states as well.
I’ve gotten a request to open up stores in different countries and, you know, people won’t make those suggestions or want to partner with you if they didn’t think that this would be a successful business, so that’s kind of what gave me that extra push to work on opening up a second shop.
Now, I will be honest for everyone out there listening, it definitely is not easy just finding a location, getting everything in place, getting a whole crew together to do the construction, design, all that stuff. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money, but you know, you set goals for yourself and you want to achieve those goals so that’s the path that I was on last year. So last year, it was April, we signed a lease and by June we had already had a second shop up and running.
Congratulations on opening up that second shop, and I wanted to talk about something else and this is completely less about marketing tips or anything like that but I am someone who loves ice cream. I eat it all the time. We were recording in Boston. It was snowing yesterday and I was having ice cream after dinner so you’re talking to some ice cream fans over here.
You mentioned that Persian ice cream is a little bit different; a little bit different texture. I want the listeners to sort of understand what kind of different and unique flavors you guys are putting out into the world, so tell me a little bit about the process of the ice cream you create? What kind of things you create; the flavors, etc.
Here in the US, you know, when you think of the two most popular ice cream flavors you usually think of chocolate and vanilla. In Iran the most popular ice cream flavors are saffron, pistachio and rose water, so when my grandfather started making ice cream here in the States those were the only two flavors that he made. Until this day those are still our best sellers.
And that’s why, when we rebranded and renamed, we named the place Saffron & Rose because that’s what 90 percent of our sales; that’s what people come for. The flavors themselves are very unique, so you think of – our signature best seller by far is a saffron ice cream which has pistachios, rose water, chunks of cream; it’s a very unique taste. It almost has a rosy, kind of honey, nutty, smoky kind of flavor to it. It’s a bunch of different elements and ingredients wrapped into one. It’s something really unique.
And not only is it the flavors that are unique, it’s the texture of the ice cream that really makes it stand apart, so it’s a very thick, almost stretchylike ice cream. It’s something that has the consistency of like taffy and then when you pull it off the cup with your spoon it almost mimics that of a melted cheese type of stretchiness.
So yeah; it’s a couple of different factors as far as flavor and taste, texture, thickness, weight, all these different things that kind of make Persian ice cream stand apart. On the internet, like on You Tube or on Instagram you always see these videos of Turkish ice cream where it’s a very stretchy, thick product. It’s very similar to that.
So if anyone out there is listening and they’re curious you can always search Persian ice cream or Turkish ice cream, Middle Eastern ice cream and look at videos of it. It’s something that actually has been very trendy in LA for the last few years so luckily we fit that sort of very small, niche product base and it’s been having a little bit of a buzz going around LA these last few years
And over the years what my family has done, especially specifically my uncle – so like I said we’re three generations of our family who has been a part of this business, my grandfather, my uncle, my mom and myself. My uncle has really been very innovative with the flavors so what he has done over the years is he has found very unique fruits, very outrageous kind of flavors that he’s incorporated into these original recipes that my grandfather left for us.
He’ll create a brand new flavor where he adds fresh lavender or, you know fresh ginger, jasmine, cucumber, dates, almonds; the list goes on and on, and everything he does is all natural. So the same way we have like real estate brokers – he works with like a commodities and fruit broker, so he will call his fruit broker and say, “Hey, I’m looking for this extremely rare fruit that is only found in areas like New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia. I need you to find the best of the best and have it flown to the United States.”
It’s really, really, really, you know, a painstaking, long process but he’s been incredible with how determined and hardworking he is in bringing some really unique stuff to our stores and to our shops and it’s been really – you know our customers love it because it creates a flavor profile that you just can’t find elsewhere.
That’s really cool. It’s a cool way – like as we talk about your business it’s a family business rooted in tradition but you’re also rooted in innovation as well, which is really cool to see both sides of the coin. Well, we’re almost at the time to wrap but I have a couple of questions, one of them being we’re just passing the five year anniversary of your remodel, reconstruction and I’m curious about this binder of ideas you have that you brought to your family. Are there still things in that binder that you haven’t got to yet? If so what are they? If not what are some of your next steps or dream moves for Saffron & Rose in the future?
So right now we’re working on the repackaging of the togo containers, so like the pints and the quarts. We’re working on rebranding those packages and this is my goal for this year, for 2020, is to start getting our products into mainstream supermarkets. You know, try to get to the whole foods and the Ralphs and, you know, the specialty stores.
Earlier, while we were having this interview I was telling you how a lot of supermarkets and restaurants in Southern California have been placing orders with us over the years. In the last couple of years a lot of businesses outside of California have been sending in orders to us for us to ship our ice cream to their grocery stores.
We’re in a lot of, like I said, specialty –Middle Eastern specialty stores and restaurants. So we’re actually right now I believe in 15 different states, but what I want to do is to start getting our product into the big chain names. I would like to open up another shop as well; try to get a chain of ice cream shops throughout Southern California and Northern California as well, so we want to start with California, get seven, eight, nine, ten different stores and see if we can get into other states as well once that is done. This year is the year that we’re going into the mainstream, big chain supermarkets.
In terms of marketing and where people can find you on social and online, if people are just curious about Saffron & Rose where should they go to visit and learn more about you guys?
So if you guys want to see some pictures and get an idea of what the logo looks like, what our stores look like, all that stuff check us out on our Instagram. It’s saffronandroseic – the letter I, the letter C; it’s like for ice cream, so that’s a good start. Definitely check out our Yelp page. All you’ve got to do is where you want to search you type in Los Angeles and then the name of the business, Saffron & Rose Ice Cream.
Those two are some good places to get an idea of what our products look like, what our stores look like; you know what our customer reviews are like and there will be links to the website and our Facebook and all that stuff, but those two are where we do a lot of our posts and get customer feedback.
Awesome; Freddy, thank you so much for joining us. We’ve learned a lot; we’re hungry. This was amazing. I thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me; I appreciate it.
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