A Conversation between Liz Reitman (reitdesign Founder, EONY Vice President & Mentorship Chair) and Jon Chapski (Big Gay Ice Cream Managing Partner and Edible Assets Principal)
We had so much fun talking to our client, Jon Chapski (Managing Partner), about our chocolate packaging project with Big Gay Ice Cream. We’re super excited to share a behind the scenes look of what’s to come… read on to get to know more about the brand, how Reit’s founder Liz Reitman and Jon met (don’t sleep on getting to know your neighbors!), and what Big Gay Ice Cream treats with Reit’s design touch are coming soon to you!
Jon: Early morning questions…
Liz: Yeah, yeah [laughs] have some coffee!
Jon: So I’ve been in the hospitality business for probably 25 years now. And I’ve owned restaurants, hotels, bars, you name it, throughout most of my life. Towards the middle part of my career, I started my own sort of private equity company (Edible Assets) that invests in restaurants looking for capital for expansion; New York-based companies that had at least two or three units that were looking to grow. Fast forward a few years when one of our clients introduced me to Big Gay Ice Cream.
Jon: The thing that was intriguing about Big Gay Ice Cream was the name and the fact that I love soft serve ice cream. I went over to their first brick & mortar location in the East Village and was blown away by the experience when I walked inside. And then the ice cream itself… I remember the first time I tried Big Gay Ice Cream… walking down the street for the first time thinking that this experience was unbelievable.
So then I told nine people from different worlds [to try it] and everyone had the same experience. They all chuckled, they laughed… they all went there and texted me saying, ‘OMG this is the best place ever!’ And I was like, this is exactly how grassroot places and cult concepts really get developed.
We spent about six months at the end of 2011 reaching out to the partners, trying to connect, and asking them, ‘What can we do? We really like your brand!’ This was probably back six months after they had opened up their first brick & mortar. We had spoken maybe three or four times and we said, ‘Listen, we’ll fund your next shop, we’ll operate it. If we like each other, we’ll grow [our partnership together]. And if not, we just have one little shop together.’ That was in fall of 2012. Come the spring of 2013 they wanted us to take over the East Village shop and help them grow. That was 10 years ago.
Jon: We grew the IP company, the management company, and then really started helping with paper to concept. They did certain things on purpose, which I thought they did with a unique touch; not just the brand and the concept of ice cream, but with the bigger picture of what everyone thinks about when they think of Big Gay Ice Cream.
And one thing Brian and Doug, my two partners and Big Gay Ice Cream co-founders, said to me that stuck out is that ‘The best thing we can do is throw a topic out there, and let people have the discussion.’ So we’ve really tried to make sure that Big Gay Ice Cream is about what people think they want it to be. And it is what it is to them.
And for us on the inside, the people who work on the team, it’s about fun. It’s ice cream! So if you’re not smiling you’re in the wrong business. Just enjoy yourself… and after your ice cream is done you can go back to the real world.
Liz: It’s interesting that you’ve incorporated rainbows in the brand…
Jon: So when you say rainbows, our color pattern is not the rainbow flag. Certain aspects of our designs make you think of a rainbow, but it’s not a rainbow!
Liz: And what Big Gay Ice Cream has done, which I’ve seen in your brand guidelines and what I think is really clever, is that you’ve mixed up the colors. So it’s a rainbow, but out of the traditional order, right?
Jon: And no purple. Little things like that were done purposefully in order to make it different. But people still think it’s the same. It’s very interesting, people’s perceptions….
Liz: Yeah, provocative…
Jon: That is really – I have never heard that before – that is really interesting because our founder Doug is a professional bassoonist. He went to Juliard. He traveled the world playing the bassoon. And basically got burned out. When he was approaching 40, his friends in the food business – Tony Bordain is a very good friend of his – and they were like, ‘You should just do something for the summer…sell ice cream and get out of the music business.’
Liz: Oh, wow!
Jon: So he went to the Mister Softee guys who own all the trucks in 2009 and said, ‘Listen, I want to rent your truck by the day and sell ice cream.’ That’s honestly how it started! He duct taped over the Mister Softee name and was the no-name ice cream guy for a while.
Jon: And then people kept asking, ‘What’s your name?’ and Doug would respond, ‘I don’t have a name, this is not even my truck!’ He started on social and Twitter and all of that. And one day someone kept yelling through the window and he responded, ‘I’m just a big gay ice cream truck! What do you want from me?!’ So a close friend of the family is a patent trademark attorney and she was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to look this up… Big Gay Ice Cream is not taken, so we’re going to trademark it!’
Liz: Isn’t it funny how names come about?! I know with my new business, Other Parents Like Me (OPLM), somebody just came up with it in the moment. And we were like, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ It’s amazing when it sticks.
Jon: Back in ‘99.
Liz: Is that when we moved in?!
Liz: Wow, a long time! We were just neighbors… but not really!
Jon: Our building is six floors and there are two apartments per floor… and our kids were the same age and went to school together.
Liz: And especially when you have kids the same age it was a natural connection. I think they were in the same class? I sometimes would take your son to school…
Jon: Yeah, in kindergarten.
Liz: Yeah, so they were little. And now, both our kids are in their twenties.
Jon: Yeah, out of the nest!
Liz: And another thing that was interesting is – truly coincidentally – when I had my office space, I bumped into Jon in my lobby! Remember when you were meeting with Shop? That was a crazy coincidence… and then you started telling me about your business and I was like, ‘Oh, we should talk because I do branding!’ And I feel like that started it…
Jon: And then we used your architect a couple times for different projects.
Liz: Oh yeah, I forgot about that!
Jon: To me, business can go sideways really quickly so you want to be delicate. It’s a delicate matter.
Jon: So one of the issues that we’ve had is that shipping ice cream is really expensive. And I just have a fundamental issue with shipping ice cream when 80% of the cost is dry ice and styrofoam. So I started looking for alternative methods to ship ice cream when we became really close to one of our vendors who is a chocolatier – a chocolate manufacturer. His mom started the company and I thought, could we make our pints or our ice cream flavors into chocolate bars? Because I could ship them and pack them, and then we could at least get them into the hands of people… so they could try them and then entice them to come to the stores to buy ice cream.
So it took probably 6-10 months to trial [the flavors]. And then [with] a few little tweaks, we’ve gotten the bars where we want them. The next step is bringing them to market… and so we needed to design the packaging. And I was like, ‘Great! That’s all I have to do.’ [Rolls eyes and chuckles]
Jon: So I had spoken to four or five different companies/ people. And I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but I know what I don’t want…’ And I said, ‘If you want to take a day or two and come up with a concept…don’t put a lot of time into it, just give me a little pitch and I’ll know whether or not you’re close to what the brand is, right?’ And honestly no one really hit it, but you!
Jon: You know, everyone tries to think, ‘Oh, we’re this, we’re that,’ but Liz and her firm [Reit] were the only people that I was like, ‘Wow’. You know, besides the amount of thought put into it, even in their first rendition of the designs they understood, or they were able to understand what the brand was about – and interpret our Brand Guide into something that I thought was a good retail packaging to go out to the public with.
Liz: Yeah. What I will say is that I don’t even think that is true, Jon! I think you did know what you wanted. My big thing is my team can make anything look good, right? But it’s got to hit the right goal or be the right look for that project. And I think the reason why we were successful upfront is because you gave us so much good direction. We went through moodboards, you showed us samples and styles you were leaning towards and what you liked…or you’d say, ‘I like the element of this,’ or ‘I like a piece of that,’ so we were able to cull all that information that you gave us. And because of that we were able to [deliver what you wanted]. But I remember your reaction; you were surprised! Like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I meant!’ But for me, I was like, ‘This was the best information that we’ve ever been given!’
Jon: I wish I had the decks on [some of the other projects] – I never kept them – because they were just not even there.
Jon: I feel like Big Gay Ice Cream is like Willy Wonka for adults. It’s for the kid that never grew up. To me, everyone remembers the first time they experienced soft serve ice cream. Maybe not the first time they had ice cream, right? But I think of a warm summer night on the boardwalk, the beach, a street fair, a carnival, or whatever it is… that you were able to get that first soft serve ice cream.
And we had just opened in West Village – and I go into this story for a reason – and I’m sitting down at a table with my partner, Doug, and this couple walks in and the husband goes, “Oh my god, hun, you’ve got to try this!’ They had just gotten married, they just had a child, and he was like, ‘I used to go to their East Village location right after I had graduated from NYU. And I’m so happy to have this [Big Gay Ice Cream experience] with you and our little girl.’ And the girl is probably not even a year old. All of a sudden Doug gets up from our table, hops over the counter, and says, ‘Has she ever had soft serve ice cream before?’ And they were like, ‘No, I don’t think so!’ And Doug was like, ‘Okay, is she allergic to anything?’ And they were like, ‘Not that we know of!’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, this is the best thing ever!’
So he takes a spoonful from the ice cream machine and comes over and goes, ‘May I?’ You know, the owner is coming over and giving their kid our ice cream for the first time! So Doug is narrating the whole thing and literally as he’s talking the child is doing exactly what he is saying. Now he’s like, ‘I’m going closer, and she’s going to pull away, and then – wait, wait, wait! – she’s going in for more’. She comes back for a little bit more, and then all of a sudden she comes back and puts the whole spoon of ice cream in her mouth. And Doug says, ‘We have another one!’ [Laughing] So, that is Big Gay Ice Cream. I guess I digressed from your question. Could you repeat it? [Laughing]
Jon: So, the story I just told, is in sync with this. The reaction to the little child is exactly what I want [conveyed] in this chocolate bar. You know, we could push and sell our chocolate bar because we have a fun name. And it’s one of those things that people could look at and be like, ‘Oh, it’s just a novelty.’ But I want them to go back for more, and more, and more. We want to confuse and blow people away at the same time! Because the chocolate bar flavors – like our ice cream – are really good and unique. And we want to make Big Gay Ice Cream chocolate bars that stand the test of time in the chocolate world.
Jon: Yes! See?! I knew we would bring it back!
Liz: I’ll say that I was so impressed with your vision. It is so clear that you really understand what you’re trying to represent, what your message is, and who you are. And how Big Gay Ice Cream is about an experience… but how you’re also provocative; you’re creating conversations like, ‘Oh, we have the word gay in there,’ but it’s not only for people who are gay. And we have a rainbow, but it’s out of order. And the flavors… I don’t know, I just found it was one of the best Brand Guidelines I have ever seen. You truly understand who you are and what you are trying to represent to people. And that’s fun, as a designer, to see that.
But there was also enough freedom in the creative process… we were able to do some things differently with the chocolate packaging. So it still has that Big Gay Ice Cream vibe with some flexibility because this is a different product.
Jon: That’s why she brought you in here! To get me going… [Laughing]
Liz: [Laughing] That’s a good question!
Jon: So it’s honestly a timing thing. When COVID hit it, we were trying to just get it all done and now with reopenings…it’s gone off track. But I have the mockups on my desk and I am literally trying to push to get the information from my chocolate guy that I need to get to Liz… so, I want this out as soon as possible. I’m hoping we can get a fall launch!
Liz: That’s so exciting… we’re ready!
Liz: Thanks, Jon.
Jon: You got it. Thank you guys. Great seeing you!