In a readers’ poll recently conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, Forest Park’s Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, at 7347 Madison St., came in fourth in the voting for the best place in Chicagoland to enjoy the frozen treat.
Connie Brown, who, together with her husband Matt, opened Brown Cow in 2004, will be the first to tell you that luck played a part in its success. She attributes their early success, partly, to good timing. Many Oak Parkers weren’t happy with Jim Oberweis’ TV campaign ads during his 2004 run for U.S. Senator, so they boycotted his store. They were also unhappy with the changes made by the new owner of Peterson’s Old Fashioned Ice Creams, in Oak Park. All that said, Brown Cow became an alternative for many of them.
Connie believes that business has been sweet for Brown Cow, even in the midst of this sour economy, because the store takes an old-fashioned approach to its operations.
She and Matt modeled their store in such a way that it provides youthful experiences for all patrons, both young and old. It’s kid-friendly, and it will no doubt facilitate soda-fountain reminiscence in some adults. The concept came from Connie’s memories of her grandfather taking her to the back of Razicha’s Drug Store, in Warrenville, for ice cream sundaes.
To summon those youthful visions, the two “put a lot of money” into what was an antique store. They used mainly recycled equipment, much of which was obtained from a Chicago Salvage, a trendy, Chicago-based company that specializes in found architectural elements.
As for the fare, many of the ice-cream flavors are made from their own recipes. Their waffle cones, root beer, dark chocolate syrup, cakes and pies are house-made.
What’s more, the old-fashioned approach lends itself to including the whole family in the business. Not only is the owners’ nine-year-old son Keegan a veteran waffle-cone maker, on slow days he takes orders and works the cash register. They’ve even named some of the specialty sundaes after family members.
The staff – which swells from seven to 18, in the summer – is also just like family.
“Since we’ve opened, I’ve only had one employee quit on me,” Connie said.
Connie tries to treat her customers that way too. She said she believes patrons likely appreciate not only the product she sells, but also the way they are treated by staff. This might have something to do with Brown Cow’s recognition in the reader’s poll.
There’s also some old-fashioned charm in Forest Park and in the people here that Connie thinks is vital to their survival. She singled out the building’s owner, Jerry Vanisi, as an example. He’s a man that likely cares more about the town and its people than any bottom-line, anomalous thinking today.
“He’s the most amazing landlord ever,” she said. “Obviously we have to uphold our part of the bargain, but he’s been very flexible. He loves this town. He knows we love this town and wants to make sure we stay a part of it.”
While the Browns’ business model is old-fashioned in many ways, it’s also very contemporary.
The Brown Cow could accurately be called the Green Cow, because Matt and Connie try to run their business in an eco-friendly way. The take-out ice-cream containers are made out of cornstarch so they decompose in landfills. If you eat in house, your ice cream will be served in a glass bowl that’s washed and reused. And much of what they use is made locally, and doesn’t travel more than 10 miles.
The Browns are also modern in the way they balance work and family. Connie said she attributed much of the store’s success to Matt being a stay-at-home dad. She acknowledged that, like a lot of couples, trying to balance the needs of spouses and kids with the desire to also have a career is a struggle.
“When you are home, you wish you could be working,” she said, “and when you are at work you wish you could be at home.”
To a certain extent, Connie has also taken a “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” approach to running her business.
“The business world has changed a lot,” she reflected. “It used to be that your plan had to be perfect before you’d launch a business. Now I say that I need to get it 80 percent right, and the rest you can fix along the way.”
“Our customers and staff have shaped this business,” she said.
The hosting of birthday parties at the store was a little girl’s idea. The trough-eating contest held two days ago was an employee’s brainchild.
Finally, Brown Cow, like so many other businesses, puts a contemporary twist on word-of-mouth advertising with social media like Facebook. When Connie learned that a reader nominated Brown Cow for the Sun-Times’ poll, she posted the news on Facebook.
“Either it went totally viral, or we have extremely loyal customers,” Connie said. “Or both.”