The Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor at 7347 Madison typically serves 1,600 customers on summer Saturdays and was featured on the Food Network last year. But the road Connie Brown, the store’s owner, has taken in the past 13 years to get from where she began to where she is now has been full of twists, turns, surprises — and a few potholes.
Matt and Connie Brown moved to Forest Park in 2000, before Madison Street went through the transformation that brought it to its current state. They were unhappy with their jobs and noticed there was no ice cream parlor in town. So, aware that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports half of new businesses don’t make it through the first five years, they took a deep breath, quit their jobs, withdrew most of Connie’s savings, rented the space on Madison Street (which is now occupied by the American Art Works Gallery) in the fall of 2003, did a lot of remodeling, and took the calculated risk of opening the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in March of 2004.
The first leg of the parlor’s journey was bumpy. At first, the landlord of the building they rented said he wouldn’t give them a lease because he didn’t think they’d make enough money selling ice cream to pay the rent. So they looked in Oak Park across the street from the Lake Theatre where the Fannie Mae store used to be, but they decided not to sign that lease. They then returned to the location in Forest Park where the landlord had initially turned them down and negotiated a compromise to rent only the front half of the store.
The core of their business model was, and still is, all about ice cream — 21 flavors served in cones, sundaes, malts, shakes, warm brownie sundaes and homemade root beer — in a clean, family-friendly space with enough room for people to congregate and celebrate together.
Perhaps to the landlord’s surprise, the store was successful almost from the beginning. Connie attributes the store’s early and ongoing success to a good business plan, which to this day includes listening to her customers and staff.
One day, for example, an 8-year-old customer asked Connie if she could have her birthday party at the new parlor.
“She showed up with 35 of her friends,” Connie recalled. “It was a disaster from our point of view, but she had a good time and the families of two of the children at the event booked the store for their children’s birthday parties.” Birthday parties now make up 20 percent of Brown Cow’s business.
Part of the success of the business, she said, has been her ability to respond to opportunities when they arise. During the four years Brown Cow was at the 7314 Madison St. location, Chicago Magazine wanted to know about the store’s block party and catering operation for a feature they were doing.
“We didn’t have a catering business,” she said, “but we quickly created one, and because it was in the magazine, we were soon doing block parties and catering for churches, corporate events and schools.” Catering now comprises 15% of her business.
She attributes part of the store’s early success to luck. During those first years, Jim Oberweis was running for the senate and because a lot of his commercials were seen as being racist by residents of Oak Park, many of them boycotted his store on Oak Park Avenue and came over to Brown Cow. At the same time, Petersen’s Ice Cream Parlor on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park was purchased by a new owner who changed the menu and format of the place, driving even more customers to Brown Cow.
That was about the time the Madison Street Renaissance began. Team Blonde, Healy’s and Two Fish moved in, Madison Street Commons was built, and the Mainstreet Development Corporation spearheaded the transformation of the street, making it a shopping destination with more foot traffic.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, families tightened up their spending.
“The restaurants on Madison St. were hurt badly,” Connie recalled, but even that had a silver lining. “Instead of going to a restaurant for dinner, families would save money by eating at home and coming to Brown Cow for dessert.”
Because of the success of their small business venture, they outgrew their space and moved to the 7347 Madison St. location.
Given the room to function effectively and efficiently, the business continued expanding, but always keeping to its core concept: It’s all about ice cream.
“If I cannot put ice cream on it,” Connie declared, “I’m not going to make it.” Even her espresso drinks have ice cream steamed into them.
The business now boasts five departments:
Birthday parties – Brown Cow averages three parties on Saturdays and Sundays as well as a couple during the week with a part-time manager devoted to that focus. The new location at 7347 Madison was remodeled to add two rooms in the back of the store for private parties.
Catering – The present location has a garage door in the back which allows staff to load up vehicles with food and supplies without traipsing through the parlor or disrupting a birthday parties.
Ice cream cakes and pies – Brown Cow staff made ice cream pies and cakes at the first location, but because there wasn’t enough room, they would have to come in early in the morning or stay late after the shop closed to do the work. And there wasn’t enough space for a large display freezer. Now with the extra room, the ice cream cake and pie divisions overlap with the birthday party business because parents sometimes order a cake or a pie for their party. A large display freezer in the parlor also makes that product visible and available to walk-in customers.
Bakery – “I wasn’t happy with some of the baked goods like pies and brownies we were purchasing from a vendor, and I make a mean pie,” Connie explained, “so we brought in an industrial-size oven, where we baked our own pies for the parlor.” People started asking if they could buy whole pies to take home, so she hired a part-time baker who comes in at night.
Wholesale – Two restaurants in Oak Park and one in LaGrange serve Brown Cow products for dessert and they’ve produced custom-made ice cream treats for various area establishments. Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel, owners of Counter Coffee, approached Connie and asked if they could use her oven to bake muffins and cookies because they weren’t happy with the product they were getting from their supplier.
“The logistics of doing that would be crazy,” Connie said, “so I suggested that we bake what they needed because we were already doing something similar anyway.” So far the arrangement has been mutually beneficial, and other shops are interested in the same arrangement.
One of the dangers in running your own business is the temptation to try to do it all yourself.
“I looked at myself and at the potential for my business,” Connie said, “and I knew I was the bottleneck in the growth of my own company. So here we’re serving 1,600 people on a Saturday in the summer in the parlor, and I was managing the staff, doing all the scheduling, working at the counter, catering and making cakes.”
She hired managers, some part time and some full time, for each part of her business. She has five or six full-time employees, and the part-time people she hires bring with them the skills and availability she needs while at the same time fitting the employee’s lifestyle.
Her baker, for instance, is a full-time dad who needs to be at home during the day, but is able to get away several nights a week to do the baking.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Connie said, “to find the right people for each position. I’ve had the wrong people in these positions before, and it doesn’t work. The requirements of these positions are dictated by my customers. I can’t be flexible. It’s either going to work with your schedule or not.”
That said, she has staff members who have stayed with her a long time. Her general manager has been here 11 years and her parlor manager for nine.
The same flexibility is required in her family life. In the beginning Matt and Connie planned to work together. At one point in Brown Cow’s evolution, Matt dropped out and worked another job. Later the couple switched roles. At present, Matt is working at AT&T.
The couple seems to have found the proverbial sweet spot.
“Matt loves his job, and this is what I love,” Connie said. “It’s been fun. I love the challenge. I love the people who work here. Our motto here is ‘make it work.'”