Nicole Kiel laughs when she says, “I feel like I’ve worked my whole life, since birth,” but that fact, like much else in her life, has been excellent preparation for being in the specialty food business, which takes the determination to never quit.
“Growing up in the small town of Bishop, I was always involved in food prep and cooking,” she says. “In high school I worked at a barbecue restaurant, and at home I learned basic cooking skills. With 4 siblings and a million cousins, one of the most essential skills to learn was how to make a cake batter!”
She started college intending to be a pharmacist and had a year of chemistry, but then changed majors and got a business degree. “At the time, I thought that the year I spent studying chemistry was just down the drain. However, it turned out to be very useful later on, as was my business degree.”
When Nicole transitioned from finance to interior design, that also developed important skills. “I was the project manager for a huge job that involved custom work. I learned how to get things done with a team, how to find the right people and the right information, figure it out, make it happen.”
Mrs. E had been Nicole’s first boss; “They are very entrepreneurial, interesting people. Mr. E’s a big idea man. He had the original recipe for this ice cream, which he initially called Banana Cream. He asked me if I wanted to work on it.”
Nicole found that trying to find a manufacturer to make their recipe was a big challenge. Despite all the hurdles, Nicole thought, “Why not us? We’re smart people with a can-co attitude. It may take some time, but we can do this.”
Her chemistry background now became useful, figuring out how much fat and sugar, the right viscosity, the right amount of whipping. The goal was to make dairy-free ice cream that was truly creamy and scoopable. “You have to feel like you’re eating ice cream.”
Each time they came up against the next difficult step, Nicole would go out and demo and would be blown away by the overwhelmingly positive responses. When she was testing batches, she used her training in chemistry lab, changing one variable at a time.
“My boyfriend works for a tech start-up with 200 guys. I’d do taste tests with them and ask them to fill out comment cards with specific questions. Making the product with banana was the key to its creamy texture without dairy, but it was also somewhat polarizing. Some people insisted that they didn’t like banana at all. However, when we tested the ice cream with them, they found that they couldn’t taste the banana. They loved the taste and the texture.”
Nicole has overcome her natural nervousness about meeting with influential buyers, such as the buyer for Gelson’s. “At first knowing how many products are pitched to them is intimidating, then all the requirements if a product is accepted. But when people taste it, I’m confident that they’ll love it. And I learn something from every conversation.”
“My whole life I’ve kept doing new things, because I think, ‘Why not me? If someone else can do it, there’s no reason I can’t be next. People respect you and want to help you when you show up, you’re proud of your product, you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and you’re willing to ask for help when you need it.”
“I had no idea how many people were lactose intolerant. If kids at a demo tell me that they’re lactose intolerant, so they can’t eat ice cream, they are overjoyed to find out that they can eat Mr. E’s. It’s a great product and a great time to be making it. There’s a need out there, and I like the challenge.”