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Good Company: The Scoop on Ice Cream King, Paul Tamburello

The Denver developer's "why?" is to affect people’s lives, and use ice cream is a vehicle to do it


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Paul Tamburello never intended to build an empire out of ice cream. His career has been — and still is — that of a real estate professional and developer, the mover behind Root Down and Linger restaurants, LoHi Market Place and Highland Lofts, who focuses nowadays on adaptive reuse projects in the Sunnyside neighborhood. That whole ice cream thing? “Literally a hobby,” says Tamburello, who recalls, as a kid, making ice cream with his friends and vying to see who could come up with the wackiest combo (“Strawberry — with chocolate in it!” he says). So when he was trying to decide how to develop his little piece of land in the Highland neighborhood, he initially thought about an office building. And then he thought about ice cream, and the places he loved as a kid, like the Soda Straw Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour — the self-described “TASTIEST PLACE IN THE WORLD!” “That place was magical for me,” Tamburello says. So he set out to create a little magic of his own, and do some good, too. We caught up with him on a hot July day spent placing the first piece of a 75-foot replica of a Lockheed Constellation airplane wing on the roof of Constellation Ice Cream, Little Man’s soon-to-open venue in the Eastbridge Town Center, site of the former Stapleton Airport.

ColoradoBiz: YOU'VE GOT A 28-FOOT TALL, 14-000-POUND CREAM CAN OUTSIDE ONE SHOP, A REPLICA OF A CONSTELLATION AIRPLANE WING ON TOP OF ANOTHER, A GINORMOUS ICE CREAM CHURN AS PART OF ANOTHER. ISN'T GREAT ICE CREAM ENOUGH? 

Paul Tamburello: I don’t think great ice cream is enough. You can buy ice cream anywhere. It really is about the experience. I think you look at what’s going on in retail and the changes that are happening where retailers have to make their place a destination. We’re trying to mix sort of really fun design with that serendipitous moment when you’re looking at that thing and then you smell the waffle cones, and you hear the music, and you walk up and touch it, and it’s a real metal can. Visually, it interests you. And when you taste the product, we hope it speaks to our commitment to do it right.

CB: YOUR SCOOP FOR SCOOP PROGRAM  – FOR EVERY SCOOP OF ICE CREAM PURCHASED, LITTLE MAN MATCHES THAT SCOOP WITH A DONATED SCOOP OF RICE, BEANS OR OTHER ESSENTIALS TO A COMMUNITY IN NEED ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. HOW DOES THAT KIND OF PHILANTHROPY FIT IN WITH YOUR CULTURE?

PT: I would say it’s the heartbeat of that company culture. The young people who work for us are so committed to what Scoop for Scoop is about. We’ve taken some on the journey where we’re literally going to market to buy beans and rice to be distributed – going to the market in Guatemala, or Cambodia or Africa. We’re buying the product to give to the school for that semester or that month or week. That really is at the heart of the culture. And it speaks to what really we’re about, which is leadership for young people. I think those two together are the backbone of what I would define as our company culture.

CB: WHAT MAKES A GREAT BUSINESS LEADER?

PT: I think it’s about inspiring people to be the best at what they’re doing. To really want to have a level of commitment to the company because they’re inspired by what the company is doing and its leadership to stay committed to that. I hope I do that. I wake up every day with a desire to find a way to inspire my team. Whether that’s through demonstrating that if you’re too big for the little jobs, you’re too little for the big jobs. Whether it’s mopping a floor or moving cones down somewhere, doing whatever you’ve got to do to get to a goal, I hope I demonstrate that. My ‘why?’ is to inspire people to live a life of purpose to a cause greater than themselves. My ‘why?’ isn’t to sell ice cream. My ‘why?’ is to affect people’s lives, and we use ice cream is a vehicle to do it.

CB: YOU'VE BEEN INVOLVE IN LOTS OF GREAT PROJECTS AROUND TOWN, INCLUDING HIGHLAND LOFTS, ROOT DOWN AND LINGER RESTAURANTS, THE AIREDALE HOTEL, TURNING THE OLINGER MORTUARY INTO LOHI MARKET PLACE AND REVIVING HISTORIC COBBLER'S CORNER IN SUNNNYSIDE. WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A REDEVELOPMENT PROJECT? 

PT: I look for good bones. I love old houses and buildings that haven’t been destroyed by remodel jobs. I love starting with buildings that have many of the original features intact. The Airedale Hotel, the upper two floors probably hadn’t been in use for 25 years. But most of what was there was original. It was awesome, it was phenomenal to have all those original pieces, to disassemble it and reassemble it.

CB: ASIDE FROM YOUR ICE CREAM VENTURES, WHAT PROJECT HAS BROUGHT YOU THE MOST JOY? 

PT: Probably the Cobbler’s Corner building. We took a building that had been neglected for 50 years and was in horrible condition. Everybody else who looked at it was going to demo it and build a bunch of condos there or whatever. We stripped that building and brought it back to life and then added two buildings to it, sort of companion pieces that really spoke to the original design and architecture that was there, and it worked.

CB: YOU'RE OPENING A 6,000-SQUARE-FOOT ICE CREAM FACTORY AND TASTING ROOM IN SEPTEMBER? WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS BEHIND THAT?  

PT: Necessity. When we started Little Man, I owned a little kind of Victorian house up the street, and I thought, ‘Hey, let’s do our kitchen here.’ At the time, it was in about 400 square feet, and three years in, we ended up taking over the entire ground floor, which is about 800 square feet. And that is where we’ve been the last 10 years. With all these other stores coming on, we absolutely had to expand. We’re doing it in typical fashion; we wanted to challenge everything you would think about the status quo, about what an ice cream factory should look and feel like. One of the most memorable movies I saw as a kid was ‘Willy Wonka.’ Hey, it’s not every day you get to live out your childhood fantasy. We don’t quite have a Hollywood budget, but it’s going to be fun, for sure.

CB: WHAT'S AHEAD? 

PT: We’re doing Stapleton, and then we’re currently building a store in Fort Collins. It’s called the Old Town Churn, and it is a replica of a giant vintage ice cream maker. We have a store we’re doing in East Park Hill in Oneida Plaza. We’re doing a real funky, bit more modern soft serve concept there. Then we’re working on the possibility of something in RiNo now. All the cool kids are there.

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Lisa Ryckman

Lisa Ryckman is ColoradoBiz's managing editor. Contact her at lryckman@cobizmag.com.

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