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Posted: June 05, 2014

Chef Laura: Scooping up summer memories

Four lessons from my most memorable job

Laura Cook Newman

Since the impressionable age of 13, I’ve had a hot mess of jobs in the glamorous world of food service: Flippin’ burgers, bustin’ suds, mixing cocktails, and even managing a few joints.  But the restaurant gig that made the biggest impression on me was the summer I scooped ice cream at a busy seaside place on Cape Cod.

As a new high school graduate, I still had a lot to learn. Yet over two decades later, I often think about the lessons I did learn at the ice cream shop that summer – lessons that I still apply today.

1. Train your staff – twice

Before given free rein to interface with the customers, we had to showcase our scooping expertise.  Using a “practice bucket” of vanilla – the cheapest flavor – we’d hand scoop the hard ice cream with a disher, gathering up more ice cream with each swipe and packing it into a perfect four-ounce sphere. 

Our manager would weigh each ball of ice cream and have us repeat the task until perfection was obtained and muscle fatigue set in. To this day, my right forearm rivals Popeye’s, while my left looks more like Olive Oyl’s.

Mid-summer, we were all spot-checked for accuracy.  Sure enough, my scoop had swelled to almost five ounces!  So it was back to the practice bucket of vanilla and scale for a refresher course.

2. Know how your product interfaces with your customers

As customers approached the counter, I’d size them up and got pretty good at matching the customer to the request. 

Kids were easy – the louder the color of the ice cream, the more appealing.  To prevent dripping, I’d pop an M&M into the base of a slow-eating kid’s sugar cone.  For extra klutzy tikes (or anyone 3 and under), I’d invert their cone into a cup with some whipped cream “hair”, cherry nose, and Skittle eyes presenting, with much fanfare, their very own clown cup.  We’d absorb the additional $0.25 in food cost, in order to save $4.00 in profits:

  $1.50 of ice cream on floor

+$1.50 of replacement ice cream

+$1.00 cleaning supplies and labor required to clean spilled cone

= $4.00 savings

Teen-agers were a cinch too – they all want weird combinations of ice cream and toppings.  “Rainbow sherbet with Junior Mints?  Coming right up!” 

My favorite customers were my beloved seniors.  We had over 30 flavors of ice cream, but without fail, my loyal seniors only ordered eight flavors.  Any guesses?  Go ahead, I’ll wait here…

How did you do?  Let’s rattle off the obvious picks: Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and coffee.  The remaining four are up for some debate.  In Massachusetts, the fourth-ranking state in per-capita ice cream consumption, they were: Butter pecan, maple walnut, pistachio and rum raisin. 

3. Erase Inefficiencies

One busy Saturday, exhausted from running laps behind the counter frantically searching for flavors, I had a light bulb moment.  We relocated the popular flavors for easy access and placed the eight senior favorites into one unit, secretly christening it “The Geezer Freezer”.   Don’t get me wrong – we adored our senior customers – they were loyal, pleasant, had exact change and came during off peak hours.  I guess when you eat dinner at 4 p.m., you’re ready for ice cream at 4:45.

We also streamlined our ordering process by securing an entire group’s order without the aid of pen and paper. With practice, we learned how to memorize several orders at once.  Repeating the order back to the customers, we’d conclude, “Meet you at the register.”  It’s a secret superpower that I can still tap into today.

4. Not all customers are created equal

Right up there with predicting our customers’ preferences, we also had some customers  we treated differently.  The owners’ sticky-faced 5-year-old got his mint chocolate chip in a “special” bowl with a long parfait spoon.  The lil’ boss-in-training, born with said plastic spoon in his mouth, would visit us behind the chaotic counter and ask “How’s business today, ladies?”  The only appropriate response was “Isn’t he just precious?” while tousling his hair…hard.

Then there was lovable George, weighing in at 300+, who visited mid-day while his wife played tennis.  Every day, George followed his diet for 23.5 hours.  But 2-2:30 p.m. was his unauthorized ice cream break.  Since Mrs. George didn’t allow sweets in the house, he snuck off to see us – “his girls” – for four scoops of mocha fudge swirl and a little acceptance. 

Without judgment, I’d stealthily swap out the flimsy wire ice cream parlor-style chair for an armless sturdy chair from the dining room, while my coworker rang up his order.  She’d pass the frozen treat to me, and I’d place it at George’s “spot”.  There were plenty of places to get ice cream on the Cape, but George chose us, and in turn we took special care of him.

What memorable jobs of summers past have you held?  And what lessons learned do you still use today?

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

my summer job wasn't fun. it consisted of helping out at my parent's print shop in Brooklyn. I would have preferred scooping ice cream. one for me... one for you. ha ha By Ta Tee on 2014 06 06
Those first few teenage summer jobs are so important to instilling work ethic and skills. Sure it cut into my beach-time, but I doubt I'd cherish memories of working on my tan. Instead I was working on my ability to pay for a sweet stereo (and college!). By Chef Laura on 2014 06 06
Delightful article! Am sending it to my niece, who works in a hip ice cream parlor in Houston while going to college. Thanks, Laura! By Terri Maize on 2014 06 05
I rememberls ome of your sobriquets for the owner's son, but don't recall "just precious" being one of them! By PF on 2014 06 05
I remember mowing lawns in junior high. My friend Mike and I walked around the block with our equipment knocking on every door and asking for business. We eventually had two or three regulars a week and were raking in a tidy sum. There was one house where some guys lived who were our age. They couldn't even get off the couch to now their own lawn while I was quadrupling my chore money. By Ted on 2014 06 05
Thanks for the laughs, Laura. But you were pretty wise with your business principles at an early age. Talk about efficiencies and customer service: M&Ms; in the cone bottom to stave off melting ice cream, dressing a cone in cup for the toddler. The Geezer Freezer is a great efficiency but as I slide into that category it made me think about the ice cream I prefer these days: mint choc chip and espresso chip. Maybe that means I'm not a geezer yet? By Gale Dunlap on 2014 06 05
Thanks for the memories. Love the Geezer Freezer. By Aunt B on 2014 06 05
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