Natasha Case has been building an ice cream empire. Her company Coolhaus has been bringing frosty dreams and architectural puns to the masses for the past seven years. Having assembled a fleet of 11 ice cream mobiles, published a Coolhaus cookbook, and secured placement of ice cream and ice cream sandwiches in over 1,500 retail outlets, it was no accident that Case was named one of Forbes 30 under 30. The keystone of Coolhaus has been their diverse array of ice cream sandwiches, whose names (IM Pei-nut butter, Mies Vanilla Rohe, Renzo Apple Pie-Ano) reflect Case’s architectural background, but Coolhaus has set their sights on elevating more than just ice cream. In this Spotlight On, Case shares her big dreams for re-inventing the Choco-Taco, the importance of work-life balance, and the definition of “Farchitecture.”
Where did the idea for CoolHaus begin? The concept for Coolhaus started when I was studying architecture in undergrad at UC Berkeley and continued during my Masters at UCLA. I became interested in exploring the intersection of food and design, but mainly because I thought you could open up the discourse about design—make it more accessible and also fun, and thus as value, by using food as the medium to talk about architecture. I called it “Farchitecture,” [or Food + Architecture] and I started playing around with different constructs under this umbrella idea. One of those manifestations was baking cookies and making ice cream from scratch with local and organic ingredients, and naming the combinations after famous architects and architectural movements. The idea was that awareness about the field through punny names would add value back to the profession that was hard hit in the recession. I met [Freya Estreller, co-creator of Cool Haus] very early on in experimenting with this idea – and together we bought a truck, the only retail asset we could afford – and launched at the Coachella Valley Music Festival. The rest is history!
Did you have a background in business before you started?
No, my background was in architecture, and I had some marketing and sales experience too.
How did that background in architecture translate into making ice cream sandwiches for a living?
I wanted to understand what it would be like for an architect to create a [Consumer Packaged Goods Brand – aka something consumed by the every day consumer]—and [architecture] ended up being a great tool kit: merchandising, service-based, client and public-facing, working with a team, telling a story through a visual identity. I use my architectural background every day. I also wanted to use food to make architecture fun and approachable… “digestible” if you will.
How did you put together the money and resources together to create the company?
Coolhaus has such humble beginnings. We didn’t have money or much resources, but we had a diverse/complementary skill set and an aligned vision—and the energy to get it done (achem, we were 25 years old!)! That is what mattered most. We scraped together the finances we could (my personal credit card with a $5K limit, a few hundred dollars from friends and family). But looking back, the financial constraints were a positive, as it forced us to innovate and problem solve within limitations—then test the concept without investing heavily outside of our time.
Your business has grown considerably since, from trucks, to storefronts, to catering, to grocery stores, to a Cool Haus book. (Oh my!) Walk us through a typical day in your life. What I love about what I do is that there is no typical day! Some days are out in the field doing business development, meeting clients and partners, event venues and retailers, some days I’m developing product in our test kitchen for our new seasonal menu, some days designing packaging for new SKUs, some days I’m doing PR interviews and appearances and public speaking; I travel a lot, especially in the Summer… I love the versatility! What I do aim for is never to spend more than 50% of the day at my computer.
Do you believe work-life balance is an achievable goal? Has the growth of CoolHaus helped or hindered that? Absolutely. In fact, it’s the only way to run a business and get what you need to done. The time outside of work—whatever your pleasure is: tennis, reading, a Netflix binge here and there—allows you to be more focused and clear-minded, productive when you go back into the office. I would say Coolhaus has helped me achieve this in a more profound sense—as I really build my own days and schedule, and thus need to set aside time for myself in very deliberate ways (Coolhaus does run seven days a week after all). [quote_right]I feel like running Coolhaus is the opposite of FOMO: where we are, what we are doing, what we are creating—that’s the place to be, as opposed to feeling like we are missing that pulse.[/quote_right] I would also say because Coolhaus is, in a sense, a lifestyle brand—there is a lot of ‘work’ that I do that does not necessarily feel laborious as it’s just so fun, and I love what I do so passionately. There’s a saying: if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I very much live by that philosophy!
What is your favorite thing about running your own business? I think it connects to the earlier points about having truly versatile days, and having control of my schedule. I also like to say I feel like running Coolhaus is the opposite of FOMO: where we are, what we are doing, what we are creating—that’s the place to be, as opposed to feeling like we are missing that pulse. [FOMO = Fear of Missing Out]
As a female entrepreneur did you have any mentors or role models who helped or inspired you? I would say my role models are Jenna Lyons of J.Crew—she has such a unique vision and really elevated the brand. I think Marisa Mayer is brilliant too.
Was there a moment in your life when you felt the most “successful”?
That’s a tough one to give a static answer to as my personal definition of ‘success’ is always evolving: I will say it’s little things though like having a team around me that I can learn from—it’s such an honor and privilege to get to a place in your career and with your business where you can bring in talent like that (and afford it). I think also mentoring and coaching—both [Freya Estreller, co-creator of Cool Haus] and I do a lot of that. Hearing your own words back to you about what you’ve learned that you then impart on others makes you realize how far you have come, that you truly have garnered perspective—and that an audience wants to hear it. It also forces you to follow your own advice! There are also certain events where I really enjoyed the recognition: I gave the keynote speech at an entrepreneurship event sponsored by Scion (we also shot a digital commercial with them on their website). There was a great turnout and response; I’ve received a ton of emails since then of people who saw it and want to know more…
What do you consider to be your hardest won or most treasured life lesson?
Put it on paper, and it can happen. Also, you can walk through a wall if you don’t know it’s there—so don’t let less experience be a hindrance, it can be your secret weapon.
Any advice you would give to would-be entrepreneurs?
Take risks, but take calculated risks—there are ways to do something innovative and life-altering without putting all your eggs in one basket.
What books, art, or media have had the greatest impact on your life?
So much. Some of my favorites as far as film are Fellini (aesthetics), Easy Rider (one of the first movies I saw in college)… I love Michael Mann’s vision of LA in Collateral. Rothko has been my favorite painter as of recent, and we just saw a few great pieces of his at Crystal Bridges in Arkansas. For literature, Rem Koolhaas is one of my favorite writers, but I love Foucault and Bordieu too. I get obsessive with New Yorker articles. I also think a beautiful drive in LA with the right music (right now it’s Kaytranada, Young Fathers and Tei Shi for me) is one of the best forms of meditation.
Do you have a favorite indulgence or biggest vice?
I love a good dirty martini, gin, stirred—ideally a blue cheese olive (so “filthy” martini I guess!). My biggest vice is a good TV marathon while we hang with our dogs.
Finally, What’s on the horizon?
Taking Coolhaus to the next level with more SKUs—new sandwiches in 2016, but also new frozen novelties like bon-bons, re-inventing the Choco Taco, reinventing the ‘Drumstick’… then look for us outside of frozen in baking and candy (elevated of course)—all with lots of great PR and special events to support the vision. We also are looking to expand as a true lifestyle brand, maybe kitchen and home products and other merchandise. Anything is possible when you have a brand like ours that is here to stay!