Full Tilt Ice Cream, now with three locations and retail sales in grocery stores, began five years ago in White Center. The success of the business is at least in part due to the love of ice cream but also the fact that the stores reflect their communities.
It's full cream ahead for Full Tilt Ice Cream as it turns five
When Justin Cline opened Full Tilt Ice Cream in the middle of White Center five years ago, it was just supposed to be a summer business. After all he was a boat builder but wanted to try something new. His friends told him he was crazy. But Cline knew that the White Center area was lacking any place to get good ice cream and settled on his location. It may have seemed a strange spot to the outside observer, surrounded by an adult book store, the now-defunct Club Evo dance club and bars at 9629 16th Avenue S.W., but he brought in pinball machines, got a license to sell beer too and started creating flavors.
He had learned some of the nature of how to get attention from a stint at a music club called the Offramp in downtown Seattle but what happened next was surprising. His business began to get a lot of attention. In part because he was right, the area was underserved for ice cream but also because of his integration of flavors of the community around him. Stories in local media came out that talked about his cinnamon scented Mexican chocolate or salted caramel ice cream that differentiated him from the Dairy Queen's and Baskin and Robbins' approach to frozen confections.
"We make good ice cream and good flavors but at the same time the economy took a dump and we're a cheap luxury. You can't afford to take your family to Salty's every week but you can come here."
A tipping point for Full Tilt may have come with a short mention of it in a 2010 New York Times story about treats in the Seattle area. After that, other media did stories, Cline kept experimenting and sales grew. "I think we've gotten lucky and ice cream is pretty popular in Seattle. It happened all over the country. Stores in New York and San Francisco and Denver opened in 2008, the year of ice cream."
He now sells 2200 gallons a week across all his stores and retail product sales. That number may look small if it were all mass produced but all Cline's product is made by hand. He uses machines, of course, to freeze the creamy ingredients but the elements, all natural and local are mixed first by employees at his warehouse location in South Park. That's part of his formula. "I learned pretty quick that before it's frozen the taste is really intense. But as soon as you freeze it the taste drops. So if we're doing cherry we put a lot of cherries in there. We have really big flavors." He began with 12 flavors and now offers 16, so while the number hasn't grown much the flavors themselves have changed a lot. He now offers flavors like Canteloupe and Black Pepper, Vegan Blue Moon, Rat City Root Beer, and Thai Tea in addition to Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry.
Full Tilt now operates locations Ballard, the University District and Columbia City (which rivals White Center for sales) plus a burger place (High Score) in Redmond and is opening a "scoop shop" on the Microsoft campus in two weeks.
Full Tilt also sells a retail product in pints at 16 stores in Washington including Thriftway, PCC, Red Apple, Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods, and Haggens.
His future plans include three more stores next year including Queen Anne (across from the new KEXP radio station being built), Burien and Renton.
The business success has led to a kind of home grown gentrification of the White Center business district with the Company Bar, Bakery 3.14, Uncle Mike's Superlicious BBQ, and Proletariat Pizza all opening in the years following Cline's entry. He saw the same thing happen in Columbia City but believes it's gone too far down the "fancy restaurant" road and hopes it doesn't happen in White Center.
"There's nothing wrong with bars, and pot shops and porn stores. That's another part of our society. But the reason we opened this is we knew a lot of families had moved to this area because you can afford a house. So we wanted something that was kid friendly."
He now has more than 20 employees, after starting out essentially with just one: himself.
Cline is clearly on to something. As one of the founders of Baskin and Robbins said, "You look at any giant corporation, and I mean the biggies, and they all started with a guy with an idea, doing it well."-Irvine Robbins
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