Three Twins organic ice cream CEO: ‘My cash reserves were down to zero, but I made it, because people believed in the brand’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Three Twins organic ice cream CEO Neal Gottlieb talks (scoop) shop

Related tags Ice cream Milk

There have been some hairy moments during Neal Gottlieb’s decade at the helm of Three Twins organic ice cream, from maxed out credit cards to sleepless nights trying to secure capital at the height of the recession. But his tenacity paid off and his quirky brand is gaining traction, with trailing 12 months sales of $10m, and strong growth in conventional as well as natural channels.

While opening your own ice cream factory – as Gottlieb finally did in Petaluma in 2010 part-funded by a local producer loan from Whole Foods Market – might seem like a risky move for a small company, he didn’t see he had a choice at the time.

“We do things very differently,” ​Gottlieb told FoodNavigator-USA.

“For our cookies and cream flavor for example, we liquefy cookies into the base of the ice cream and add cookie chunks on top of that, and our Chocolate Orange Confetti, and Mint Confetti flavors use real dark chocolate flecks that are injected into the ice cream stream​.”

And when he started looking for a co-manufacturer to make his products on a larger scale for the retail market, most were not able to meet his specifications, said Gottlieb, who founded Three Twins as a scoop shop in San Rafael, California, in 2005 with $70,000 in life savings, and soon started hand-filling tubs for local retailers and wholesalers.

I underestimated how much money it would take

 “There were only two organic ice cream companies that could do it; one was a direct competitor and the other we were warned off and it ended up going out of business, so I decided I had no choice but to build my own factory.

“But I underestimated how much money it would take, I almost ran out of cash and had to raise money in the middle of the downturn. All my credit cards were maxed out and my cash reserves were down to zero. But I got through it, because people believed in the brand and its potential.”

Since then he has watched several large and small competitors move in and out of the organic ice cream market while Three Twins has grown steadily, focusing initially on the west coast but later expanding into new territories.

A second factory opened in Sheboygan Wisconsin last August (the former Zurheide Ice Cream production facility), and Gottlieb says his job is finally “becoming easier​” as large retailers now understand that they need more natural and organic products, and want to give space to brands like Three Twins.

“We’ve had a huge amount of growth with Safeway in California, and all the big grocery retailers are now recognizing that the market is evolving. I remember even five years ago you had to explain to retailers why consumers would pay a little extra for an organic pint. Now they get it.”

Three Twins collage
The 'Three Twins' brand refers to Neal Gottlieb, his twin brother, Carl, and Carl’s fiancée, Liz, who was also a twin

I won’t be satisfied until my brand is everywhere that people buy ice cream

But just slapping an organic label on a well-known brand for which organic is not part of the brand identity rarely cuts it with consumers, he said.

“Several of the big brands launched organic lines but they did it all wrong, they put out their least interesting flavors, made them organic, put them in smaller containers and charged a dollar more.

"If an organic ice cream is to work it has to be organic to the core, with high quality ingredients and not all the stabilizers and colorings and all the same stuff they put in their conventional ice cream. It has to be what the whole brand is all about.”

Asked what keeps him awake at night after 10 years in charge, Gottlieb says he sleeps “very soundly​”, although supplies of organic milk are tight right now as demand outstrips supply.

However, he believes the premium for organic milk is now such that more dairy farmers will switch to even things out over time.

“We're growing at a very good clip now, but I don’t think there is ever a moment when I’ve sat down and said, ‘I’ve made it’. I won’t be satisfied until my brand is everywhere that people buy ice cream.”

Interested in new dairy trends? Register below for FoodNavigator-USA's LIVE 60-minute online Dairy Innovation Forum​ on July 29. 

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