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Friday 24 May 2019
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A&J moves from ice cream cooler to storefront business

Anthony Henry and his wife June-Ann, owners of A&J Homemade Ice Cream, offer two of their signature flavours, Strawberry Medley and Dark Vanilla, at their Chaguanas store.
Anthony Henry and his wife June-Ann, owners of A&J Homemade Ice Cream, offer two of their signature flavours, Strawberry Medley and Dark Vanilla, at their Chaguanas store.

SHIRVAN WILLIAMS

Creating a successful business takes unwavering dedication and great tenacity, something that Anthony Henry and his wife June-Ann, have not only learned first-hand but have also lived by.

The couple owns popular ice cream store A&J’s Homemade Ice Cream, located at the corner of Sumaria Trace and Caroni Savannah Road, Chaguanas.

In just two years the couple has grown their enterprise from a simple ice cream stop on a corner to a well-known and innovative brand that keeps customers coming back for more.

“We began selling ice cream on April 13, 2017 as a way of earning some extra income,” June-Ann told Business Day.

She said they chose ice cream because it was Anthony’s hobby and he enjoyed creating new flavours.

Almost all A&J’s ice cream uses local ingredients. Some of the flavours are dark vanilla with activated charcoal, nutmeg, ginger, ginger coconut, ginger and turmeric, soursop and barbasop (a mixture of barbadine and soursop). One of their more popular creations is called the Green Lantern which is an ice cream combination of pistachio, chocolate and cookies.

Anthony, a former sales representative, told Business Day it was hard work for both of them to get the business where it is today.

“We started off with just four flavours, a cooler and a folded up table on the corner of Munroe Road Flyover. We had a little cardboard sign that said A&J Homemade Ice Cream. The four flavours we started with were chocolate, cookies and cream, peanut and barbasop. Our first day, we were out there from 10 in the morning to 10 at night and we made $75. After that, we were like yeah, we want to do this,” Anthony said.

They poured all their energy and time into the small business, working every day. Some days, June-Ann recalled, they made no sales and it was frustrating but they stuck with it.

“During the day when Anthony was out at work, I used to be there selling ice cream with our daughter in a stroller. He would reach home around 5 pm and then from around 5 pm to 10 pm he would sell. Then when we were finished we would go and make ice cream for the next day,” June-Ann said.

A&J has a range of unique ice cream flavours, including Green Lantern, made with pistachio, dark chocolate and cookies.

The couple, who will be celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary in June, charted their progression from a cooler to a freezer, to a cart and, after a lot of perseverance and encouragement from loyal customers, to a shop in February last year. When the shop opened they didn’t have any heavy duty machinery and did everything by hand. This meant that they would have to work well into the night to make sure they were ready for the next day.

Some days, they admitted looking around in disbelief at how much they’ve accomplished, but they don’t intend to stop until the brand becomes one of the most well-known homemade brands in the country.

“This isn’t it for us. We still want to fix up the shop, we still want more locations and we want to distribute. It’s amazing that we’re here but this is not the end,” June-Ann said.

A menu board of flavors offered by A&J's homemade ice-cream at their shop in Chaguanas.

The couple believes it’s their consistency with taste that is also a major factor in customer satisfaction. They also have variety, including sugar-free options for diabetics and even a lactose-free version for people with lactose intolerance.

“We didn’t want to be just another ice cream shop. (From the start) we decided we wanted to be the household brand. We wanted to come up with new and exciting flavours,” Anthony said.

Even with their drive to make the business a success the couple needed help to make their business sustainable. By chance, scrolling through Facebook, they came across the Unicomer small business boot camp programme, Broadening Horizons. They signed up.

Nicole Loney-Mills, corporate social responsibility officer, at Unicomer’s Freeport Campus, said the programme was designed to help small and medium businesses understand and use all necessary tools to help them excel.

Nicole Loney-Mills, corporate social responsibility officer, at Unicomer.

“We help businesses with things like understanding key financial statements and strategies, developing and refining business and marketing strategies, understanding various business models and we help entrepreneurs learn to pitch their businesses to secure investment and financing.”

The programme, which is between three and four months long, requires business owners to attend workshops about a specific topic each Saturday and is followed up with one-on-one coaching during the week. Last year the company partnered with the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) for the business consultancy aspect but this year they will be partnering with a new consultancy group called The Business Clinic.

TT is the first Caribbean island to host the initiative, starting in 2017. After that, it was launched in Latin America, Belize, and Guyana, with plans to take it to St Lucia and Jamaica.

The programme is intense. For the first round in 2017, participants were chosen from the Courts database and their progress documented during the programme.

“We used that to help us market it the second year. We had a whole social media campaign. It made things much easier and we had over 80 applications in that second year,” Loney-Mills said.

Small and medium businesses owners can now apply directly for Broadening Horizons around the end of June. Interviews will be held in August and the programme will begin in September. Loney-Mills said the screening process can be a bit stringent.

The award for 'Most Progressive Entrepreneur' presented to A&J's Homemade Ice Cream from Unicomer, whose small business boot camp programme A&J owners Anthony and June-Ann Henry attended.

“You must be in business for at least two years because usually, we find that’s when people start to take risks. You must be committed to your business 100 per cent. Even if you’re doing it on a part-time level you must be invested. There are quite a few questions that we will ask just to give us a gauge of where you’re at. Things like your income or your customer base so that we have an idea of how we can help you.”

This year there will be guest speakers from the Unicomer Group, including financial director Gillian Matthews, to encourage business owners to reach their full potential.

“She’s going to be sharing with them basic information that they need to know in finance. We’re also going to be partnering with our insurance provider to teach them about retirement planning.”

Unicomer sponsors the entire programme so all training comes at no cost to the business owner. So far the group has invested more than $100,000 the Broadening Horizons programme.

“It’s pretty much us investing in our customers who support our business. A lot of our programmes are about giving back to the communities and the businesses that support us because Courts is a very community-based business, especially in the rural communities.”

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