Three Twins Cranks Out Organic Ice Cream Success

by Gil Zeimer on July 7, 2011

I’m blessed to have been born with a twin brother. I’ve also worked as a soda jerk in a San Francisco ice cream shop one summer while I was in college. So when I first heard the name of Three Twins Organic Ice Cream in 2005, I had to check it out.

Since then, I’ve seen founder Neal Gottlieb’s dream expand from one ice cream shop in San Rafael’s Terra Linda district to three across a 50-mile territory – from Napa in the north to San Francisco in the south. But that’s just part of the story of his success.

We caught up with the super-busy Gottlieb to ask him how he’s built his business, one scoop at a time.

ISBB: How did you create the name for your certified organic business?

Gottlieb: My twin brother Carl, his wife Liz, and I used to all live together. We started calling the apartment Three Twins and when it came time to start a business, I couldn’t think of a better name. Carl is a Vice President of Engineering for a Sausalito software company and Liz teaches biology and environmental science at Marin Academy, so I’m the only twin involved in the business.

What hardships have you overcome?

The biggest challenge that most small businesses have is capitalization to do what needs to be done. From the time I opened the first Three Twins store six years ago, demand for organic ice cream was always there, but it took a huge amount of capital to grow as much as this concept has.

Originally, I bootstrapped with about $70,000 of my money, then reached out to the bank of Mom and Dad. I brought in one outside investor when our Napa store opened a few years ago. Around that time, when I decided to open a factory in Petaluma about three years ago, I reached out to individuals that I knew, but it was difficult to raise cash during the economic downturn.

So I put out some postcard-sized signs in our stores asking for investors. That actually helped us raise $1 million.

Did you have employees in the beginning?

For the first three months, I was Three Twins Ice Cream. I made ice cream and waffle cones in the morning, ran the shop all day, cleaned it at night and did paperwork later on. It was a challenging but exhilarating schedule, but I got to witness the enjoyment in the faces of our new customers.

At what point did you decide to sell wholesale to gourmet grocery stores and restaurants?

My business plan always included earning some extra income by selling through
wholesale stores, but one catalyst was a cold, rainy Monday when I sold a pathetic $49 worth of ice cream. Now, wholesale accounts for 80 percent of my business. I’ve been lucky enough to expand into 1,000 locations across 33 states in stores like Whole Foods Market, upscale grocery stores, and other restaurants. Most of these are on the West Coast.

Where are your retail locations?

We have our original Terra Linda store in northern San Rafael, in Napa at the Oxbow Public Market and in San Francisco at Fillmore and Haight, plus we have a fourth location in the works for the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur.

What are your sustainable business principles?

Our ingredients are organic, our packaging is 100 percent compostable, we purchase renewable energy certificates to offset the electricity we use, and we give away at least one percent of our sales, regardless of profitability, through charitable donations to One Percent For The Planet. This includes the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, PCC Farmland Trust in Washington State, the Deschutes Land Trust in Oregon, Finger Lakes Land Trust in New York and others. We’re happy to give away one percent of our sales and it really adds up.

You’re crazy busy. Why do you have a booth at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets twice a week?

Two of my loyal employees man the booth – they happen to be my mother and father.

I’ve see a “Twinasaurus” sundae on your menu. What is it and how many have you sold?

It’s 20 scoops and as many toppings as you want for $39.50. We sell about one or two a month across all our stores for parties.

You used to have the world’s most expensive sundae on your menu. Is it still being offered?

It’s only in our Napa store. It’s a $65,000 personally-led tour to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and I’ll make organic ice cream in the glacial ice. We haven’t sold one yet, but I’ve climbed this mountain and made ice cream there.

For more information about Three Twins Ice Cream, visit its website.