The scoop on Seattle’s queen of ice cream

By Rebekah Denn

Molly Moon scooping ice cream
Photos credit to: Meryl Schenker

 

In sunny summertime Seattle, it’s hard to remember a time before scoops of Scout Mint and Honey Lavender and seasonal Balsamic Strawberry filled waffle cones around town.

When Molly Moon Neitzel opened a small Wallingford store in 2008, though, artisan ice cream shops were almost unheard of in our rainy region. Armed with dreams and spreadsheets, the 29-year-old convinced investors of three frosty facts: One, that Seattle had a shortage of premium ice cream producers but a huge appetite for the treat. Two, that the city needed fun all-ages hangouts. Three—chanciest of all—that Neitzel could devote Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream to sustainable, ethical business practices and still turn a profit.

Neitzel had no business school backing or restaurant management experience; she crunched the numbers on Business Plan Pro, a $120 CD-ROM software package. Certain details were non-negotiable, from compostable spoons to paid employee health insurance. If the dollars didn’t pencil out she would abandon the idea, not adjust her ideals.

“I’m very black and white…” Neitzel said recently at University Village, site of another of her now-nine retail shops, with a 10th in progress. Her ice cream is also sold at PCC stores.

“I wanted to see if I could do something where I made money and I lived my progressive values…” she said.  “My mom is the one that said, ‘You should open an ice cream shop,’ because I had worked at this ice cream shop for four years in college. She’s like, ‘You know how to do that. Just put all your values in there and see if it works out.’”

Three weeks after opening day, the shop took in as much money as she had projected in a year. Six weeks in, she started planning branch #2.

In the 14 years since, Seattle’s become a serious ice cream city, boasting multiple chains and indie shops focused on various specialties. (Full Tilt Ice Cream, which opened in White Center the same year as Molly Moon’s, has expanded into a three-shop business focused on creative flavors, vintage sodas and arcade games. PCC also carries Full Tilt pints. And Frankie & Jo’s, also carried by PCC, offers innovative vegan, gluten-free ice cream at three shops —see page 5 for more.)

From recession years to boom times, protests to pandemic, Neitzel’s had to scoop out a unique place in the business world. The eternal guardrails: “Do I want to be the most socially responsible I can be to the humans that I employ and whose families depend on my company doing well? Or do I want to be as righteous as I want to be for the planet? And I’ve chosen the social good, with the acknowledgement that they’re intertwined.”

Music and politics

Neitzel was raised in Boise and attended the University of Montana in Missoula while working at the Big Dipper, a popular hangout for homemade ice cream and a sense of community.

Politics was in her family’s blood more than desserts: Her grandmother was  chief of staff for one of Idaho’s few Democratic congressmen. At age five, Neitzel was stamping campaign mailings, at 12 washing windows for car-wash fundraisers, believing as long as she can remember that “We need to vote, and lobby our government to provide for its citizenry, and we need businesses to step up—and show that taking care of people is good for society.”

After earning a degree in journalism, Neitzel’s work life went big fast. For most of her 20s she was executive director of Music for America, a national nonprofit aimed at getting out the youth vote.

Politics had rewards—a boss remains her mentor today—and downsides. Morals sometimes seemed unacceptably bendable. Checks from some donors seemed about absolving guilt instead of igniting progress.

After some side explorations she researched the ice cream idea, and somehow convinced investors it was a smart concept for a city where summer highs averaged only the mid-70s.

The dollars were smaller than in national politics, but “it didn’t feel small to me at the time…” she recalled.  “I was like, I need to make this investment in me worth it.”

Molly Moon's ice cream pints

The right people

Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream won fans immediately with local ingredients and intriguing flavors (and a name that was all the more perfect for being real), but Neitzel thinks now it wasn’t as good as its first reviews. She quickly hired Dana Cree—then a local pastry chef, now a nationally acclaimed Chicago pastry chef and ice cream producer—for an upgrade.

“We rewrote all my recipes and made the ice cream way better. I think that’s one of the things I’ve always been really good at, is finding the right person with the skills that I don’t (have).”

Challenges also came before Day One, like finding those compostable spoons she’d committed to carrying.

“No one had a compostable spoon in the city of Seattle.” The University of Washington dining halls began using them the same year, and they piggybacked on the same supplier.

Even now, hard-won logistics hold up what look like sunny bonuses, like Molly Moon’s extra-large 18-ounce “scooper’s pints.”

“My director of operations so badly wants us to do a 16-ounce regular pint container. Everybody else’s pints are 16 ounces, right?…Or they’re 14 ounces, it’s called a cheater pint.” Hers are plus-sized because they are repurposed compostable soup containers. No one yet makes a compostable 16-inch ice cream container.

In another oddity in the retail world, each Molly Moon’s branch makes its own ice cream, rather than distributing from a central factory. That gives each store a personal feel and allows the company to employ several pastry chefs—another step in a job ladder where she hopes even seasonal scoopers like her younger self might climb up to a career.

A North Star

Not every goal is reachable, and major costs that aren’t baked in from the start are hard to add later, Neitzel noted.

“I haven’t gone back on anything that I started but sometimes I don’t get to do things that I thought I would build.”

She expected to eventually make the business certified organic, for instance, but “it pains me to say this…that’s probably not possible.

“My recipe is basically two cups of cream, one cup of milk, three-quarters of a cup of sugar. The cost of organic cream is insane, and Washington state and Oregon state can’t even make all the cream that Washington and Oregon consume.” Switching to organic dairy would spike not just the price, but the environmental impacts of transporting ingredients from other regions.

Reconciling those goals is part of another signature commitment, Neitzel’s “Scout Mint Ice Cream,” which uses as many as 6,000 boxes of Thin Mint cookies purchased annually from the Girl Scout troop at Mary’s Place, the nonprofit shelter for families experiencing homelessness. Cookie sales fund camp scholarships for every troop member.

‘I was a Girl Scout for 11 years, and that’s really important to me,” Neitzel said.

She’s maintained the flavor “even though the ingredient list of Girl Scout cookies is not my favorite” (PCC pints use an alternate Scout Mint brownie flavor, because brand-name Thin Mints contain ingredients not allowed under co-op product standards.)

Again, “I have just had to say, I need a North Star, or I need a consistent way to make decisions,” she said.

Molly Moon's making ice cream

Milk and life

That trajectory sounds fairy-tale smooth: Girl makes ice cream, girl-boss finds success.

No human story cuts off at the happy ribbon-cutting, though. In one of the most tragic turns, Neitzel’s 22-year-old sister, who shared her studio apartment and worked at her store, was badly hurt in a motorcycle accident in 2009. Anna was in a coma and later died.

Beyond the essentials, “I really stayed in bed for like six months,” Neitzel said.

Finally, “pulling myself out of my grief enough to say, ‘What should I do to create a legacy for her? She was so young, and she could so easily be forgotten by the world, I just kept thinking about her generosity.”

Neitzel crossed the street to the FamilyWorks Food Bank, which she and Anna already knew through ice cream donations, and made plans with Executive Director Jake Weber. “My sister loved milk, we both grew up drinking a ton of milk. We didn’t have very much money, especially when I was really little, but milk was a thing that my parents would prioritize having in the fridge even when you couldn’t have other things.

“When my sister came to live with me in Seattle, from Idaho, when my mom would visit she would give me $20 and be like, “Buy milk, because she’s expensive.”

A lot of people who rely on food banks, Weber told her, get powdered milk instead of fresh pints.

So the Anna Banana Milk Fund, now a separate nonprofit, provides money for milk and other dairy products at food banks connected with each Molly Moon store.

Shops and social issues

Neitzel’s family has grown as well over the years; she’s married and had two daughters of her own since opening that first store.

Parental leave became an employee issue in the process, seeing how hard new parenthood is and how parents need to spend time with newborns.  When Neitzel’s best friend, who worked with her, had a baby in 2009, it seemed like a village raising a child to say, “Yeah, you can come back to work at eight weeks and bring the baby in the stroller…” she recalled.  “I am so deeply ashamed of that now.

“That’s the only baby that’s been born at Molly Moon’s that didn’t come with a full 12-week 100% maternity or paternity leave.”

Soon after enacting the policy at her own store, she worked with Washington’s Economic Opportunity Institute to encourage the state legislature to pass paid family leave, one of several pushes she’s made for state and national worker benefits. Internally, her stores have eliminated tipping and added “pay transparency,” where all employees can see everyone’s salaries, with training guidelines on reaching the next level on the wage schedule (pay starts at $18/hour).

Pay transparency is aimed at eliminating the national gender gap in wages, and at inspiring lower-paid workers to train for more senior positions. Tips could be affected by the wealth of the store’s customers or how busy it typically was or discrimination, factors beyond employees’ controls, and tips also meant the greenest employees sometimes earned more than managers. The goal was better pay for jobs that required greater responsibility and experience. Neitzel met with each employee to show their salaries under the old and new system, backfilling the difference for a handful who faced steep cuts until they had time to train for promotions and raises. Eliminating tips is a controversial and evolving trend throughout today’s restaurant world. Few mid-sized businesses have made such a forceful move and stuck with it.

“There’s so much about the workforce in food and beverage and in hospitality that is changing right now…and we are right now figuring out, what is the right thing to do for the next season of our industry?” Neitzel said.

March 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, derailed all predictions and plans. Three factors—with public support—saved Molly Moon’s from going under as so many other favorite businesses did.

In March 2020 the company shut down and laid off most employees but kept all 88 on its health insurance. To finance the first two months of those premiums, they pre-sold cozy sweatshirts that read, “Stay home, eat ice cream.” The next premiums were paid by pre-selling “pint club” discount cards. “I figured even if I wasn’t going to (re)-open, I would be able to get these people ice cream. I have a lot of ice cream shops and a lot of equipment, and there’s milk.”

Then, she said, there was PCC. “We called Noah (grocery merchandiser Noah Smith) and we were like, “Can we make pints for you?” And he said, “Yes, we’ve already looked at your ingredient labels, they are clean. The shelves are empty, we have so much space for you.”

That cash flow, from PCC and then other outlets, helped re-open the shops and pay for pandemic-related safety upgrades before federal support was available.

Data-driven

With the region settling into a new sort of normal, Molly Moon’s is back on a smoother course.

The stores have always been peanut-free—“I used to be a nanny, and I knew what a big deal it was to families to be peanut-free”—and now have a dozen permanent flavors and rotating seasonal options. New flavors are taste-tested a year in advance, since many rely on seasonal ingredients and orders need to be placed accordingly—or planted, in the case of suppliers like strawberries from Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley.

A whiteboard at the quarterly tastings shows all the existing flavors and their percentage of sales. Consistent low-sellers drop out and are replaced with new flavors that are brainstormed, taste-tested a month or two later and sometimes adjusted and re-tested. “Sometimes we do three (rounds) until we really, really like it. Sometimes we’re like, “You know what, this idea didn’t work. It’s not a good concept,” Neitzel said.

There is one flavor that’s virtually guaranteed a permanent menu spot even if its modest sales ever plummet: Honey Lavender. “It’s got a total cult following. And it’s so Pacific Northwest that I would lose sleep (if it was dropped).”

Beyond that exception, at work or at home, data is always her driver. “I love how a spreadsheet can just tell you the truth. And I use spreadsheets for everything. I cook 21 meals, dinners for my family. Every 21 days it’s the same thing. If we’re having spaghetti tonight, in 21 days on a Thursday night we’re gonna have spaghetti again. And those the recipes for every meal are in there, linked to a tab with the grocery list.” Collaboration and support also help; Neitzel said a fourth factor that helped the business stay intact is that her husband closed his own coffee shop to stay home with their children when COVID hit.

Final scoop

Politics still infuses Neitzel’s actions, from offering free scoops to shoppers who vote on Election Day to joining a White House roundtable with President Joe Biden on vaccine mandates. She’s a founding member of the Main Street Alliance, a “powerful, self-funded, multi-racial, small business membership organization that can shift our economic narrative, wield political power, and win policy reform for small business owners, employees, and communities,” as its website puts it.

“I would say politics is like my hobby. It’s not a hobby, but the way other people golf, go to the gym, go out to dinner with their friends, all the things that people do outside of work.”

And she’s not done with working for change, either inside or outside her own company.

“Part of the reason that I can do this—and not everybody can do this—is, I have a frozen product. I have zero food waste. I am really meticulous about managing labor. I have a director of finance who is one of the most brilliant women with numbers I’ve ever met…

“But I know it’s not possible for every company, and it shouldn’t be our responsibility.

“You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to have a good working life.”

Also in this issue

How to live gluten-free, joyfully

Shauna James Ahern, the original Gluten-Free Girl, has advice for living gluten-free and a savory recipe.

Fast, fun stir-frying with J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and “The Wok”

“Culinary nerd” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has brought the science of great cooking to readers for years. His latest book, “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” is a definitive guide to the phenomenally useful cooking tool.

Delight in the world's first Little Free Bakeries

Joyous creativity and kindness fuels these boxes around the region stocked with free cookies and cake.