Like some of his fellow classmates at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Beau Shell stays busy with schoolwork; extracurriculars, such as marching band and debate club; and, of course, playing video games. But, Shell is not the average high school freshman.
This 14-year-old’s vocabulary includes words like business license, budget, gross profit and distribution. And, he doesn’t just talk the talk. As the owner of Lil’ Ice Cream Dude, he lives the lingo every day. His business acumen has been growing for the past six years, and the work is starting to pay off.
In 2014, Shell was the youngest member named to Zagat Atlanta’s 30 under 30 honorees. But, the local award pales in comparison with his recent national accolade. In early October, Shell was named the 2018 Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His was one of a handful of awards presented at the annual Dream Big Awards that celebrate the achievements of small businesses.
During the ceremony, held in conjunction with the chamber’s 2018 Small Business Summit in Washington, D.C., Shell wasn’t certain he’d take top honors. He was competing against two other smart biz-kid finalists: Campfire Industries, a Utah-based company that makes a campfire cooking tool, and Modern Mind Technologies, a digital marketing consulting business from Michigan. But Lil’ Ice Cream Dude came away with the cherry on top. He had a speech planned, but was relieved that the winner wasn’t asked to speak.
Shell recalled that glory moment as he sat on a stool in a 1,400-square-foot retail space at 1040 Gaines School Road in east Athens. Ice cream carts and coolers were scattered around the room, painted powder blue. Spread out on a table in the back room were the architectural drawings for transforming the former bakery space into Shell’s brick-and-mortar ice cream shop.
Opening his own store is just the latest ambition of a kid who first began peddling ice cream in 2012. His June birthday was approaching that year. And, whereas other 8-year-old kids might want toys and games, he was fixated on getting an ice cream cart. He bugged his parents enough that they relented. He woke up on his birthday to find a freezer positioned inside a welded cart, its wheels taken from an old tricycle. The jerry-rigged cart came complete with a foldable umbrella.
Maybe not every little kid’s dream, but, certainly, it was his.
“I wanted to be able to buy my own things,” Shell said of his desire to have a business. As for choosing ice cream as his sales product, partly it was about his own love of the frozen sweet stuff, but also because “99.9 percent of the world likes ice cream as much as I do. That target market will always be around.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur.
That first year, Shell peddled novelty ice cream bars and ice pops at a few events, netting all of $308. Not exactly Powerball jackpot numbers, but nothing to sniff at for an 8-year old whose feet dangled in the air when he reached deep inside the bottom of the cart to grab frozen treats. And, it was enough to buy the Disney Infinity action-adventure video game he wanted. Some Legos, too.
As Shell has grown, so has his business. His fleet now includes six serving coolers, three storage freezers and two trailers — one for transporting push carts and another that functions as his biggest mobile outfit when he sells at festivals and other events. All of his carts have names. The original is “Firecracker.” There’s “the Cone,” “the Pushup,” “the Waffle.” And the big trailer? That’s “the Popsicle.”
You gotta keep things fun when even Saturdays mean business.
While other kids sleep in, come game day at the University of Georgia, Shell loads up cases of hand-dipped ice cream and Italian ices and heads to the north side of Sanford Stadium. In his first season this fall as a subcontractor with the stadium’s food services management company, Aramark, he’s the youngest licensed vendor there.
Summers are the busiest time. That’s when he works at events an average of five days a week. During the academic year, he manages catering events and other gigs after school and on weekends. His posse of helpers includes cousins and friends. He can’t pay them, so he donates a percentage of profits to the churches and organizations they are involved in.
The rest gets plunked back into the business, so he can chip away to make the brick-and-mortar store a reality. That project got off the ground last December, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, in which he raised more than $20,000. He hoped to be open by now, but it takes more than $20,000 to open an ice cream shop.
Every penny counts, so, with the help of his mother, Vickie Shell, he wrote a children’s book called “The Coolest Birthday Ever!” Published this summer, it’s a colorful 36-page bedtime read about Shell’s adventures in the ice cream business.
That business is more complicated than you might think. Sitting on the stool in the shop, Shell talked about some of the big picture ownership questions on his mind. “This ain’t a fairy tale,” he said. “Ice cream is profitable, but you have to be more on the distributor side than the vendor side to be profitable.”
Then, there’s the problem of the moment: fixing a drain in the shop space. It’s one of many headaches that will have to be resolved before the shop can open.
When the store finally gets off the ground, Shell can’t wait to have the industrial kitchen needed to make his own ice cream, rather than having to buy from distributors. There definitely will be a chocolate chip cookie dough flavor in the rotation — one chunked with lots and lots of cookie dough.
Ah, the stuff of a 14-year-old’s dreams.
It was 5 p.m. Time to head on home and hit the books — school books, that is.
Shell picked up his backpack from the floor and threw it over his shoulder. Twice in the past hour he’d asked his mom about eating some ice cream from one of the freezers. No, she said both times.
“Then, can we go to Dairy Queen?” he negotiated.
Even the Young Entrepreneur of the Year can’t win ’em all.
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