Free ice cream.
With those simple, irresistible words, Alec Jaffe ’14 brought happiness to a lot of people near Petaluma, Calif., one day in March. As restrictions related to the pandemic were lifting, Jaffe put out the word that he would give a free pint of Alec’s Ice Cream to any group that came to visit his new ice cream factory in Sonoma County. They came in droves.
“We had over 750 groups show up in a five-hour time span,” said Jaffe, who graduated from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2014 and launched the company in November 2020. “Yeah, it was insane, and it was such an incredible day, getting to interact with people — socially distanced and all that — and see how excited they were to have a new ice cream brand in town.”
That community event was Jaffe’s creative way of introducing people to his product at a time when store sampling events have been completely off the table. And, apparently, people were hooked. “We’ve seen sales jump in stores where potential customers could have attended this event,” he said.
Despite the challenges of launching a new brand during COVID, Alec’s Ice Cream is already in over 100 stores in the Bay Area, and on track to be in 50 more this summer. It helps to have a great product.
Jaffe spent a year and a half testing recipes and perfecting five signature flavors: chocolate, vanilla, mint chocolate chip, salted caramel latte and honey blueberry lavender. With his younger brother, Zach, as head of product development, he sourced high-quality ingredients from sustainable, certified organic suppliers, like pasture-raised dairy from family farms just eight miles away from where he makes the ice cream. When an ice cream factory came up for sale, he took the plunge and bought it, instead of working with a contract manufacturer, because he didn’t want to lose control over suppliers and quality.
Jaffe got some major validation recently at Expo West, the largest trade show in the nation for natural products. In the new product competition, called the Nexty Awards, Alec’s Ice Cream was a finalist in both the best new organic food and the best food dessert categories (top three). That’s quite an accomplishment considering he believes that more than 800 brands submitted applications for the competition.
The Lightbulb Moment
Jaffe taught himself to make a classic French custard ice cream when he was in elementary school. An athlete who played on the USC Trojan football team, he has always led a healthy lifestyle. He grew up in a family that valued nutrition and organic products.
The lightbulb moment for his entrepreneurial venture came when he was grocery shopping after he graduated from USC. His options in the ice cream aisle were disappointing.
“It was the traditional brands that I grew up with that tasted good but weren't made with the best or cleanest ingredients and didn't really have any sustainability efforts,” he said, “and the newer brands that were low calorie or plant based and added some functionality to ice cream but really sacrifice on taste. When I’m eating ice cream, I want really good, delicious ice cream. So I was like, why can’t there be a combination of the two?”
Doing His Homework
Looking at the market, Jaffe knew his new ice cream brand was viable. “Ice cream is an interesting category because it's clear that there's consumer demand for it. Everyone loves ice cream,” he said.
“It was also a category that while it was really mature with strong incumbents like Ben and Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs, there were new companies popping up over the past few years that were really seeing strong growth, reaching $100 million plus in annual revenues,” he said. “So to me, that showed that there was an opportunity there.”
Additionally, he knew that millennial and Gen Z consumers seek out high-quality, organic, sustainable and artisanal products. “There wasn't an ice cream brand providing that combination like we could,” he said.
Jaffe’s USC Marshall education helped him make his ice cream dream a reality. “The diversity of business topics that I was exposed to throughout Marshall was really helpful for getting the base-level understanding of all the different parts that go into starting a business, from business communications to operations and entrepreneurship,” he said. “I think that the entrepreneurial spirit at Marshall rubbed off on me.”
His plan is to build a strong base of distribution in the Bay Area, and then expand to Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and the western United States — “then hopefully, eventually nationwide.” But if you’re already craving this delicious frozen treat and don’t live in the Bay Area, Alec’s Ice Cream ships nationwide, with dry ice and compostable packing materials that dissolve in water.
“It’s such a fun business to be involved with, when you're getting people ice cream and see them get so happy and excited when they try your product,” Jaffe said. “It’s so cool.”