Honey-Sweetened ‘Nice Cream’ Expands Nationally, Gives Back to the Bees
When Jessica Gartenstein, AB ’17, and Erik Nadeau, AB ’18, entered the 2017 College New Venture Challenge (CNVC), Frönen (formerly BeeNana) was just an idea. “We weren’t really thinking about it long-term,” Nadeau said.
The two had been making their dairy-free, fruit-based “nice cream” for their friends and themselves, based on a family recipe of Nadeau’s. The concept was inspired by Gartenstein’s own struggle to find a tasty, dairy-free ice cream alternative, having been diagnosed with Celiac disease and sensitivity to dairy at age 13.
“We were totally clueless on how to start a company,” Gartenstein said. Looking for mentorship opportunities and to learn the basics, they joined the CNVC, which they eventually won. The process made Gartenstein and Nadeau think of the long-term possibilities with Frönen, as well as changed their outlook on the company.
“We started thinking about [Frönen] more as a business … than a product,” Nadeau said. During that time, they made the ice cream in a shared kitchen space in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and delivered it in Nadeau’s car to a few stores, where they could receive customer feedback.
That summer, they joined the Polsky Accelerator. “It just seemed like a really great option for us to get more help from people who are experts, who are very familiar with the startup space,” Gartenstein said. Though their system during the CNVC gave them an idea of the retail landscape, their goal with the Accelerator was to find a way to make the product at a much larger scale, such as with a co-manufacturer. Their search proved to be hard. To understand how to best produce their ice cream, they talked to food scientists and manufacturers.
“We really just asked everybody for advice,” Gartenstein said. “With that, we figured out, little by little, how to scale our manufacturing process.” Once they found the right co-manufacturer, they were able to get distributors, which, Nadeau said, “greatly improved our geographical reach.”
During the summer of 2018, Frönen was accepted onto Peapod, an online grocery service, and had its soft launch at the Taste of Chicago. A year later, the company had its official retail launch with Mariano’s, a Midwestern grocery chain. A few months after that, the ice cream alternative was available at every Whole Foods in Illinois. By the end of 2019, with its launch into Wegman’s, Frönen expanded to the greater Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and the East Coast. Eventually, Wegman’s began carrying Frönen in all locations across the country, and Whole Foods expanded the product’s reach to all its Midwestern stores.
“Currently,” Gartenstein said, “we’re in about 600 different retailers throughout the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast.” Most recently, Frönen has added to the list Gelson’s Markets, a supermarket chain in Southern California, and Fresh Thyme, a group of grocery stores based in the Midwest.
The company rebranded to Frönen (German for “indulge”) a few years ago. The venture was originally called BeeNana, because bananas and honey were used in all of the products. “We quickly realized that would be extraordinarily limiting for us as a company,” Nadeau said. It went back to what the duo learned from the CNVC and Accelerator: to focus less on the product and more on the company as a whole.
Though they still use between four and six simple ingredients in each pint, the change to Frönen allowed more opportunities for future flavors. “Half of our ice cream flavors don’t even contain banana,” Nadeau said. “And we’re launching more flavors that don’t have honey, either. [The rebrand] just opened up the doors for us to innovate a little bit more broadly.”
Frönen recently released two new flavors: mint chip and peanut butter. Nadeau and Gartenstein, however, are still modifying them. Within the next few months, the mint chip will feature a custom, honey-sweetened chocolate chip. “We want to look at our flavors all the time and make sure what we’re offering is what customers want,” Nadeau noted. For instance, the team is now adding chocolate to the new peanut butter flavor, something asked for by consumers. The co-founders are also aiming for a 2021 launch of a vegan salted caramel flavor sweetened with coconuts.
Since the pandemic hit, Frönen’s online sales have increased. Though their retail sales are also going up, the online base gives Nadeau and Gartenstein a chance to communicate directly with customers. “We actually get to interact with them a lot, which is very helpful for us,” said Nadeau. “We get to learn about who they are and what they’re looking for.” Because of this boom, the duo has had to iron out the kinks with online shipping. As a frozen product, Frönen needs dry ice, insulated containers, and expedited shipping. Delays could result in a melted order. Luckily, though, things have gone pretty well.
Right now, Gartenstein is part of Stacy’s Rise Project, a program created by Frito-Lay for women entrepreneurs. There, she works with mentors in the food industry and attends weekly sessions (virtually) to learn from experts in the business. “The biggest thing, too,” Gartenstein added, “is we get to have breakout sessions with other members of the cohort, so we actually get to know everybody in the program really well.
For the month of September, Frönen has partnered with the National Honey Board in its Honey Saves Hives program. The organization reached out to Frönen because it’s the only honey-sweetened ice cream brand. This month, Nadeau and Gartenstein will donate a portion of their sales to fund research on bee health.