Sisters building an empire on cookies and ice cream
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Gasant Abarder speaks to Crumbs & Cream owners Shahar Ben Artzi and Or Lahat about their recipe for success.
Cape Town - When it comes to sweets and desserts, I’m not easily impressed. I’m a savoury man. So when my kids forced me to stand in a queue for an ice cream sandwich in the middle of winter for 40 minutes, I thought this was just a fad.
The queues started at the end of March when the days got shorter and cooler in Cape Town... and they’ve never stopped. This is not a fad.
Five months later, the line of fans are still coming out of the front door of the bright Sea Point store and trailing to the pavement.
This is the story of Crumbs & Cream - a story that is so much more than the making of an ice cream sandwich.
My “salt-tooth” has since become a sweet tooth. With my first bite into that first Crumbs & Cream ice cream sandwich - French vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate brownie cookies - the long wait became a distant memory. After the last morsel, I was planning our return trip and dreaming of the next sandwich combo.
Crumbs & Cream is the brainchild of sisters Shahar Ben Artzi and Or Lahat. They’re a sister act that’s a recipe for success.
What’s in those sandwiches that make Capetonians stand in snaking queues?
Or, 27, explains: “We make them with lots of love. We don’t see it as making thousands of cookies... we operate like a boutique. Each cookie is important, it has to be 100 percent and we won’t take a cookie out to the counter if it’s not exactly as it needs to be.
“We are very strict about this and we try to give the best service and the best experience for all our customers.”
Shahar, 31, adds: “The philosophy behind Crumbs & Cream is that we take happiness very seriously. We always try to keep the product young with a cool atmosphere and music. There’s an emphasis on customer service and a strong presence on social media.”
The sister act from Israel sees their spouses playing supporting roles. Or and her husband, Nadav, visited Cape Town on holiday while they were dating. They fell in love with Cape Town and returned to live here as a married couple.
Shahar and her husband Alon decided to move to Cape Town from their home in Tel Aviv after visiting Or and Nadav.
Both sisters were successful in their respective fields before starting their own business. Or was self-employed while Shahar worked as a marketing guru at Subaru and Google, among other companies, back home.
Now they pour their collective skills into Crumbs & Cream.
Nadav looks after the legal and HR part of the business, while Alon brings extensive restaurant management experience.
And both husbands are happy for their spouses to take the lead.
Shahar says: “Both of us are mothers to babies and both of us are focused on our careers. It was important for us to fulfil ourselves in a professional way. But after we gave birth... even in 2016 it is very difficult in the world for women after you give birth.
“You want to work but you also want to be home and combine everything to succeed. We thought what next? Or and I talked and we thought about this concept we saw in the US and Australia and thought it would be a great idea to bring it here. But the name, the recipes, the ice-cream and the cookies are our execution.
“It’s very hard for men to deal with powerful women. It’s seen as unattractive - even in 2016.”
“But our husbands are 100 percent involved. Both of us are blessed to have such husbands. Each of us has our own qualities and roles in the business. It’s only the beginning.
“We want to see a lot of stores around the country.”
The sisters opened their doors as winter was approaching. Who eats ice cream in winter, you might ask? Everyone apparently (apart from me)!
But they’re surprised by just how well business has been. Soon after opening the Sea Point store they put a mobile sandwich truck at the V&A Waterfront that has been just as popular.
With summer fast approaching, the sisters are rather nervous about the demand. They’re planning longer trading hours and are confident they can open at least one more store before the high season.
Now they’re plotting franchises to give others who’ve always dreamt of having their own businesses a taste of success. It will be a turn-key opportunity where franchisees arrive and start trading with trained staff with the famous sandwiches at the ready.
Or says: “We opened at the end of March and I told Shahar we’re crazy. It was heading into winter and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. We never thought we were ready. But someone above was looking after us.
“We really thought we’d do badly in winter but that summer could come. We are very lucky to have Capetonians as our customers and we appreciate them. They are patient and wait and don’t complain. I think the experience we give them helps them forget the long wait.”
Shahar adds: “We always try to make the queue move faster. We want to maintain our high customer service and quality of the product and experience.”
Or says: “We always think that we should get people to try the ice cream because it’s a 40-minute queue. But we want you to have the best experience when you’ve finished standing in the queue. So it’s about finding the balance between the quickest service and the best service.”
Shahar says they’re innovating their products all the time to stay ahead: “We look at new products all the time. Each month we have a cookie of the month. We’ve had winter specials and at the weekend we’ll have a Women’s Month special.
“We even did a Pokemon Go cookie. We’ll be doing birthday cake cookies soon, but we’re waiting for a couple of boxes that it will fit in.
“For summer we’re excited and a little bit afraid. We’ll do our best to serve everyone and to make everyone satisfied and love our product. We really hope that by the summer we’ll have at least one more shop.”
It’s hard to be grumpy - even after the long wait - once you arrive at the counter and it’s your turn to build a sandwich. How can you not smile when you’re faced with a choice of Oreo, choc-chip or choc brownie cookies and an array of the most delicious ice cream flavours made exclusively for Crumbs & Cream by a chef.
Then there’s the toppings: Turkish delight, rainbow spinkles, Astros.
But it’s more than that. It’s the experience. The guys and girls behind the counter will infect you with their energy. They share the enthusiasm of the sisters about the brand.
Shahar says recruitment is a key element of the business model: “We don’t see our people as employees, we see them as our partners.
“We want them to care about the product, to care about success, to care about the client.
“We always tell them the client is always right and very important. It’s just ice cream but people can complain and form a negative impression of the business. So we’re always out there, we’re always nice and our employees do that in the best way they can.
“We’re so proud of them and we pick them very, very carefully. They need to be brand ambassadors - of the same character as our brand.”
But siblings working together for long hours each day, every day? Is it not a recipe for disaster?
Shahar laughs at the thought: “In the beginning it was hard!”
Or says: “We learnt to get to know each other and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know now not to fight but rather to complement each other.
“Yes, we fight sometimes and we don’t always agree, but I think that’s what brings us success. Each of us has a very strong opinion, each of us wants to succeed and each of us wants to have a say.
“That’s what leads us to success. At the end of the day, we eat dinner together and our babies take showers together.
“Our parents were very scared of us doing something like this together. Also we’re living outside our country. But our parents are proud of us. It’s something I want to take on for my baby.
“My mother always said: When you’re happy, I’m happy.’
“They’ll never pressure us to come back home and they give us our space.”
The success of Crumbs & Cream is part of the broader success of the revitalisation of Sea Point and its main road. A decade or so ago it was a tale of urban decay. You couldn’t walk a few metres before being offered a variety of hard drugs. The streets were often filthy.
A lot of credit is due to JP Smith, the City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.
Smit was the ward councillor then and behind the project to clean up the crime and grime.
Shahar says they couldn’t have asked for a better location: “We were about to register the business and a lot of people told us, Don’t do it, you’re crazy. Stores here open and close all the time. Don’t go there.’
“We come from Tel Aviv where everyone walks around and it’s vibrant. So we took the chance. I think Sea Point Main Road is happening. There are a lot of new cool stores and we’re happy about every new business that is going to our neighbours. We’re in a lively, beautiful street.”
I, for one, will be making regular visits to Sea Point, thanks to my newly-found sweet tooth. Here’s to many more Crumbs & Cream ice cream sandwiches!
* Gasant Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus.