How a Victoria-based entrepreneur broke into the competitive space of gourmet ice cream

How a Victoria-based entrepreneur broke into the competitive space of gourmet ice cream

Photo: Betterwith)

Originally published on Capital Daily .

Capital Daily business coverage is supported by Tiny but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Tiny had no editorial input into this story.

Two years ago, the questions rattled around Lori Joyce’s mind on long runs along the gravel path that encircles the lake next to her childhood home.

“Am I doing the right thing?” she asked herself. “How am I going to get through this?”

17 years earlier, Joyce and her best friend, Heather White, opened a cupcake-only bakery called Cupcakes in Vancouver. They franchised the business across Canada within a decade, and even starred in their own reality TV show, “The Cupcake Girls.”

Following the show, Joyce needed a break from the business, but that didn’t stop her entrepreneurial mind from churning. She quickly saw another opportunity while venturing out on a typical grocery run: ice cream. In the frozen food aisle, she noticed the ice cream she routinely bought was labelled as a “frozen dessert” rather than ice cream.

“This tastes like ice cream, it looks like ice cream, this feels ice cream, but why isn’t it called ice cream?” Joyce, founder and CEO of Betterwith Ice Cream, said to Capital Daily. The difference is more than semantics: in true late-capitalism form, what we think of as ice cream is often actually based on things like palm oil and other vegetable fats, not cream.

“As an entrepreneur, I saw this as an opportunity,” she said.

Coming off the success of Cupcakes, Joyce wanted to start an ice cream business that could solve all the things that limited her with the former business. Primarily, she wanted to scale ice cream—while maintaining an old-world style—faster than she grew her cupcake business.

Joyce wasn’t planning to open her own ice cream store, but set out to establish a Canadian-made brand that featured simple ingredients and what she learned in her upbringing on a Vancouver Island self-sustaining farm.

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After launching Betterwith in 2017, Joyce struggled to raise investment. While living in Vancouver, she decided to move back in with her parents, in her mid-40s, on a farm beside Elk/Beaver Lake in 2019. In that time, a 10-kilometre trail around the lake was what kept her moving forward—literally and figuratively.

She was competing in a space dominated by internationally known brands with nine-figure marketing budgets. She took up running—she never answered a question without clearing her head with a run—and pushed through the early bumps, believing that her recipe, her product, her vision for an all-natural, non-processed ice cream would resonate with consumers.

“This is what I’m meant to do,” she’d say. “Every single time, I would come back [from a run] and be like, ‘I’m going to kick ass.’”

Rocky road for an ice cream startup

Early on, Joyce relied heavily on co-manufacturers, including packers and distributors, to sell her business.

“I wanted to be the Canadian version of Häagen-Dazs,” she said. “We could make a spreadsheet of all the mistakes I made from that moment on.”

Even though her first grocery store customer was Whole Foods, individual consumers weren’t familiar with her new style of ice cream. And when they walk down the frozen food aisle, they’re not scanning for new products: they’re going for comfort and familiarity. New entrants have a hard time catching the eye of customers reaching for an old friend.

Already struggling to gain a foothold against established ice cream brands like Häagen-Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s, Joyce was also having manufacturing issues. She’d find out from her co-packer that nearly half of her ice cream was getting infected with coliform before being sold to grocery store distributors.

Betterwith promotional photo

“I had two batches back to back, 50% of the product was made with coliform, so it had to be all disposed and I still had to pay,” she said.

“For two years in a row, I had several flavours out of stock for very long periods of time.”

Still early in her business, Joyce didn’t have an official contract signed to hold the co-packer accountable. She feared that if she spoke up she’d kill the deal and hurt her business, potentially receiving no ice cream at all and having to start over. Eventually, however, she found a co-packer that treated her like a business partner and learned honesty is an essential tool in the entrepreneur and customer relationship.

“Because of who I am, I was super honest with my customers. They loved my product, they loved me, and were like, ‘Lori, we’ve got your back,’” she said. “Being honest and true to who you are is what saved those relationships.”

How COVID-19 helped Betterwith rebrand, sell, and gain a foothold in the ice cream market

When COVID-19 hit, Joyce was initially nervous for Betterwith. With the uncertainties of the early pandemic and its effects on supply chains and consumer patterns, she feared the pandemic would wipe out her entire operation.

What she didn’t expect, however, was the exact opposite.

As the first wave of lockdowns hit, Joyce said consumers started to clear grocery store shelves of the popular brands of ice cream—leaving Betterwith as the only frozen treat option available to purchase.

“That’s when customers noticed the product,” Joyce said. “These people were emailing me saying, ‘Oh my God, I just had your product and I’m so glad.’”

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In Victoria, Betterwith began to boom in a market with fierce ice cream competitors and a hungry frozen dessert population, and soon she was selling a variety of her six flavours in a mix of local and provincewide grocery outlets, including Fairway Market, Thrifty Foods, and RedBarn.

Canada is one of the top ice cream-loving countries in the world, ranking number six in a 2021 DailyView article outlining the countries who consume the most ice cream.

The ice cream trend is also popular in southern Vancouver Island. In 2016, two Victoria ice cream shops, Cold Comfort and Jackson’s Ice Cream, were named to a Buzzfeed list chronicling the best places to get ice cream across the country.

Taking advantage of the added awareness from the pandemic, Joyce decided to undergo a business revamp earlier this year from customer feedback.

Customers started telling her something about her product she hadn’t realized herself: “They started telling me how much less sugar I had in my ice cream.”

It was a selling feature she didn’t even know her product had, and she revamped her marketing to reflect it. Through instructional videos and side-by-side label comparisons, she was able to show how her ice cream had 19 to 50% less sugar than other premium brands and maintained the same flavour.

Joyce creates all the recipes and flavours herself, and will then pass it on to producers to create for distributors. Although she doesn’t want her customer to think of her ice cream as “healthy ice cream,” she’s most proud of offering a lower-sugar option that’s allowed individuals to rediscover their love of the frozen treat.

“I get so many people telling me because my product is so clean they can finally eat ice cream again,” Joyce said. “They haven’t had ice cream in 10, 15, 20 years, it’s not even me being a game changer—they use the language of my ice cream being a lifesaver.”

Joyce realized that being able to market her business around personal upbringings and ingredients you can buy yourself—butter fat, cane sugar, skim milk powder, egg yolks—could resonate with consumers and be used as an advantage.

Those abilities, she says, are crucial for prospective entrepreneurs.

“My strawberry ice cream tastes like crushed strawberries out of a garden,” Joyce said. “You can control the brand in the sense that the brand can have its own tone; otherwise your product becomes a commodity. I think the importance of a brand is that it makes that product not only have purpose but it turns it into something real.”

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Currently, Joyce employs five other employees with research, development, and sales backgrounds, and sells Betterwith in more than 200 stores across Western Canada.

Still, every morning, Joyce makes it a priority to get a cup of coffee with her father. A daughter of Croatian immigrants, her father always told her you can find time for those you care about.

That family bond, she says, has helped stabilize her through not only COVID-19, but the business’s ups and downs.

“I think it’s really amazing where you grew up on a farm with really simple principles, you create a product that’s inspired by that, and then people get to enjoy that product,” Joyce said, although she’s unsure how much longer she wants to live with her parents.

“That’s the fuel that keeps an entrepreneur going.”

That, and ice cream.

The Brief: Lori Joyce

Capital Daily: What does Victoria need to make it easier to run a business here?

Lori Joyce: Victoria’s really changed. I left Victoria [25 years ago] because it was really stagnant, super conservative, and the town of the ‘newly wed and nearly dead.’ So, when I moved back two years ago, I was so pleasantly surprised about how young it was.

It had really changed. It was far less conservative, had a lot more younger people, a lot more investment, and a lot more free market entrepreneurial thinking. So, as an entrepreneur, my answer would be entrepreneurial mindset and support for more entrepreneurial startups.

What worries you most about your business?

Not having enough capital to execute my vision, I think that’s every entrepreneur’s stress: making sure there’s enough oxygen to fuel what you’re doing.

What excites you the most about your business?

Customer feedback. I think it’s so exciting, and customers don’t realize how valuable it is to an entrepreneur when they take five minutes to send an email about their experience with the product. That, literally, can totally get an entrepreneur that is bootstrapping get through another day of building that brand

What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?

My Tuesday 6 am running partner is the co-founder of Level Ground Coffee. Stacey Toews and I hash it out Tuesday mornings when the sun is coming up and [we’re] like, ‘How did you get through the week?’ We start off our week with stuff that is positive, and the run is channeled to clear the mind and keep strong.

If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?

Well, my goal after I scale [Betterwith] and sell it—I mean I’m so happy here and hope to be here for the rest of my life—is to be a venture capitalist. Invest in other entrepreneurs that have amazing ideas, products, and support them, mentor them, coach them, and help them make their dreams come true.

If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?

Honestly, cryptocurrency.

How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?

Eating ice cream, running, breathing, mediation, and celebrating the little wins weekly.

What is the first thing you’ll do when we can all stop with pandemic protocol?

Travel. I want to take my parents back to Croatia and introduce my kids to Croatia.

What do you consider your biggest failure, and how did you overcome it?

Really? I have to narrow this down to one? [Laughs] It’s the truth, like the one last week or a year ago?

I think me being older in this business versus Cupcakes, the best thing I’ve overcome is understanding not being too close to something emotionally. So, if I have really critically important things to reply to, now I won’t reply right away. Therefore, not be emotionally charged or reactive, and it is better always to sit on something that is sensitive—even 24 hours before replying—and making sure that I had a good at-minimum 30-minute cardio workout.

My mind needs to be very clear, and I know how to push myself to get there before responding. Where, in the early days, because everything is at your fingertips, like you can get an email and respond really quickly. And just as quickly as you can respond, you can react. I learned that reacting is not smart business.

What do you wish you knew before starting Betterwith?‍_

I wish I knew how much it was going to take to generate awareness in the frozen aisle. That’s the hardest thing for me, that is the hardest thing I’m up against.

Originally published on Capital Daily .

Written by

Josh Kozelj

Capital Daily