It isn’t often that one goes from being a high-powered attorney working for the Obama Administration to becoming an ice cream shop owner. But that’s precisely what Victoria Lai did in 2013 shortly after winning a D.C. area ice cream contest — and she’s never looked back. NRF spoke with Lai, owner of Ice Cream Jubilee, about her entrepreneurial journey and being a Chinese American retailer in a challenging small business climate.
Why are so many people enamored with ice cream?
I think ice cream is one of the most special foods because every one of us has a happy memory of ice cream. People are always willing to volunteer their stories from childhood about ice cream.
My mom and dad worked hard to make sure my sister and I had a great life. Dad was a physician, and sometimes he’d come home late from work — sometimes even after dinner. So even if he didn’t have dinner with us, he’d call for us to come down for some ice cream. We’d all talk about our day — and I’d mash some cookies and fruits into our ice cream. It was something that brought us together. It was the foundation of our relationship.
You gave up a very successful career as an Obama Administration lawyer in the Department of Homeland Security to sell ice cream: Why?
Before starting Ice Cream Jubilee, I had a job that made the American Dream possible. I was counselor to the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. I was intellectually fulfilled, but I also wanted to create things with my hands and inspire people to partake in colors and flavors and memories.
I started making and selling ice cream on the side on weekends. I created a blog. What made me most confident to start my own business is that I love bringing people together. I love building my business family and involving the public in our happy little family.
Listen to the Ice Cream Jubilee episode on NRF's Retail Gets Real podcast.
How many stores do you have?
We have three locations in the D.C. area. We’re also sold in Whole Foods stores in seven states and available for delivery nationwide.
How does an entrepreneur know if starting a new business is worth the risk?
You have to know yourself well and be willing to take risks in anything — not just business. I was making ice cream and blogging about it and sharing it at farmers markets for several years before I made this my full-time job. I did the math to make sure I could pay the bills. I was fortunate to exceed those sales in the first year. Never mind that I forgot to include the costs of many items my first year as a business owner.
You have to love all aspects of being a business owner. You have to love your product. You have to love people. You have to take pride in creating a place others find welcoming and not fret when they don’t always treat it as well as you wish they would. It should be a source of excitement and an opportunity to improve — not a burden. If those challenges excite you then small business is right for you. But it’s not easy.
What’s been the toughest thing about running a small retail business?
For us, the pandemic was very challenging. My husband got sick with COVID-19, although he did not get very ill. Trying to take care of my family as well as my business family was stressful. We’re fortunate that ice cream is something that brings people comfort, so we were able to, fairly quickly, get back to selling ice cream and re-employing our staff.
How bad was the pandemic for you?
It was the ultimate challenge. Everything was crashing down. When an immediate family member is ill, it becomes top priority. And our employees were confused, too. I feel fortunate that I was able to lean on resources that the D.C. government provided us. They supported small businesses to return to retail operation. I knew we wouldn’t be shut down forever.
What did you tell your employees?
When the curfews and lockdowns were in place, we had to explain to staff to stay home for their own safety. We assured them that we’d create jobs for them to come back to. I have 35 employees and furloughed them for two weeks. We were able to re-open our D.C. stores within two weeks and sell ice cream by the pint because we were a food service business. We were able to serve customers without much physical contact.
Were employees hesitant to return to work so soon?
We paid our employees bonuses to approximate what they had lost while on furlough. I was mostly concerned about the staff’s ability to stay safe and return to work when they were ready, so we went into our reserves. We did this because we know our staff was going out on a limb to support us and come to work when they didn’t have to.
Was there also federal assistance?
I was able to apply for government money. This is where my office work background came in handy. Now, I’m appealing for municipalities to continue to keep budgets for the recovery of restaurants and retail establishments for the next few years. Although I received the funding I needed, a lot of my peers have not received the funding and have not been able to return to full operation.
Have you or your business felt any impact of anti-Asian bias?
As a Chinese American woman, I have never shied away from being a business owner who is both a minority and a woman. I feel it’s important to stand behind ideals that make our country and our neighborhoods better places to live and learn.
We raised funds for Stop Asian Hate. Supporting causes like Stop Asian Hate doesn’t have to be dependent on whether or not you’ve experienced racism or hate. It’s the right thing to do. That’s also why I celebrate events around Pride and Black Lives Matter at my store.
As a business owner, I believe that inclusion is important to what makes America strong. That includes the inclusion of all races and sexual orientations.
Hear more small business success stories and how these retailers keep customers engaged with their brand.
As a small retailer, how do you prepare for the next big surprise?
One thing I’ve learned through all of these challenges is that treating your staff with the utmost respect is important. People are important. So is an appreciation for customers. Treating people right will always help you go the distance.
Do you have any tips for small retailers who are also mothers of young children?
Enjoy all the chaos and the joyful moments it brings. We’ve had a heatwave in July and our ice cream stores are beyond busy. Long lines. Noisy stores. If you don’t see the joy in that busyness, you need to find a new way to move forward.
Some days the air conditioning won’t work. Some days the trash will pile up. At the same time, as a parent of young kids, there will always be chaos and toys all over the floor. The joy I get from seeing them learn and grow and laugh aids my attempts to move beyond the day-to-day chaos.
How important has your use of social media been to Ice Cream Jubilee?
It’s so important. I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love that I can connect with customers on my phone. It helps me to keep the pulse of my customers. I focus on Instagram though people say I need to get on TikTok. But my time is limited.
What are your growth plans?
We are planning to expand. We regularly have people sending cold emails asking us to consider opening in a new location. I love bringing ice cream stores into a neighborhood where landlords and developers can create balance for residents as opposed to trying to fill spaces to the highest bidders. I believe that creating well-rounded destinations with things like ice cream stores and hardware stores adds value to people’s lives. I hope to not only add retail stores but to expand our nationwide shipping and expand our grocery availability.