Community leans in to help Detroit ice cream entrepreneur through COVID-19

Ice cream may not fix the problems Detroit residents face, but KaToya Scott will tell you it certainly helps. From the window of her mobile ice cream truck throughout the summer, the entrepreneur has witnessed the power of sharing a taste of normality in times of social, political, and public health-related upheaval.

“You are meeting on a common ground,” says Scott. “We are just people right now. You can’t put a price on that, even if it’s just for two minutes.”

Scott and her partner Jasmine Calvin started their business, Junk Food and Friends, in 2015 as a way to bring joy to neighborhood parties, and had no idea how powerful that could prove to be. It didn't exactly start out as ice cream though.

“My daughter was turning one, and I couldn't find anyone who could dress up and come as a character," says Scott. "So I ended up starting a business with character mascots, for parties, and school events."

Calvin’s father had owned ice cream trucks when she was growing up, so they combined that experience to fill the gap in the market that they saw. Scott believes they make an excellent team. 

“She’s the free spirit, always coming up with the next thing and I am a bit more about minding my p's and q's, but we both love what we do.”

It hasn’t been a smooth road for the businesswomen.

“There’s not a lot of women, and especially no women of color, in the ice cream truck industry here,” says Scott. “Being taken seriously was a challenge.”

Without a permanent location, the pair worked with vendors but struggled to find partners who they felt they could work with without prejudice, and Scott describes how they were essentially “kicked out” of the supply chain. They didn’t quit, though. 

“We had to find new vendors,” she says. “It made us better, it pushed us to grow and elevate.”

Scott hopes she and Calvin can set an example for young women considering running their own business. She's witnessed growth in the gender balance of Detroit's merchant landscape, but she laments that it's not happening faster.

"The diversity is coming but it's very slow," she says. "There’s a lot of little girls who see me working on the truck and ask 'can I work on the truck?' There are women coming up behind us." 

Indeed, Detroit has seen a rapid rise in women business owners lately, with a 2019 report ranking the city as the top metropolitan area in the U.S. for the growth rate of women-owned firms. Detroit saw an 88% increase in the past five years, well ahead of a national increase of 21%.

That growth is, at least in part, thanks to nonprofits providing business training programs and accessible funding to support minority entrepreneurs. In 2019, Scott completed a ProsperUs training program where she had honed her skills and received technical assistance to grow her business, and has received support from Build Institute.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has created some hurdles. Junk Food and Friends are usually active from April to November, and the government restrictions this year delayed the start to the season. After some heavy adjustments, they were able to start serving again in August. 

“We invested more money into our business to upgrade sinks and plumbing, and to have hot water on demand (140 F), and we added windows,” says Scott. “We invested to keep our customers safe, it’s about more than making money, these are our people, we are all in this together.” 

“We are in a unique position to understand our customers, we are born and raised in Detroit.” 

It didn’t stop the financial hit they inevitably faced. Scott estimates that they missed between $40,000 to $50,000 in sales alone this year, but she also points to some silver linings. They have developed an online ordering system, made use of QR codes, and have plans to develop a phone app. 

“We’ve been using this time to integrate these tools into the business,” she says. “Taking advantage of what works, we are all having to learn and adapt.”

The business has been boosted by the public support Scott and Calvin have received, especially from corporate clients (such as PepsiCo, the city of Eastpointe, and Detroit Public Schools Foundation), who have continued to book them for events. 

“The support the community has been showing us has been nothing short of amazing,” says Scott.

When the entrepreneurs launched a crowdfunded loan campaign, the speed that their goal was reached showed just how far that support goes. Scott posted the campaign for a Kiva Detroit loan, a platform that offers zero-interest loans, in May and within a week they had reached their $6,000 goal. 

The funds allowed the couple to complete construction work on their truck, but to the entrepreneurial pair it meant a lot more than financial support.

“I cried,” admits Scott. “You don’t think people care and here are people saying ‘hey, we see you.’ To say I am thankful is an understatement.”

Given the popularity of the truck when it finally started serving again though, that gratitude clearly goes both ways.

“It’s not slowing anyone down from getting ice cream,” says Scott. “I think it’s a little taste of freedom after being stuck in the house. It’s the little things.”

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at [email protected]