Today: How Richard LaMotta made a fortune with ice cream, cookies and chocolate chips.
Born a butcher’s son in Brooklyn in 1942, Richard as a small child made a mess of himself and the kitchen table by dunking his cookies into his milk before eating them, but it didn’t stop him for the tiny guy loved his self made treat. And this habit continued all the way into adulthood.
As a grown up, Richard got married and he and his wife were blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. To support his family, he became a sound and video engineer for AT&T and then CBS
Richard dreamed he could do much more in the business world if only he had a better education. So while working full time during the day, he attended Brooklyn College at night and after 12 long years, he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics.
But Richard wanted more opportunity and continued his grueling schedule graduating from New York Law School. Yet ironically, he never became an attorney because in his heart, he was an entrepreneur, investing in and trying a variety of businesses, but none with much success.
Worse yet, between work and school, Richard lived too crazy a schedule and he and his first wife got divorced, causing their children to grow up in a broken home. Later he would marry again and have another daughter.
But for all of the sacrifices he had made and his family bore, as Richard got into his latter 30’s his entrepreneurial dreams seemed like they would never happen.
Then by chance, an old childhood passion reappeared. Joining with friends in opening a small ice cream shop in Englewood, NJ, he began getting droplets of ice cream and cookie crumbs all over his hands and chin and on his clothes, trying to create something unique to attract customers.
Richard experimented with this passion in the shop and in the basement of his father’s Brooklyn home and soon, chocolate chips were part of the mix. The intent was to create a luscious treat in which the ice cream stayed hard, the chips crunchy and the cookies firm and tasty.
Through trial and error, Richard created an ideal ice cream sandwich, one that became by far the biggest seller in the ice cream shop. It weighed 4 ½ ounces, of which 3 ½ ounces was a chunk of creamy vanilla ice cream, oozing with little chocolate chips. Everyone knew it was a great product but it lacked a catchy name.
After holding a contest in which the winner would receive a year’s supply of this unnamed product a young student came up with the winner. The name caught on immediately and as the popularity of the product grew, Richard and his partners as a bonus, paid for her college education.
What name did she think of? “Chipwich.”
Richard was convinced Chipwiches could take New York and then the nation by storm if only the public knew about it. But he didn’t have the money to market it, a problem most entrepreneurs face. But he refused to give up. So what did he do? “I approached everyone I knew with one hand grasping a cooler of Chipwiches and the other held out for money,” he later wrote.*
“It got to the point where, at my regular job, people started ducking into stairways when they saw me, but I managed to raise enough seed money to get to the next step. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.”
Now Richard had some money, so what was the next step? He had no idea. But one day it came to him while chewing on a “dirty water” hot dog he bought from a New York City street vendor.
Why not sell Chipwiches from street carts? It was a simple yet a clever idea. But for it to work was not so easy. It would require Chipwiches to be sold from sparkling clean carts each displaying the Chipwich name on charming, clearly visible umbrellas perched over the carts.
It would require recruiting and teaching vendors the fine points of the product, and to dress them in newly purchased clean uniforms and to encourage them to be friendly.
And there was one other thing. Chipwich would have to be an outstanding product made with the finest ingredients, so customers would come back time and again. But this was a real problem. It meant they would be more expensive by far than competitors’ cheaply made ice cream products.
Would the public pay a premium for a premium product? Or would this venture die from being too pricey? But Richard noticed Haagen Dazs commanded a premium for its quality products and got it and that’s what he chose to do.
On the fateful morning of May 1st 1982, 50 Chipwich carts were set up in the downtown streets of Manhattan. Richard was risking his and his investors’ money that this would work.
Did it work? Or did the company go broke? The answer came within a few hours, when all 25,000 Chipwiches had sold out, even at premium prices.
The profits were quickly reinvested in more carts and in ever escalating Chipwich production and by that summer, 200,000 a day were being sold. It was a huge winner and Richard went to major cities across the U.S. to place carts far and wide and sales mushroomed.
Soon the company that had not had the funds to run ads didn’t need them as television and radio and newspapers and magazines began telling the story of this remarkable little enterprise and the gutsy entrepreneur who founded it.
And this was just the beginning. Over the next 20 years Chipwich generously rewarded Richard and those who had the foresight to invest with him.
In 2002 after customers had bought more than a billion Chipwiches over the years, he sold the company to Coolbrands, the distributor of products such as Eskimo Pie, Breyers yogurt, Godiva, Snapple, Tropicana and Yoplait. The sale was for many millions of dollars.
Five years later, Coolbrands sold Chipwiches to the Dreyer’s subsidiary of Nestle, which phased it out because it competed with similar products they owned. But by that time, another Mt. Everest sized mountain of Chipwiches had been sold to customers who joyfully devoured them.
But this is where our story comes to an end. On May 11th of 2010, Richard died of a heart attack. He is survived by his second wife and by two daughters, a son and a granddaughter. He is also survived by a legion of entrepreneurs the world over, who he helped to inspire to believe in their dreams and to pursue them.
Success Tip of the Week:
If accomplishing your dream seems overwhelming, do as Richard did and take it one small step at a time. You don’t have to have all the answers. As you achieve one step, the answer to the next one will come to you.
*If you would like to read Richard in his own words, please see “An Entrepreneur’s Battle: Chipping Away at the Corporate Giants’ Stronghold,” written in 2003 and the source for the quotes used in this story.
In the next KazanToday:
A personal memory of Coach John Wooden.