JUSTIN Dooley isn’t your average ice cream man.
For a start not many have had the clout of Goldman Sachs behind them, as the 31-year-old did via the investment giant’s 10,000 Small Businesses programme.
But then his produce isn’t exactly standard whippy cones. Since teaming up with his dad to co-found Caffe Cream in the Wirral resort of New Brighton in 2012, he’s immersed himself the Italian art of hand-making gelati.
Combining traditional methods with imaginative flair to create flavours like Jaffa cake and gingerbread has helped the parlour to numerous awards. A new factory, opened in February, will soon be churning out 20,000 scoops a day and Dooley is eyeing up export markets to deliver a taste of home to expatriates in Dubai and Singapore.
“I always wanted to run a factory,” says Dooley. “But we’re still not anywhere near where I’d like us to be.”
Top of his to-do list is hiring staff to scale up production. That’s no easy task when batch methods – “crucial to maintaining the product’s integrity” – restrict you to five-litres every 12 minutes.
“We are growing our production facility in a modular fashion… buying individual batch freezers. It’s all very incremental but we’ve got so much scope,” Dooley insists.
Before he can realise his vision of supplying upmarket retailers, exporting produce and expanding into wholesale tray-bakes, he faces the prospect of his first 7am production shift for eight months in the morning.
“I’m the delivery guy at the moment as well. It’s something I have to do as we grow but it’s good because I like to know the business.”
Dooley’s entrepreneurial journey began aged eight, when he set up a school newspaper “somewhat pretentiously called The Periodical” and sold it for 10p a copy. A decade later he was in publishing again, this time with a magazine for poets and creative writers, while he studied business at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).
When he returned home as a graduate, New Brighton was on the verge of a massive redevelopment. Dooley’s father, David, 57, had a catering background and the revitalised resort’s new Marine Point complex seemed the perfect location for a coffee shop.
Their joint venture, The Doo Group, aimed to differentiate their offering from giants like Starbucks and Costa by making “the best ice cream in the world”.
Having “absorbed ice cream culture” on repeated trips to source ingredients and equipment in Italy, they swung open the doors to Caffe Cream on January 28, 2012.
Financing the business was difficult to begin with, says Dooley. “We didn’t even have signage outside because it would have been so expensive to get the diamond drilling done.”
To stay profitable in the months when a bitter wind whipping off the Mersey deters all but the hardiest day trippers, they developed brunch and lunch menus, using locally sourced ingredients to build loyalty.
“It’s not a little seasonal outlet – we have 140 covers – but we were overwhelmed by the support.”
Interest from upmarket restaurants followed. A deal to supply the Liverpool-based London Carriage Works was fulfilled “by hook or by crook” but others had to be turned down. A few months later, Justin found himself facing Tesco buyers at the 2014 International Business Festival.
“The products of people who’d been in before had proper packaging with barcodes and EU-compliant labelling and I had a white box with some ice cream I’d just scooped from the freezer cabinet,” he says.
“They loved it but we just didn’t have the capacity to produce any more. We knew we needed to bring forward our expansion plans.”
A speculative bid to the Regional Growth Fund proved successful, helping them buy the factory with a view to creating 18 jobs over three years. The opening of a second parlour in nearby Birkenhead Park should create up to 30 more, alongside the 26 already in place at Marine Point.
So, what next?
Exporting has been on Dooley’s mind since meeting frozen logistics specialists and delegations from Dubai, Singapore and Mexico at last year’s International Business Festival, in Liverpool.
“My philosophy has been to look at markets with a large UK expat population and an indigenous population which would like the product. We’d like to take a quintessentially British flavour but give it a twist, like adding edible gold leaf to strawberries and cream to reflect the decadence of Dubai.”
Months of microbiological testing and shelf life validation would be required. Equally, Dooley can see the advantages of a satellite production centre.
“Ours is a gourmet product which is very sensitive (it must be stored at -23C and scooped at between -16.5 and -18C). We want it to be as fresh as possible. But it’s a big thing for me to be on the Wirral creating jobs.”
At home, the company’s vision is clear. Parts of the factory are earmarked for expanded ice cream production, an open-plan office and trendy staff breakout area. Stainless steel extractors are in place, ready for the pastry ovens.
Dooley’s sights are set on meeting prestige retailers at next June’s 2018 International Business Festival. “I know from experience I will be afforded the opportunity to meet buyers from companies I want to work with,” he says.
While Dooley focuses on growing the company, his father ensures the finances are sound. “He’s my best mate and I love working with him. He’s been through it all so he knows peaks are only temporary and the same when you’re at a low ebb.”
But where exactly does Goldman Sachs fit into The Doo Group story?
MMU, where he is a guest lecturer and mentor, nominated him for a four-month programme of expert lectures, one-to-one support, business coaching and networking.
“It’s made a huge difference. The soft EQ side benefits me most. I used to be fully head-down and hadn’t been paying enough attention to the people. The programme allowed me to realise I could be more myself at work.”
That personality showed through when Caffe Cream sparked a Facebook debate – and made national headlines – by declaring: “People are going CRAZY for our chips and ice cream”.
Whether that proves a contender for export remains to be seen.