Many new businesses these days are part of corporate chains. Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream was born right here in Columbia. Many businessmen these days are taking their work online, steering clear of the brick and mortar district. Scott Southwick, owner of Sparky’s, has done exactly the opposite. In short, Southwick is defying modern business trends — and it’s working.
Southwick brought homemade-style ice cream to downtown about seven months ago. After working on the Internet for 11 years, Southwick decided he wanted to start something a bit more tangible. Originally, he wanted to open a high-end art gallery, but his friends discouraged him. So he found another niche to fill.
“I’ve never seen a college town without an independent ice cream parlor,” Southwick said.
Sure, Columbia has lots of ice cream places, but Southwick opened up one that serves homemade ice cream and doesn’t use syrups or dyes.
When Southwick decided he wanted to do business in the real world — and not the Internet — he ran into a lot of firsts. When Southwick bought the storefront, it was his first experience with a brick and mortar business. But he still knew he wanted to open up Sparky’s near the intersection of Ninth Street and Broadway, even though he had to wait for a vacancy. Then Southwick faced his first construction project. Every inch of what had been an old baseball card store had to be refurbished so Sparky’s could meet safety codes to serve food.
Southwick is glad he did it all. A wide variety of customers come into Sparky’s because its location is accessible both from the MU campus and from the Broadway strip. Sparky’s could have opened up earlier on Eighth Street, but Southwick thought Ninth Street had a lot more foot traffic.
Sparky’s location might have a large part in drawing in customers, but Southwick also works to give his homemade ice cream a quality taste.
Sparky’s opened with simple flavors, such as strawberry, which Southwick makes from pints of marinated strawberries. Now, the flavors available change regularly. On any given day, customers have about 20 flavors to choose from.
“There’s very little bad ice cream in the world,” Southwick said.
With so many popular flavors, one of Southwick’s challenges is figuring out which flavors customers simply like and which ones they love. For example, no one said a word when Sparky’s stopped offering rocky road, Southwick said, but customers complain whenever peppermint chip isn’t available.
Southwick has to tinker with each recipe to get it right. Usually this means adding more flavor to each batch of ice cream until customers start to say it’s too sweet. But not every batch is a success.
“My kiwi ice cream was disgusting,” Southwick said. That was one batch that never made it out of the kitchen.
Most of the flavors turn out well, and Southwick said a lot of his ideas have come from customer suggestions. Now that he has had time to experiment with more flavors, Southwick has begun to receive fewer requests, but he still wants to start work soon on recipes for green tea and pistachio ice creams that customers have asked for.
When it first opened, Sparky’s promised Atkins-friendly ice cream. Since then, Southwick has discovered that when he makes ice cream with the sugar substitute Splenda, the batch is only good for about a day before it freezes rock solid.
Some customers were upset that the Atkins ice cream still hasn’t come out, but Southwick is considering buying special equipment to produce made-to-order pints for his dieting customers.
The decor at Sparky’s is about as colorful as the ice cream. The front of the building is painted a bright, electric green and the Sparky’s logo is displayed in an equally vibrant purple. The same colors are mirrored inside the store in chairs that were hand-painted for the store. Southwick said it was a challenge to find a spot between being colorful and excessive.
To top off the decor, Southwick has placed his own personal collection of crochet figures on display. He has been collecting the figures for about a decade and when he put them up, they were a hit. Southwick hopes to eventually find another exhibit to display so he can occasionally change the interior of the shop.
Several other ice cream parlors are opening up downtown. The Cold Stone Creamery is on Elm Street, and a Baskin Robbins is moving in across from Sparky’s. But Southwick said he isn’t worried about the competition. When he lived in Bloomington, Ind., three independent ice cream parlors were able to outsell a corporate Ben and Jerry’s location on the same block.
With the weather warming up, Southwick said he has been busier than ever. During the cold months, some customers suggested Sparky’s branch out and serve coffee or other products. But Southwick felt if he focused on ice cream, he could do better.
When Southwick decided to open up an ice cream parlor, it took him about four seconds to decide on the name.
His dog Sparky has made a perfect mascot for the store, and even though Sparky can’t come inside, he will spend an hour or two out front on warmer days, not only enjoying the weather, but also drawing in more customers.