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An opportunity with Kona Ice

In 2015, we brought the first Kona Entertainment Vehicle (KEV) to Canada.

A family business
In 2014, by which point my eldest sons were teenagers, I wanted to find a new family business we could run together, something they could be involved in during the summer. Breaking away from ice cream, we decided to develop a shaved ice stand.

The appeal of shaved ice was its simplicity. There is much less infrastructure required than for ice cream. With just a block of ice that gets finely shaved and then flavoured with syrup, it’s a low-risk food to serve, making it easier to satisfy the health department you’re doing everything safely.

We had already developed our own stand when I came across a franchising opportunity with Kona Ice. I had observed their operations in the U.S. from afar. They were very socially aware and had made a big push into fundraising events.

I knew I wanted to turn our shaved ice stand into a mobile business, but rather than reinvent the wheel, it made more sense to buy a truck from Kona and bring it to Canada. That way, I would benefit from the ease of operation, affordability and effectiveness of their established system.

My initial discussions were with a franchise sales broker, but then I wanted to speak directly with Tony Lamb, CEO of Kona Ice. He had developed the concept of an ‘open-kitchen’ shaved ice truck. You could see inside it and there were flavour tubes exposed on the side, so kids could come up, order a cup, then mix their own flavours using the do-it-yourself (DIY) spigots. The syrups had fun names like Lemon Lime-a-licious, Wild Watermelon, Tiger’s Blood, Orange Ya Happy?, Groovy Grape, Strawberry’d Treasure, Island Rush and Ninja Cherry.

Lamb launched the business in 2006 and rolled out the first Kona Entertainment Vehicles (KEVs) in 2007. They were bright and colourful, rode on shiny chrome wheels, were all decked out with tiki hut graphics and a penguin mascot and played tropical steel-drum calypso music through speakers. They were definitely a departure from the traditional ice cream truck.

Lamb began franchising the business in 2009. By the time I was speaking with him, they already had 700 franchises across the U.S. (there are now more than 800). They were rated very high on franchisee satisfaction, with royalties that were fixed and capped, so you didn’t have to pay more, no matter how successful you became.

Kona’s Flavorwave system allows kids to mix their own flavours.

Becoming franchisee and franchisor
Canada was not high on Kona Ice’s radar, so it took some time to go back and forth to finalize the terms of my agreement. Over time, we decided I would start out as a single-unit franchisee and then develop a master franchising agreement from there.

So, I signed on as a franchisee in 2015. One of my sons, Kelton, joined me for training in Florence, Ky. While I was well-accustomed to this type of business, the training focused on how to market the brand to prospective clients, including schools for fundraisers, and on the company culture of doing the right thing; it is not just about making a quick buck. Afterwards, we brought our KEV back to Chatham.

We were astounded by the success we achieved in our first year, given no one around here had heard of Kona before. We were going to the same types of public and corporate events I had experienced with Dickie Dee, but we were adding so much more excitement. By letting the kids flavour their own ice, Kona provides fun through interactivity, while at the same time supporting rapid sales from the operator’s perspective. In fact, you can serve up to 500 people in an hour!

For us, the franchise was an add-on business with a lot of growth potential. One event would lead to the next. We partnered with academic and athletic programs throughout Southwestern Ontario to organized Kona Days, which helped raise money for underfunded initiatives.

This is a big part of Kona’s business model. As a whole, the franchise system has given more than $30 million in donations to non-profit organizations over the past 10 years.

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