By: Gabby Sealy and Pablo Romero
The idea of owning your own business and being a full-time student at the same time may seem like an impossible feat. While most people do not think this is doable, UMSL Alum Van Liu can prove otherwise. For the podcasting series “In your Business”, UMSL Business interviewed the owner of the Thai-styled ice cream shop known as Snow Factory, to talk about what started it all, and how it got to the place where it is now.
In case you are not familiar with Snow Factory, it is a Thai-style ice cream shop located on the Delmar Loop that specializes in rolled ice cream. This technique is basically that ice cream is made fresh right in front of you on an ice cold surface that freezes the ingredients until it’s ready to be rolled into a cup. Van Liu first came up with the idea while visiting Thailand, where he stopped at an ice cream shop that was notably different from the rest. A huge line attracted his attention and after waiting for roughly an hour in line, an idea sparked in his entrepreneurial mind. What if this concept was brought to the U.S.? Well, to his benefit, he saw a second rolled ice cream shop in New York, which indicated a new trend in the U.S. and an opening in the market. That is when he decided to bring it to St. Louis.
Although St. Louis has a variety of ice cream shops such as FroYo and Ted Drew’s, there was nothing in comparison to the flavors and style of rolled Thai ice cream. Snow Factory offers flavors that most St. Louis natives have never heard of, like, for instance, Avocado Rhapsody. Each flavor is different in its own way, but it wasn’t easy for Van Liu to find and create these recipes. As a matter of fact, after searching and asking similar shops around the United States and Thailand, Van Liu came up with a recipe that would work, and it came from one of his close friends in Atlanta. The result was a healthy ice cream, made with fresh milk, organic fresh fruit and starting at 230 calories.
Bringing a new concept to untested markets is not an easy matter. There are many things that have to be learned and tried and Van knows this. As a sole owner, Liu holds all responsibility and liability for the business. Starting it off by himself while being a full-time student at UMSL is a hard job, but he did the research, crunched the numbers, did his homework and finally got a loan to get the business started. After spending some time looking for the perfect location for over a year, he finally found it and closed the deal within a week. The smooth start hit some roadblocks after Van had to learn how to file documents, deal with landlords and solve day-to-day operating issues, such as, for example, broken ice cream machines. Solving all the problems by himself has been a learning experience which helped him gain confidence, and he credits receiving help from family who carried him through hardships and supported him emotionally and spiritually.
Business has been booming ever since. The cultural atmosphere in the loop has allowed Snow Factory to establish itself as one of the best culturally diverse treats among hipsters, college students, and the general Loop crowd that likes to try new things. Van says the best part of all of this is watching his business grow, and the moments shared with customers and employees. The growth has been pretty good and he is planning on expanding to over 10 locations nationwide before 2018. He has three under construction at the moment, two of them in the works and he is sure the rest will happen. He has even thought about expanding to Madrid, Spain.
It has not been an easy ride for Van, but it has been worth it. Being a full-time student and a business owner is a feat few achieve, but he is one of them. Now after graduation, he is planning on focusing on his business more. Hopefully, we will be seeing more Snow Factories around, and a trend starting in the US.
Listen to the interview with Van Liu here