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Ask the Expert: How to Keep A Seasonal Business Profitable All Year Long

January 24, 2019
Running a business can be challenging, but there is no reason not to benefit from the thousands of people who have already taken the plunge. As part of our continuing Ask the Expert series, we spoke to our friendly neighbourhood ice cream shop owner, Marlene Haley of The Merry Dairy, about the importance of community, planning ahead, and the advantages to running a seasonal business.

Marlene Profile
Marlene discovered frozen custard and has never looked back. Starting with a truck seven years ago, and now running both truck and a storefront location, the founder/owner/operator of The Merry Dairy is now nestled in Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighbourhood, serving handmade original recipe frozen custard, premium ice cream (both dairy and vegan varieties), and handmade Merry Pops!

Solink: What kind of challenges do you face as a seasonal business owner?

Marlene: I actually really like operating a seasonal business! The hardest part, of course, is cash flow. With ice cream, you work like crazy in the summer. Your cash flow increases and you can pay all your bills but you know that from January until the weather turns nice in May, there’s not much coming in. There’s just enough to cover expenses and enough to pay wages. So you have to really plan, and you have to really know what all your expenses are, you can’t ignore the bookkeeping at all. You also have to make the decision of whether it’s worth it to stay open year-round. After our first year of low winter sales, we realized that we can make a lot of sales with carry-home tubs in the winter, so we focus on that when we’re not selling any ice cream cones.

The whole thing with small business is you just have to try something, anything, and you have no idea if it’s going to work.

Make reopening an event to maximize profits

To capitalize on an existing holiday, we opened on Ice Cream For Breakfast Day last year. We knew we needed to close up in January–it’s just so cold–but we opened at 8am on February 2nd and offered free coffee to people who were wearing pyjamas. It was amazing how many adults showed up in their PJs! We’ll have all breakfast-themed flavors like maple with bacon, oatmeal, grape nuts, and hot cocoa; and those are only available on that one day to get customers to come in and try those exclusive flavors.

Ice Cream Breakfast

S: What can you do to make the most of your seasonal business?

M: At The Merry Dairy, we’re always asking “What’s the next exciting thing on the calendar?” What flavors work with Halloween or Thanksgiving, for example? We have flavors that only run in the fall or Christmas, and they don’t come back again until next year. We sell cakes too, like for Valentine’s Day and Easter, and we’re always trying to think of new projects with ice cream.

In January, we can recharge, look at what worked well last year and what didn’t. Before we go on break at the end of December, we talk about what we want to do next year.

Bring your business to your customers

Catering is a big part of our business. We have the Merry Dairy truck and two carts so we can cater anything: weddings, corporate team building events, employee appreciation, birthdays, etc. Events happen all year round so there’s always opportunities to keep income coming in and to get the brand out there.

Take advantage of slow months to supercharge your business

In January, we can recharge: look at what worked well last year and what didn’t. Sometimes your business is just going, going, going and you never stop to evaluate how well you’re doing. Before we go on break at the end of December, we talk about what we want to do next year. The downtime also gives us time to clean everything really well and lets us do maintenance on all the machinery. To have that time to evaluate is really great.

Declutter Download Mockup
The off-season can be a great time to clean house! Download our backroom cleaning and organization guide made especially for restaurants.

S: What are the best ways to promote a seasonal business?

M: We started out as a truck without a storefront, so social media was the only way that people could find us. That evolved into social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram being the way we communicate what our business is, and the way we are connected to the community. I had no idea how much people loved Instagramming things! At the beginning, Twitter was most popular and people would share where the truck was located that day; but now Instagram and Facebook are our main means of communicating what’s going on in the shop and letting people know new flavors and new community events happening.

Seasonal Marketing Pints

Make community connections

What also really helps is looking for ways to connect with people in the community. We had been thinking how we could have a carry-home container and we discovered Steffi Acevedo Art, who does our pottery pints, through taking pottery lessons at the Hintonburg Pottery Shop.

Don’t be afraid to experiment!

The whole thing with small business is you just have to try it, and you have no idea if it’s going to work, but this pottery pints idea was just fun from beginning to end. There’s so many opportunities that we can’t do them all! Business-to-business is really fun; you motivate each other to succeed.

Taking risks can really pay off

From a single ice cream truck originally, to a shop open year-round, Marlene has made The Merry Dairy a cornerstone of her community in a very short time. Her last piece of advice? “If you’re gonna grow, you’ve got to try something new. If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice it would be this: There might be problems and you might make mistakes, but don’t be afraid when something goes wrong and breaks down. It doesn’t have to be the end of the road!”

Solink provides vital insights into daily business operations. Learn how to keep your business profitable all year long with Solink today!