You might not think of the sweet and squishy world of ice cream as a likely frontier of entrepreneurship, but Paul Ballen’s business refutes that stereotype emphatically.
Ballen (28) is the founder and inspiration behind Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream — a business that now has four stores of its own, and immense plans to coat the country in sticky goodness.
It sounds ambitious for a business that pretty much just sells beneficiated milk, even if the first variety dates back to ancient Greece in the 5th century BC. But it’s an increasingly sophisticated market, growing at 4.8% a year and expected to clock up sales of US$89bn by 2022, according to Mordor Intelligence.
What’s clear from a Financial Mail interview with Ballen is that it fits the classic mould of boy-makes-good-by-doing-what-he-loves story, with a modern twist of how-social-media-made-my-business.
He always had a passion for food. As a child he spent summers in New York, where his father, Roger Ballen, was from. There is a multitude of ice-cream brands and options in the US, which is probably why it is second only to New Zealand, with each American eating, on average, 20.8l of ice cream per year.
In contrast, SA was stuck in the dark ages until recently.
"Things are different now to 10 years ago when we couldn’t get a good pastry. I used to go to the US and wonder why the SA range was so abysmal. When I walked down any ice-cream aisle in SA there was only Ola, Nestlé and Country Fresh. I was trying to understand why there was this gap," he says.
The good news is the apparent trend towards customers buying ‘higher-priced artisanal ice-cream products’
Of course, he had no idea how to make ice cream. But he believed there was a science to it — so began trying to make ice cream in his parents’ kitchen.
As a millennial, Paul grew up with food programmes on television, so he soaked up the concepts of alternative cooking techniques, flavours and ingredients.
Soon, he began holding waffle and ice cream parties at his mom’s art studio. It went so well that, occasionally, random people just pitched up as well. "We sat in the garden. It was the beginning of the journey," he says.
So Ballen expanded his ambition. He began making ice cream in larger amounts, and then selling it at his favourite haunts, like the hipster café Wolves, in the swish suburb of Illovo, near Sandton.
Some weeks he’d sell 30l — no small sacrifice considering he was doing it all by hand— one litre at a time.
He’d promote it using Twitter and Instagram, putting up live feeds of him churning the product. People would either collect it from his parents’ home in Saxonwold or he’d deliver.
By this time, his mother had had enough of him invading her kitchen, so Ballen was banished to the garage. He spent nights there churning ice cream on trestle tables.
Then it got more "formal". When he turned 21 he got an ice-cream machine for a birthday present.
Still, it remained a part-time gig, as he was finishing his undergraduate degree in psychology and history, and then an honours in clinical psychology. After that, Ballen did a post-graduate diploma in management.
At 22, he felt he needed to either ramp-up the ice-cream making, or forget about it.
"I didn’t really want to go into the corporate world. [Quitting ice cream] would have made me very sad because I’d built a brand personality and to just let go of it seemed to be a huge sacrifice," he says.
Josh Amoils, a friend from university, joined him and, finally, in a decision that must have pleased his parents no end, Ballen moved the business into a building in Orange Grove.
This was a risk, but it proved a thumping success. Orders began to flood in, so they bought more machinery. More people were hired, and they began selling the ice cream at coffee stores, and specialist shops such as Thrupps.
"There we started to create an understanding and appreciation of the brand," he says.
In March, they opened a flagship store on the upmarket 4th Avenue high street in Parkhurst, a busy thoroughfare filled with restaurants and high-end boutiques.
And it’s no longer just ice cream. It now sells coffee, waffles, Banting ice-cream cakes and a smorgasbord of sweet temptations.
The flavours of ice cream are also now comparable with what you’d find in a New York gelateria.
This month, for example, they have an "orange, honey and cayenne pepper ice cream", which they claim "will also help you say bye-bye to the flu".
There are four vegan "caralicious" flavours, and others from chai tea, camomile honey, milk tart, a kosher range, and then the old faithfuls, like Madagascan vanilla.
(Globally, the International Ice Cream Association says vanilla is the most popular flavour, with 28%, followed by mint chocolate chip, and then cookies and cream).
But Ballen’s vast range attests to the ambition of his
team. As you’d expect, expanding overseas isn’t off the agenda either.
"We’re young guys, we have big ambitions ... We have international scope, we just have to keep our heads down for now and keep innovating," he says.
Globally, the ice-cream market is still dominated by the big names, with the largest being Unilever (22% of the market) which markets ice creams in SA under brands like Magnum, Cornetto, Carte D’Or and Ben & Jerry’s.
For the likes of Ballen, however, the good news is the apparent trend towards customers buying "higher-priced artisanal ice-cream products".
Though he never studied ice-cream making, Ballen says it’s one of the scientifically formulated foods out there.
"You can Google how to make ice cream or a cappuccino but there are secret techniques and special machines," he says.
"The mixing of all the different ingredients is not just mixing ... you look for depth and strength of flavour, and ‘meltability’ and how it feels in your mouth. Is it creamy and rich or fatty, is it icy ..."
Clearly, it’s something he thinks about a lot. Which is probably just as well: as his website says, ice cream isn’t just something you eat — it’s an art form.