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Mochi Madness

How Keith Robbins' passion - and personality - turned mochi ice cream into a hot commodity

Mochi Madness

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Get 'Em In, Get 'Em Out

When Robbins first came to Hawaii in 1976 to pursue a master’s degree in nutrition at the University of Hawaii, he originally wanted to open a gourmet dessert shop. “After I thought about it, I realized I would go out of business in no time,” he says. “People would probably end up sitting there for hours. I’d have to put a meter on every table.”

That’s when Robbins realized ice cream would be the perfect dessert to get customers in and quickly get them out. He went back to upstate New York, where he grew up, and asked his good friend Pat Mitchell — who owned the ice cream parlor at which Robbins ate almost every day as a kid — to teach him everything he knew about ice cream. For months, Robbins says he picked Mitchell’s brain and took notes diligently so that he could one day create his own line of products. While the thought of a nutritionist turned ice cream manufacturer might sound ironic, it makes perfect sense to Robbins. “I know everything that goes into my products, and I only use the best ingredients,” he says. “I wouldn’t exactly say it’s healthy, but it’s a lot better than most of the other things on the market.”

Prior to opening Bubbies, Robbins spent his free time mapping out just about every detail of the business, right down to the paint color on the walls. “Bubby means grandmother in Yiddish,” he says. “All of this stuff [in his store] — the deep, rich wood color, the reason we keep the temperature warm in here — is all psychological. It’s all to make you feel like it’s home.”

What’s not so homey about Bubbies is its quirky, seemingly provocative ice cream and dessert names. Robbins says creations like his Multiple Orgasm cake, Total Insanity ice cream or Bathtub-Toilet Sundae are nothing more than a reflection of his sometimes unusual sense of humor. “The names aren’t meant to offend anybody, they’re just fun,” he says. “And if you’re going to do anything, you have to do it differently.”

Diana Shaw, a consultant for the Small Business Development Center, agrees that it’s important for businesses to distinguish their products from the competition. But she cautions, depending on how a product is presented, it may also drive some customers away.

Diana Shaw, a consultant for the Small Business Development Center, agrees that it’s important for businesses to distinguish their products from the competition. But she cautions, depending on how a product is presented, it may also drive some customers away.

Robbins says folks either get his sense of humor or don’t. Stop by the store on a Friday or Saturday night; it appears that many people get it.

Ice Cream Meltdown

The day Bubbies’ 18,000-square-foot Halawa factory opened in 1996, Robbins was about $500,000 in debt and couldn’t get his equipment to work. “It seemed like there was no out,” he says. “If the building was any taller, I might have jumped off of it.” Perhaps he should have known better. For the first seven years of the business, Robbins spent all but three days out of the year — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — making and scooping ice cream, and entertaining customers with his zany jokes. He sometimes worked 16-hour shifts, taking 15-minute catnaps in between on a baker’s table in the store just so he could survive the day. “You can’t train for this type of work and exhaustion,” Robbins says.

Then, pointing to a little girl eating her ice cream in his University store, Robbins says, “But there is a reason I do this. We have an unbelievably loyal following. That’s probably why I kill myself doing what I’m doing.”

Then, pointing to a little girl eating her ice cream in his University store, Robbins says, “But there is a reason I do this. We have an unbelievably loyal following. That’s probably why I kill myself doing what I’m doing.”

Big City Diner is one of those loyal supporters. The restaurant has been serving Bubbies ice cream since the day its first location opened in Kaimuki 10 years ago. Owner and president Lane Muraoka says quality, service, price and the fact that Bubbies is a locally made product are the main reasons his five restaurants serve its vanilla bean and chocolate ice creams. “Keith is very passionate about his product and he won’t take any shortcuts. Our guests appreciate that,” he says.

When Robbins first started Bubbies, he had $50,000 in cash and a $40,000 equipment lease. After a break-even first year, the store was damaged by a fire that started in a neighboring restaurant and was forced to close for four months. “I remember going across the street, looking up, and asking, ‘Why? What did I do?’” Robbins says. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay my employees; I didn’t know if my customers would come back once we reopened. At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to rebuild.”

More than two decades later, Robbins has a different perspective of what happened. “As much as the fire was one of the worst days of my life, there have been a lot of positives that have come from it,” he says. One of those positives was the outpouring of public support. It made Robbins determined to work even harder.

In 1991, Bubbies began wholesaling its products. Robbins’ participation in trade shows soon exposed the company to mass-market Mainland and international customers. On one of his recent trips, Robbins, a native of New York, met the food and beverage manager for the New York Yankees, who expressed interest in carrying mochi ice cream emblazoned with the Yankees’ logo to be served in the team’s new stadium next year. He has also hooked up with vendors from Korea, France and across the United States. “Our ice cream is far superior to any of the ice creams being used by all of my competitors,” says Robbins. “And besides, we were the first anywhere to flavor the mochi itself.”

Robbins says even in a time of economic downturn, Bubbies has potential for growth — it’s just a matter of going out and finding the business. About seven years ago, he did just that. After participating in a trade show in Las Vegas, Robbins decided to take a chance and deliver leftover mochi ice cream samples to Nobu (restaurant), located in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Three weeks later, he got a call from one of the restaurant’s managers, and Nobu Las Vegas became one of Bubbies’ first Mainland customers. Eventually, Nobu’s New York and Honolulu restaurants also picked up Bubbies’ mochi ice cream.

Nobu Honolulu manager Wanloe Konyak says she likes the quality, consistency and reliability of Bubbies’ mochi ice cream. She adds the service they’ve received over the years has been excellent, which is why Nobu continues to order about 400 mochi ice creams each week. “Even when shipped to our Mainland locations, the mochi arrives fresh and in great condition,” Konyak says.

Bubbies sends 100 to 200 packages a week to Mainland customers via UPS. However, Robbins says his profit on mochi ice cream is very slim, so he hopes to increase wholesale volume to offset rising fuel costs.

While he declined to share Bubbies’ annual income, Robbins says sales have grown 20-fold since his first year in business. He is expecting 2008 revenues to increase, even though Bubbies doesn’t have any salespeople on its staff of 24. Customer loyalty is the reason Bubbies caters to locals rather than tourists. Robbins adds, “I like to tell people, ‘We don’t just sell ice cream; we sell happiness.’”

And perhaps a little bit of craziness, too.

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