How Keith Robbins' passion - and personality - turned mochi ice cream into a hot commodity
“I never knew hell would be so cold!” shouts Keith Robbins, the perpetually animated owner of Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts. Robbins is retelling the story of how in late July the conveyor belt in his $300,000, 9-foot-by-21-foot tunnel freezer — which hardens nearly 30,000 fresh mochi ice cream morsels every day — broke down, slowing critical summertime production by 50 percent. What did Robbins do? He did what every small-business owner does: He dealt with it.
Robbins put on a hat, threw on a pair of sweat pants and hand-carried metal sheet pans lined with mochi ice cream into the minus 30-degree freezer — one pan at a time, 180 times in a single day. “Unfortunately, this stuff happens all the time,” says Robbins, laughing. “And when it does, you just have to roll up your sleeves and do whatever it takes to solve the problem.
“That’s one of the joys of being the boss.”
The secret to Bubbies’ 24-year success no doubt has a lot to do with Robbins’ hard work and well, his off-the-wall personality. Similar to many small businesses that are defined by the traits of their owners, Robbins has come to realize that he is in part responsible for both Bubbies’ success and shortcomings. “I created this whole monster,” he says. He might be the only one who can make it run. Three franchises have failed over the years. Aside from the original Coyne Street location, near the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which Robbins opened in 1985, the Koko Marina franchise is the only other Bubbies still open for business.
But Robbins’ commitment and creativity have helped boost the business to new levels of success. That’s why in 2006, when he was looking for a way to create buzz about his mochi ice cream, he boldly sent samples to the “Queen of Talk” herself, Oprah Winfrey. After weeks of back-and-forth communication with Oprah’s executives, his mochi ice cream appeared in the June 2006 issue of O Magazine on its popular O List. Robbins says Internet sales jumped $20,000 in that month alone, and he’s still reaping some of the word-of-mouth benefits.
Today, wholesale orders make up about 75 percent of the business. Gone are the days when Robbins loaded tubs of ice cream wrapped in insulated blankets into the back of his pickup truck and whizzed around town making deliveries. He now ships container-loads of mochi ice cream around the globe, from Canada to Singapore, with plans to expand to even more markets.
“Mochi ice cream is my bread and butter,” he says. “I can’t compete with other large companies selling ice cream, so I have to stick to what I do best — and that’s mochi.”
And perhaps a little bit of craziness, too.