The dean of ice cream
Dr. Bob Small invents 60 new flavors (and counting)
by Veronica Orozco
photography by Ryan Gann
What was once a young child’s dream has become a grown man’s success story. Dr. Robert Small, better known as “Dr. Bob,” opened his ice cream business in 1999 and since then has grown from a single store to one of the most recognized gourmet brands in Southern California. “I’ve been in business all my life. I started in restaurants mostly, and I felt like I was getting too old for that so I picked another business, a product that I really enjoyed: the ice cream business.”
His ice cream factory is tucked away deep within the Pomona Fairplex fairgrounds animal buildings. Signage on a barn-like structure advertises Dr. Bob’s HandCrafted Ice Creams. The public welcome mat is put out every September with the opening of the L.A. County Fair. For visitors, it is a looked forward to stop to sample unbelievably great ice cream. But to those in the know, this is where the magic happens all year.
While the business location is a bit unorthodox, it seems to work in favor of the type of business Dr. Small is running: making gourmet ice cream for select hotels, restaurants and grocery retailers. The ability to have an ice cream factory on the fairgrounds is all thanks to a couple of gold medal scoops. “About 12 years ago, when I was still based in Upland, there was an ice cream competition here at the Fair, and I submitted a number of ice creams, and they won all of the gold medals.” Because Dr. Bob’s ice cream swept the competition, it caught the attention of Fair leadership. A permanent ice cream factory seemed to be a good fit on the fairgrounds, and the Fairplex management proceeded to ask him, ”If we build it, will you come?” Dr. Small took the opportunity, selling his Upland ice cream shop and migrating to Pomona. The move helped him evolve his retail dream into a wholesale success, and changed his image of his perfect business. He now has the best of both worlds, selling retail in his storefront during the Fair and wholesale the rest of the year. Being based at the Fairplex, Dr. Small has taken part in not only selling his product there but also taking part in a “cow to cone” concept in which fair-goers can go watch a cow be milked in the nearby barns and then follow it to Dr. Bob’s and watch it become the tasty treat they all enjoy.
From ice cream parlor to ice cream factory
The building’s front room transforms into a full functioning ice cream parlor once a year when the Fair is in full swing during September, but for the other 11 months, it is used for storage. The front entry, so welcoming during the Fair, holds a barricade of boxes preventing passage. Nearby, a less barricaded door leads to the same room. At first glance, the room looks chaotic, with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling, but closer study shows that everything from cones and spoons to jugs of vanilla are strategically organized.
The office in the next room serves as operation headquarters and is equipped with two desks and two computers. The walls are lined with children’s appreciation drawings and certificates of awards and achievements won throughout the years. This is where orders are placed, calls are made, and tours are scheduled. The backroom holds the ice cream factory, the place where wonderfully kooky flavors and fascinatingly weird ideas come to life. At the far end of the room lies the filler, a rotating ring type machine that simultaneously picks up empty pint containers and fills them with “soft” ice cream. A worker puts the tops on the containers and places them on a conveyor belt to be frozen solid in the “tunnel.” This massive liquid nitrogen tunnel rolls out pints of ice cream ready to be stored or shipped. The employees work in perfect synchronicity, like an extension of the machine. Within this big room, metal shelves hold unexpected ingredients. Oreos sit next to the marshmallows, and pumpkin puree resides near the hot fudge and Nutella, all waiting to be mixed and matched into the perfect frozen treat.
The academic start
The story of this ice cream factory is not what one would expect. Dr. Small was a professor and dean (twice) of the Hospitality Management Program at Cal Poly, Pomona. When he started Dr. Bob’s HandCrafted Ice Creams, he had a very different vision. “We have a very weird niche that we have fallen into. Bob didn’t necessarily see this; this wasn’t the way he wanted to go. His vision was a bunch of retail shops, but then he found that he liked servicing hotels and restaurants rather than retails,” says Ruth Parkes, general manager, and former Cal Poly, Pomona student who has worked for Dr. Small since 2002. In Dr. Small’s case, change was not necessarily bad. He soon tossed away his retail dreams and embraced the reality that his idea of a good business was not as conventional as he once thought. “Things change, things evolve. My retail shop [in Upland] was in a very bad location, and to compensate I went into the wholesale business, which ended up being very successful. Now I have a facility where I manufacture a lot of ice cream for myself along with being able to co-pack and make other people’s ice cream.” Indeed, as added income, Dr. Small also makes and packs other brands of ice cream in his facility. “It’s just good business,” he says.
Dr. Bob’s ice cream is not only known in the local area, but also nationally, thanks to publicity from news outlets such as National Geographic Magazine, Sunset Magazine, The Los Angeles Times and most recently the Today Show. While through the years various major publications have featured him and his product, he says the most impressive part of it all is that he has gained this recognition purely through word of mouth. Dr. Small has no advertising anywhere and has never bought an ad to publicize his business. “We just have a great product,” he says, in regards to his popularity. He says he has never gone looking to be featured or contacted any news outlets to cover him; his success has grown to where it is due to satisfied customers.
Indeed, Dr. Small’s product exceeds all expectations and preconceived ideas one might have for ice cream. The words rich taste and creamy texture would not adequately describe the experience Dr. Bob’s creates. The strawberry ice cream tastes as if it were picked off the vine that very morning. Dr. Small takes pride in using only the best ingredients, and, after the first taste, one applauds him for doing that. There is no comparison to mass produced ice cream. A spoonful of Dr. Bob’s ice cream is soft, creamy and has a consistency that sticks together even as it melts. Dr. Small describes his ice cream as “a very rich, intensely flavored, not terribly sweet kind of ice cream using great ingredients and high butter fat.“
Though the Dr. Bob’s crew members promote crowd favorites such as Mint Chocolate Chip, Strawberry and Rocky Road, they also share some new unusual flavors to add diversity to the pallet: Strawberries with Sour Cream and Brown Sugar, Tahitian Vanilla, Scharffen Berger Really Dark Chocolate, Vanilla Peanut Butter Chunk and a holiday special, Eggnog Courvoisier. “As a kid, vanilla was always my favorite, but I have always been eclectic and like them all,” he says. “All means there are more than 60 different flavors to choose from when it comes to Dr. Bob’s ice cream, but hotels and restaurants often ask for their own specific concoctions. Some are odd but tasty, and flavors range from soy sauce to blue cheese. “Chefs often order specialty ice creams; we’ve had a couple different sorbets come through that are a little different. We’ve had a cucumber sorbet and a tomato sorbet; we’ve had a truffle ice cream come in, but once you kind of learn what they are up to and see that they are pairing it with their desserts, you understand them more,” says Parkes, who had one class with the professor prior to joining his staff after graduation.
The factory atmosphere is fun and friendly, and a big reason for that is because employees are not just employees but a part of the Dr. Bob’s family. Aside from a majority of them being related to each other, Dr. Small makes sure to treat all of his employees with respect and kindness. “They are all important to me; they are not my kids, but they are close to it. Many of them have been working with me for a long amount of time, and I treat them like I would want to be treated. Nice, sweet, kind and helpful and do what you can to make their lives better and successful.”
A sweet ending
Dr. Bob currently takes part in guiding tours through Europe for Cal Poly’s Collins College of Hospitality Management. While in the Continent, he not only enjoys teaching about wine, food and the arts but also keeps an eye out for new possibilities. “Wherever I go, if I’m in Paris I make sure to visit Berthillon [a French manufacturer of luxury ice cream and sorbet]. In Italy, naturally I eat a lot of gelato. Even though that’s not the focus of my trip, I’m always on the lookout for potential new flavors,” says Dr. Small. “In May, I’m going to Sicily, and there is a very famous pistachio called the Bronte Pistachio, and I will be going there to look at their pistachio because it’s the only truly green pistachio in the world.”
When the business was first starting, it was a very hands-on experience for Dr. Small, but as the business grew, so did the staff. He has been in the travel program for about four years and is often gone months at a time so when he leaves, he entrusts the business and responsibilities to Parkes. “I used to make all the ice cream personally, and now I only do a percentage when we are doing specialty flavors. I have a staff of 15 people now, and they are all skilled at what they do so I don’t do it personally anymore.”
Retail stores are not in Dr. Small’s future, but he is willing to license a store while advising that the person should know the area and their customers because there will be plenty of competition. “That is just something that I don’t want to do at this point in my life,” says Dr. Small. “Running a retail business is a young person’s dream.”
Dr. Small has served as a connoisseur, a dean, a business man, a lecturer, a professor, a guide and an entrepreneur but is looking to remain where he is. “I’m 66 years old; I’m not looking for anything else,” says Dr. Small. He has reached great heights. His visions have changed, but his hopes remain the same. “I hope Dr. Bob’s continues beyond me,” he says. Dr. Small hopes to find a successor “to take on Dr. Bob’s and see what they can do with it. I would like to see it have even more national recognition, but so far people in Southern California who know ice cream know Dr. Bob’s.”