Kona Ice has always leaned heavily on summer festivals for a large chunk of annual sales, but as the pandemic turned those events from actual to virtual, the largely mobile unit-based brand quickly adapted with a creative approach to business that may carry into the future.
The pandemic has taught businesses that when the going gets tough, the tough not only get going but get innovating. Such is the case for the Northern Kentucky-based shaved ice brand, Kona Ice.
With a business model based on mobile food trucks, as well as warm weather entertainment venues and outdoor events, Kona Ice CEO Tony Lamb said the brand was truly in a fix as the pandemic plunged into the U.S. in late winter, right as Kona typically kicks into high gear.
Instead of rolling back business, Kona got out in front of the problem, introducing a mobile delivery app allowing its ice trucks to operate even as events around the country were forced to go virtual.
The result today is that the 49-state, 1,900-unit (trucks, minis, kiosks and trailers) North American shaved ice brand is making it, and Lamb shared lessons he’s learned along with way.
Q: How much of Kona Ice’s business is done in the warmers months at either seasonal events or theme parks?
A:The majority of our business does take place in the summer. Our busiest months tend to be May and September, but business has grown dramatically in the spring and fall. In the recent years, winter months have started to become on par with summer months, largely as a result of the relationships we’ve built and nurtured with schools and other organizations through our fundraising efforts. A small percentage of our business operates at theme parks.
Q: How has business this year been affected thus far by the pandemic, especially related to all the cancellations, postponements and conversions of planned events to virtual formats?
A: With the majority of our business being event-based, our franchisees have had to work hard to recover from mandatory shutdowns in states that instituted stay-at-home orders earlier in the pandemic. The impact varies depending on the region, but now with many areas reopening, we are confident that we’ll be able to build up our momentum and return to safely serve events for the remainder of the summer. We have strong operating protocols in place, enhanced health and safety precautions, a variety of operational support and instruction for franchisees and a full-throttle marketing campaign. All of these tools keep us connected to our venue operators and end-customers.
“We had to pivot quickly and offer what we’re now calling ‘Kurbside Kona,’ where you can pre-order a delivery of Kona Ice right to your house … (via this) tech-driven door-to-door model.”
Q: So, what have you done to remedy the pandemic’s effects on Kona’s business and how is that working?
A: Since the start of the pandemic, it was clearly imperative to provide alternative revenue-generating opportunities for our trucks and their owners. … As a mobile business, we’re able to draw on multiple revenue streams.
We had to pivot quickly and offer what we’re now calling “Kurbside Kona, “where you can pre-order a delivery of Kona Ice right to your house. … (This) tech-driven door-to-door model … allowed us to recoup a good portion of lost revenues from canceled events.
At the same time, we worked closely with franchisees to ensure they were keeping in close contact with local organizations and venue operators to nurture those relationships and to let them know we’re there for them whatever they need, and whenever they need it.
I am proud of how we shifted successfully and provided our franchisees and their trucks a way to stay connected to their communities and businesses.
Q: How are your franchisees faring now and how is Kona, as a company, helping its franchisees deal with the many unanticipated challenges of this year?
A: Our franchisees have performed well, given the circumstances. With the relationships each and every franchise owner has established, it has made the switch to door-to-door much easier than if they were building the service from zero.
At the end of March, Kona Korporate quickly put together a team dedicated to helping franchisees navigate all of these waters.
“One of our franchisees was going to call off some of their deliveries because of heavy rain in the area and one of their customers told them, ‘Please don’t cancel. We have umbrellas.'”
Q: How has the brand adapted in states where things opened up, then pulled back after a spike in cases?
A: In every state, we have been in relationship-building mode, doing what we could to maintain relationships with the communities we serve while they were under lockdown. And, those same techniques are crucial as some states pause or rollback reopenings. Our franchisees spent hours re-working how to maintain business relationships and how to adjust for the months ahead, and that has worked in their favor as they adjust to changes made by local and state officials.
This is another way being a mobile business has allowed us to create revenue streams in multiple ways. In states that are re-instituting heightened restrictions, we already know how to leverage alternative tactics, such Kurbside Kona, our door-to-door model, and serving small group gatherings where people still want to have fun and cool off with a shaved ice in the hot weather.
Q: What are Kona operators doing to assure guests that the products they’re buying and how they purchase them don’t threaten their health?
A: Kona Ice operators are wearing gloves, masks and sanitizing themselves and the equipment in between orders. We’ve also recommended going cashless or have asked for exact change. From a sanitation perspective, we are exceeding all local, state and federal guidelines.
Q: Are your operators finding that customers are especially appreciative of Kona Ice now in this somewhat difficult environment and if so, how?
A: We are trying to provide families with a sense of normalcy during these strange times. A lot of people have been facing a light case of “quarantine grief” and Kona ice is the perfect antidote. We are filling families with joy and watching the children’s faces light up when the Kona Ice truck pulls up in front of their house is an amazing feeling for both the parents and for us. Recently, one of our franchisees was going to call off some of their deliveries because of heavy rain in the area and one of their customers told them, “Please don’t cancel. We have umbrellas.” We are here to give everyone a boost, especially during hard times.
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