Being a woman entrepreneur is tough. Being a minority woman from a foreign country and establishing a business here is even harder. But that is Funn, the owner of Secret Scoop (Thai Gelato), the gelato shop that offers, sticky rice thai gelato, Thai iced tea, and Thai iced coffee, which you may have seen on your social media channels. If you’re curious about how the store came about, or how to make artisan gelato from scratch, read on.
The Story of Funn and Thai Gelato
Funn graduated from UC Berkeley’s Master of Urban Design Program in December 2009. That was just as the recession was at its peak and the job market had few openings. So it was in between sending out resumes and interviewing for jobs that Funn’s hobby of making gelato in the kitchen really took off. With the extra time, she perfected the flavor and texture of her products, and even did some design work for her gelato side project.
Making gelato was quite an unstructured process in the beginning. Funn would go online and purchase various natural extracts and ingredients and combine them with Thai spices and herbs depending on how she was feeling or craving that day. For example, Funn liked the pandan-flavored ice cream she had tried at another gelato shop so she experimented with pumpkin pandan, which was well received by some of her customers shortly after opening the shop in Berkeley last month. Despite drawing inspiration from other flavors she has tasted in both the East and the West over the years, Funn has never thought of herself as a competitor to any Italian gelaterias in the East Bay. As she puts it, ”I’m not competing with pistachio, hazelnut, mascarpone or other traditional Italian gelato flavors. I like those flavors but I’ll never make them because I didn’t grow up with them.”
At the end of the day, Funn just wants to bring the tastes of her home country and the experience of how Thai children enjoy their ice cream with sweet and savory sticky rice to America. And in doing this she wants to create another happy place in the SF Bay Area!
From Pop-Up Store to Brick-and-Mortar
Slowly but surely, Funn’s hobby grew into a veritable gelato business. What first started as small gatherings in the kitchen with friends taste testing Funn’s gelato experiments later became pop-up stands at street food festivals and craft fairs, and recently became an actual brick & mortar shop in downtown Berkeley.
The first external facing opportunity Funn had was at the Cortland Marketplace, an incubator for small food businesses to work side-by-side one another other in promoting their food products in a local community. That gave Funn the chance to collect feedback from real customers (not just friends) and to learn the operations of running an actual food shop, albeit a temporary one. From there, she applied for opportunities through La Cocina, which took her to the Airbnb block party, San Francisco Street Food Festival, Renegade Craft Fair, and many more.
Time and time again, customers would ask Funn where her shop was located. That was what sparked her idea that if she doesn’t do it now, she won’t ever do it. So she did it. She opened a shop.
Lessons Funn Learned
You cannot do it alone. Prior to opening the shop, Funn did all of the gelato production herself. But soon after the shop opened she learned that she needed to hire staff to help make the gelato, Thai iced tea and coffee, and sticky rice. Funn really came to this realization when she received an order to supply sticky rice and gelato for a 300 person party at Pixar. As it was only 3 weeks into the opening of her business, she didn’t have inventory for the amount Pixar needed. Therefore, she stayed in the kitchen until 2:00AM churning out gelato for that event. It takes a village to raise a child, and Secret Scoop is no exception. Funn now has staff dedicated to making gelato and sticky rice, but she is still the one that controls the flavors and consistency.
Behind-the-scenes of making homemade gelato by pasteurizing her own gelato base.
There are bad days and there are good days. Focus on the good ones. Whether it’s at festivals or in the store, the weather can play a huge factor in her business, for obvious reason. For example, during the two-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Music Festival, one of the days was hot, which helped Funn and team sell all of their gelato quickly. But the second day was drizzly and cloudy, so as expected, sales were much slower. However, Funn’s optimistic attitude helps the situation and she takes every opportunity as a learning experience. Even with the shop, she says she needs to go through a full year to understand the cyclical nature and seasonality of her sales and determine how to adjust her production and her hours of operation.
Specialize, don’t generalize. Funn started off being ambitious and tried to make as many flavors as her customers requested. She began by taking customized orders but producing small volumes to order was resource intensive and resulted in production inefficiency. Filling custom orders eventually caught up with Funn and she realized it was unsustainable. She recalled an Asian idiom that said, “You can become successful from selling one item on your menu, but if you make-to-order too many products you will die before you ever see success.”
From this experience, Funn decided to revise her game plan. She started pushing her best selling flavors from past events: chocolate lemongrass, salted tamarind sorbet, roasted coconut, and thai ice tea. This approach proved to be a good one as those became her signature flavors that helped brand her gelato shop. Currently, she has an eight-tray gelato case, which contains those four core flavors plus four additional flavors that rotate periodically.
Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you visit the shop, there is this indescribable happiness that consumes the store. I think it’s derived from Funn’s kind attitude toward customers and employees. Funn’s philosophy comes from that fact that she has had “a lot of managers in the past and learned what kind of leader I want to be. At Secret Scoop we don’t use a boss system. This is a happy place where everyone can comfortably share their thoughts and contribute their talents.”