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Inspiring Conversations with Phillip Ly of Swirlz Creamery

Today we’d like to introduce you to Phillip Ly.

Hi Phillip, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
In 2017, I started making ice cream from my garage during my last semester in college. Had zero culinary training and didn’t really think I’d be good at it until people were telling me I had an opportunity to make something special happen once they tried the ice cream I made.

Back then, I would stay up till 4-5am figuring out the recipe. I bought books, went on YouTube, Reddit–pretty much anything I can get my hands on or access to–and studied for hours and hours on ice cream making.

Every recipe and technique that was available to me, I wanted to know how and why the cook/chef decided to implement these ingredients with these techniques. From those lessons, I was able to make my own recipe. I created eight different versions–rather, I found eight ways how not to make ice cream–before getting to my 9th version and that one became the winning recipe.

After getting the recipe down, now it was time to find a location, and that wasn’t easy either. I kid you not, I had countless of rejections and no responses from brokers and landlords.

And understandably so a kid coming straight out of college with no real restaurant management experience nor the proven financials to make this concept of his work isn’t the most convincing applicant for a retail space. However, I was able to find a landlord that was willing to give me that opportunity in April 2018 and we opened doors in July 2018.

Fast forward to today, we became ranked on Yelp’s 2019 Top 100 Ice Cream Shops in the US, designated as one of the best dessert shops by the City of San Gabriel’s 2020 Best Cuisine Food Guide, and recognized as the best frozen dessert shop for California in Yelp’s 2020 The Best Frozen Treat in Every State.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Far from it! I was 22 years old when I started Swirlz and although I majored in Global Business in college, it didn’t really translate well into what I was going to be doing. There were a lot of things I needed to learn on my own. Lots of it was personal development and from lessons of humility.

Luckily, I found mentors along the way that shortened that learning curve and tremendously reduced the time it would of taken to learn everything if I were on my own.

There’s so much more to running a food business than just being a good cook. Or in my case, a good ice cream maker. For example, not only do you need to make sure your food is exceptional, but building a great culture, brand, team, leadership, and knowing your financials are all key components if you want to survive in the hospitality industry.

When I first started, I did not know any of things that I listed above. I just thought about making great ice cream and that was all I needed. That was until my mentor hit me with the cold hard truth. He said, “Phil, you’re a great ice cream maker but a crappy businessman.”

I knew then that I needed to change a lot of the bad habits I instilled at Swirlz. The culture at my business was toxic, and I needed to take a good look in the mirror and realize I was the one responsible for it. It was so bad that I could see the bad habits being reflected in the way my then team would behave and their mindset.

Employee turnover was through the roof, net profits were negative–the only thing we had going for us was our positive guest experience. Other than that, there was a lot of work to do, and I mean a LOT of work before things started to turn around for us.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
We specialize in making people happy, one cup of ice cream at a time. That’s our mission statement!

A lot of ice cream shops in CA actually do not make their own ice cream bases due to the extra licensing and inspections from the state. Thus, a lot of artisanal ice cream shops here buy their bases premade.

When I was envisioning the brand and how I wanted my guests to view our ice cream, I wanted them to know that we make everything from scratch. From start to finish. So, I went ahead and got the extra licenses and went through all the inspections so we can make all of our ice cream in our own kitchen. We will never buy our ice cream bases from anyone. Period.

We make small batches of ice cream bases as well. The reason for this is so that we can control the quality and texture of our ice cream. Ice cream is almost like soup in the sense where the flavor gets better on the second day. However, if you leave the base in the fridge for too long, your ice cream’s flavor will start to get muted and dulled.

Thus, we only make enough to last us for a certain period of time. Does that mean lots of pots and utensils need to be washed constantly? Heck yeah. However, the reason for that is so that whenever you order a cup of ice cream from Swirlz Creamery, you know the ice cream base wasn’t sitting there for very long.

We make all of our ice cream to the order and right in front of our guests as well. It’s sort of like our own show in a way. We get to perform and create memories for our guests, and they get to watch their ice cream being made right in front of them. It’s quite magical, really. In a few minutes, we’ll take your ice cream from a liquid form into solid, dense yet chewy ice cream rolls that are packed with flavor.

It’s the freshest possible ice cream we believe we can make for all of our guests.

If you had to, what characteristic of yours would you give the most credit to?
Perseverance. It’s one of the five core values we have here at Swirlz Creamery.

When COVID hit the hospitality industry, it hit us like a freight train. I remember that day when the stay at home order was put in effect. I’ll be honest; I didn’t know what to do. My team was looking at me for direction, and I couldn’t really say anything to them at first. All I can really say at that moment was how we’re going to be ok, and that we’ll find a way to get through this but for now, we’ll be temporarily closing.

We only closed from March to May 2020, so it was only two months and it wasn’t that bad. However, it felt like I was getting the wind knocked right out of me the day I had to tell everyone we’re temporarily closing. It took me a few days to get over it and accept reality for what it was. I think as soon as that happened, it gave me clarity to start planning our re-opening, having processes in place to keep everyone safe and healthy and such.

The whole pandemic gave me time to really take apart the business piece by piece. We had a lot of time on our hands, so I used that time to improve our process, menu and develop our team and our culture. This was during the beginning stages of our reopening back in May 2020.

By Fall, I was getting burnt out. Sales weren’t coming in. The majority of people were still scared to come out. You know, ice cream, cold weather, and a global pandemic isn’t necessarily a great combination when you’re trying to build a business.

I felt like everything I was doing wasn’t making as big of an impact that I initially thought it would. I seriously considered throwing in the towel. I thought to myself how I’m still 24-25 years old and I have a long runway in my career if I wanted to switch trajectory and do something else. But that idea didn’t sit right with me. I thought to myself, “Phil, you can quit any other day. Why quit today?” My mentors and support group played a huge role of getting me out of that slump.

There’s been a lot of instances where doubt and fear creeped in; the pandemic was one of heaviest examples of that from my experience. However, when I think back to everything and think if I did walk away from everything at the moment where fear and doubt came in, there wouldn’t be a Swirlz Creamery today.

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All images are property of Swirlz Creamery, Inc.

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