PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How Creative Experimentation Builds A Successful Brand
Piers Fawkes interviewed chef Nicholas Morgenstern, who's speaking at our PSFK 2017 conference, on his love for ice cream, some challenges, and the secret to his success
It is difficult to build a brand that stands out in an industry as saturated as the ice cream industry. Somehow, Nicholas Morgenstern successfully managed to accomplish this all within a few years. Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream is a favorite for tourists and native New Yorkers alike. An ice cream parlor dedicated to creating the perfect texture and flavor for each flavor, its popularity means there is always a door out the window.
Nicholas has taken upon himself to create each recipe of available flavors, with an emphasis that each individual flavor be made in small batches to ensure quality. Additionally, none of the ingredients are filled with additives or overly processed. This dedication has shifted the way people eat and think about ice cream to a more contemporary manner. His approach to his business and personality has led to his success. We had a chance to understand his perspective on business and how he plans to scale up his successful venture while maintaining a passionate startup mentality.
We are excited to host Nicholas Morgernstern at the PSFK 2017 conference on May 19, who is also known for his passion to good food and business.
Piers: What’s was your mindset when you went into this industry?
Nicholas Morgenstern: Just do it, because you cannot be afraid of messing it up. That fear of messing it up is going to keep you from greatness. You need to fall down and fail a lot. There needs to be things like, “That’s not working,” or, “That didn’t work.”
Piers Fawkes: Can you share a little bit about the process of creating Morgernstern’s?
Nicholas: Before Morgenstern’s opened on Rivington Street, I probably looked at 40 locations over the course of five years. It was this incredibly challenging thing for me emotionally. As a person, I was upset because this vision was in me and so much of my identity and my ego was attached to it. People kept saying no for some reason.
Piers: Customers seem to love the design of Morgenstern’s Ice Cream Parlor. They share the photographs and pictures of them enjoying ice cream on Instagram and other social channels. Why do you think this came to be?
Nicholas: That space to me is special. I never enter into the store wishing we did something else. In my business of selling ice cream, there needs to be a feeling that it’s clean and organized– to a degree these two things need to be the driver, versus in a café or a restaurant where things can be a little wacky. I still look at all my projects as constant design building.
We don’t have it all designed, and then built. It’s design, build, design, build, design, build. You’re doing the two things, one on top of the other, because the build is informing the design, and the design obviously is then communicating back as you build.
Morgernstern’s space is actually quite small and we couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Layout-wise, it was going to be much different but the architect was flexible enough along the way to continue to find a way to fit everything in. The customers see the store and it’s totally unique and part of the experience. It speaks to the concept of a more contemporary ice cream parlor.
Piers: What drives you? Why do you think people are attracted to your brand?
Nicholas: I’m not afraid to work hard and go back to the mission statement, which is to make the best product in America. We constantly need to change our process to make it great, and it’s a big pain in the butt for everybody. What also drives me is if you look at the financial metric of Morgenstern’s in regards to what we started with relative to where we are, the brand is batting above its weight.
Piers: With the popularity of the Morgenstern’s brand, how does the company still remain a startup environment?
Nicholas: The reason I’m learning more and people want to talk to me is because I am the person who creates and writes these menu items that are interesting, innovative, and compelling, hopefully, to the audience. We have to play to the audience.
I’m also the person who runs and manages the business. I deal with everything related to accounting, finances, and the forecasting– all that is on me. I’m connected to everything. It’s overwhelming a lot of the time but it gives me the capability and the ability to think about anything related to the store.
Piers: How have you tapped into the creativity and business minds of other New York City based chefs, including Mario Batali?
Nicholas: When it comes to Mario, I wouldn’t call him a thought partner even though he and I talk about food and flavors in the market. He’s very interested in the way that I’m looking at trends and how things are moving. I’m very interested in how he keeps things very grounded.
We talk about historically interesting flavors that meet somewhere and combinations that might work, like the lemon shiso espresso flavor that we do. He adds a layer to our business and that’s why we decided to go in the business with him.
Piers: What values are going to help the brand grow in the future?
Nicholas: Presumably this year we’ll open three more stores. One will be another El Rey, which will be different than the one that we have downtown. There’s a whole host of challenges there around what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to behave, and all that.
Then we’ll move Morgenstern’s to another location so it’ll be much larger. Specifically, our menu scope will increase almost by 100 percent. We have 50 flavors and we have 25 toppings right now. There’ll be another 20 or 30 flavors on top of what we have, and a lot of other things will be happening in the space. Then we’re going to roll out a new concept that hasn’t been done before.
When you’re flexible, then you can do more things. You evolve and adapt, and the best ideas, you didn’t know those ideas. They come from having to figure it out. For example, I did the whole design for Morgenstern’s. The space was difficult and we had no time or a budget. You have these constraints but then it forces you to be creative with the space.
Piers: What are your secrets for success?
Nicholas: Our success stands on the fact that we make the best ice cream in the United States of America. I can have other things happening, but if you eat my product, it’s the best.
Thanks for sharing your thought process, Nicholas! Come see Nicholas take the stage to talk about the future of food at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!
Nicholas Morgenstern is a self-made restaurateur, with extensive pastry experience in some of New York’s finest establishments. In 2014, Nicholas opened Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream. “Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream is my chance to express my love of the quintessential American indulgence. I have been dreaming of these flavors, this style, and this place for years.”