How I Did It: Natasha Case, CEO of Coolhaus

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My big ‘light bulb’ moment occurred in a studio review in the undergraduate architecture department at UC Berkeley.

We were designing student housing, and my professor’s critique of my project was that it “looked like a layer cake” — as though that was a bad thing!

So of course, for the next round of reviews, I baked my model as a layer cake. And I’ll never forget the response: my peers paid much closer attention to my presentation because I’m sure they were thinking, “Do we get to eat the damn thing when she’s done talking?”

I’ll also bet if you interviewed my peers now (and this all took place about a decade ago), they’d remember that presentation tenfold over others, and they’d remember it because food was involved.

Also, it brought a ‘layer’ (I can’t resist the puns) of playful, lightheartedness to the studio. We stopped taking ourselves so seriously for a minute and just thought about eating cake.

And that’s the kind of thing food does: it brings the mortar to the bricks, the frosting to the layers. It binds us together and forges memories.

After that “ah ha” experience, I started to draw a path for myself. I set out on a journey. My mission was clear: I would explore architecture using food as the medium (and vice versa), and I would make people excited about my doing so and pay real attention because maybe, just maybe, they would get to eat if they did.

I started to call this mission, this manifesto: “Farchitecture = food + architecture.” At the time, I didn’t know what it was, or what it would look like, I just knew it was a thing that would strike a chord with people, do some good, and satisfy some appetites.

Fast forward a few years, I was completing my Masters of Architecture at UCLA, and I started to feel like the world needed “Farchitecture” more than ever.

I was about to graduate, and after 7 years of straight architecture training, the element that was most lacking, I thought, was the human connection.

We were spending our days hypothesizing about what people needed and wanted in spaces, but people weren’t “getting it.” Nobody was showing up to the architecture lectures besides architects; when I showed my friends our course syllabus materials, their reaction was, “huh?”

I knew this was troublesome on a philosophical but also economical level: architecture is a public profession and requires clients to pay for buildings, use spaces, and care about what we as architects are doing.

So, my mission evolved a bit: I would bring architecture to the people.

That was the principle Coolhaus (a triple entendre in the name itself) was founded upon: naming ice cream sandwiches after architectural legends, rising stars, and design movements to inspire people to talk about architecture, get them excited to learn more, making architecture fun and approachable, not intimidating and isolated.

It was risky, but with an amazing fellow female business partner (Freya Estreller) by my side, we knew that we had something truly original: a product with quality that would speak for itself, and a brand niche that would carve out an audience of its own.

With flavors like Mies Vanilla Rohe, Frank Behry, and Mintimalism, we thrust our product out there in the world thinking our architecture would be to ice cream what Rock ‘n Roll was to Ben & Jerry’s.

Once we had the product, we needed a “vehicle” to get our product out there. Analysis of what we could afford, along with what we thought was the most unique and versatile means of retailing the ice cream sandwiches, led us to purchase a beat up postal van that we converted to our first Coolhaus ice cream sandwich truck.

With the launch of Kogi BBQ truck in late 2008, Angelenos were super hungry for gourmet street food, so creating a gourmet dessert concept on wheels really hit a chord.

Everyone could relate to that gripping desire an ice cream truck creates. Putting a modern culinary and design spin on a concept that would strike a chord with any age group and any demographic meant we had a huge audience built in.

And we knew we had a winner. When we closed our eyes, we could picture the concept gracing magazines. We could picture excited customers. We could picture the pre-packaged sandwiches on grocery store shelves.

The most frightening part of our founding was that we didn’t spend years perfecting the product before we started to make our dreams a reality. We just did it.

We knew that the real trial for the product would be seeing the real life response to it; then we could fine tune and make changes to suit the reaction we were getting.

So, we started with something basic. It was a little imperfect but it was what we could afford. And through some cash flow and initial audience, we elevated it to what we have today.

A challenge for me has been running a business that employs people of generally the same age, if not older, than myself. I struggle with how to remain friendly, without necessarily being friends, or even how to ensure they understand I’m their boss and not their friend in particular situations.

I have had to learn how to define boundaries but remain in touch with staff. I had to create systems that take the subjectivity out of the staff person’s hands and their point of view towards their peers and the customers.

The hardest part is consistently battling my own doubts: why did I start my own business in the first place? Am I the best manager of people? Can I oversee operations, sales, marketing, PR, accounting, better than if I was being overseen?

Again, my answer lies in the slow and steady learning process; the reasons I became an entrepreneur continue to emerge and evolve with my business.

Nobody I know started a business because they really ‘got’ accounting, or were a superhero of managing people. They started a business because it was their calling; it’s just something they had to do.

Which is exactly what I remind myself: Coolhaus and running a business is in my DNA on some level.

Taking the success and challenges in stride, I’m continuing to learn almost more than I can fit in my brain as the days go on.

Today, we have 10 trucks nationally, one going on two stores, distribution at 500 markets in 25 states, a burgeoning e-commerce business, and a plethora of opportunities to make the world excited and hungry for our ice cream and architecture mission!

How I did it? I took my “ah ha” moment, cultivated it in school, created a truly unique niche that I knew we could dominate, found the best team to do it with, and gave it every ounce of energy and passion I could muster.

Now, stop reading and go eat an architecturally inspired ice cream sandwich…you’ll see what I mean.

About the Author

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Natasha Case founded Coolhaus in 2009 with Freya Estreller, while she was working in architecture at Walt Disney Imagineering. They launched their architecturally-inspired, gourmet ice cream sandwich company from their barely drive-able postal van at the Coachella Music Festival. The company has since grown significantly with 4 trucks and a storefront in LA (with a second coming this year), 2 trucks and one cart in NYC, 2 trucks in Austin, and one truck in Dallas, Texas. They are in 500 gourmet grocery stores in over 20 states and have also built a powerful social media allegiance including over 100,000 Twitter followers, combined. As the CEO of Coolhaus, Natasha continues the business development and merchandising for her brand as expansion and opportunities continue.

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