While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of Vancouver’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Ben Ernst and Erica Bernardi are first and foremost best friends. They are also business partners — the duo behind the wildly popular Earnest Ice Cream chainlet largely responsible for Vancouver’s artisan ice cream explosion. We recently caught up with the pair to get the recipe for their long-lasting and successful crossover relationship…
Take us back to the beginning. How did Earnest Ice Cream begin?
E: Ben loves ice cream in that nerdy let’s-find-all-the-best-ice-cream-spots kind of way. There was a suggestion that he should just start his own ice cream business when he moved to Vancouver from Seattle. Somewhat jokingly I offered to be his business partner.
B: I had worked for a small values-based business in Seattle. I realized that a business could be a platform for change and community building and not just a money making endeavour. But before this I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. Erica had left a career in advertising to go back to the food and hospitality world. When we met, she was looking to do something in food that was her own. We started with conversations that seemed like daydreams and then pretty quickly things felt actually possible. The summer before we launched, I did a three month cross country bike tour – tasting ice cream all along the way. When I returned, we realized we both still really wanted to pursue this idea and were ready to commit. I’ve had friends and family admit that they were a little skeptical at first, about the whole plan.
What are your individual roles within the company? How have those changed over the years?
E: They’ve changed drastically! Like most start ups, we did everything in the beginning: from recipe development, making ice cream, selling at events and farmers markets, packaging, communications, deliveries, admin, book keeping – you name it.
B: Over time, as we took on employees, we’ve had to learn how to be store managers, project managers for building new locations, and then managers of store managers. Actually, I think I got away without being a store manager – which is good – I don’t think I’d be great at that. Nowadays some differentiation has emerged. Erica has the operations mind, looking after the day-to-day and handling social media. I tend to take on projects like building new locations or researching new equipment.
E: We still have our hands in most elements of the business and collaborate on many things, but we have an amazing team who really keeps it all going and are the heart of Earnest.
What does each of you bring to the table that the other doesn’t?
E: We are total opposites in so many ways that, thankfully, really compliment each other. Ben is considerate, patient, inquisitive. He does his research. He takes time to make decisions. Me, not so much.
B: Erica gets shit done.
E: Ha! Yeah, I make things happen, maybe a little too quickly. I speed things up, Ben slows them down. He asks questions, which is so critical. It allows us to investigate what we do and why, and how we can do it better.
B: Erica has more experience in the hospitality industry, so she tends to have an idea of how things should work, but I like to bring an outside-the-box perspective.
Any advice to friends looking to go into business together?
B: Do it! It’s a super big risk. There is a good chance that the whole thing will fall apart and bring your relationship crashing down with it… but nothing worth doing comes without risk!
E: Be very clear on both of your values, goals and expectations for the business. Have an idea or plan of how to make decisions together. Make time to hang out as friends, have a beer together at the end of the day.
What has been the biggest challenge of working together?
E: Honestly, we’ve been lucky. We work really well together. But starting and running a business is hard. It’s stressful and a shit ton of work. There are a lot of decisions to make and we make most of them together, so learning how to come to an agreement or finding middle ground in a respectful way takes a lot of time.
B: I agree – making decisions and communicating about how we want to make decisions, these are the hardest and most important things. There can be a downside for our staff sometimes, if they don’t know who to talk to about an issue. And we might each have a different response to the same situation, which can be a challenge.
What is the biggest advantage of your partnership?
E: Getting to work with one of my best friends and the all around raddest person I know. I learn from Ben every day.
B: We have fun together. We’re each other’s sounding board and shoulder to cry on. Erica makes me smarter and reminds me of our purpose in doing all this.
Besides ice cream, what do you two enjoy sharing together?
B: Well, we’re both parents now so we do a fair bit of commiserating on the ups and downs of raising little kids. We also love to go out to eat and enjoy Vancouver’s amazing food scene. And patios.
What are your individual favourite things to do alone?
B: Cycle touring, rock climbing, movies – all things I haven’t done much since fatherhood. Oh, and baking – I’m teaching my daughter to be an awesome home baker.
E: Same. I have a newborn and a toddler so I am literally never alone. But hanging with the family and dog, cooking and being outside.
What one thing can you never agree on?
B: Where to eat.
E: Ha, I disagree! We always agree on where to eat! Can I say everything? We have learned to agree to disagree. We often have different preferences and opinions as far as ice cream flavours and recipe development goes. (Which drives our amazing chef crazy – thanks for putting up with us!)
Earnest and the Vancouver ice cream culture in general have come along way since you started out. What are your respective and collective goals for Earnest Ice Cream in the next year? 5 years? 10 years?
B: Um, how much time do you have? We love goals! We plan to be B-Corp certified by the end of the year. We’re forging and deepening direct trade relationships with our suppliers. In 5 years, we hope to have one more shop. And in 10 years, we solve climate change. 😉
E: We are really focusing on our plant-based flavours. They are the majority of our R&D as of late. We’re planning to continually expand those offerings and have them be a significant part of what we do.