Read Ice Cream Man by Gus Rancatore

My book The Startup Garden opens by saying, ďI owe this book to my friend Gus.Ē Gus owns Toscaniniís Ice Cream in my home town of Cambridge, and his role as the animating spirit of this business that has touched so many people inspired me to write my book. Recently Gus wrote his own account of starting the business, which he published in the Amazon shorts program as Ice Cream Man: My 25 Years at Toscaniniís.

Itís simply one of the best first person accounts of why someone launches a very specific business. His story shows that while great enterprises emerge naturally from a certain person at a certain point in time, thereís always a certain random serendipity thrown in. He shows that a haven for great tech startups invariably spawns a small service business that is just as meaningful. He shows that all great businesses are woven into the social fabric of a place, and that they are ultimately not an impersonal business but a profitable enterprise built of people and stories. Iím going to crib the whole opening, below, and urge you to go plunk down the 49 cents for this gem.

    I didnít grow up dreaming that one day Iíd run an ice cream store. I wanted to be a cowboy, and later an astronaut, but I come from a background of small business people. My motherís family owned several funeral homes and my father owned a clothing company. It doesnít seem like there would be many similarities between cowboys, astronauts, a funeral home, and an ice cream parlor, but you would be surprised.

    Day after day, a woman comes in for a pint of strawberry ice cream and a pint of orange sorbet. Finally, she explains that her mother has cancer and her father is so upset that he canít eat regular meals. Every few weeks there is the husband who comes in after his wife gives birth; the hospital food is awful and the new mother is wiped out and desperate for a hot fudge sundae. We used to have a regular, a young physicist, who came in alone almost every day and drank a nocciola frappe while he read the newspaper, He died at 35 and about seventy of his friends held a memorial service, after which they all walked over to the store to drink nocciola frappes in his honor.

    Anyone can show up for an ice cream at Toscaniniís. Movie stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, of course, grew up not far from the store, but there are many other famous and creative people. Hundreds of Polaroid Company employees used to come in for ice cream after lunch before going back to their labs; occasionally Dr. Land himself would come in for a cone. Some of my employees were too young to know that Edwin Land had invented the filters for polarizing light that led to the instant camera. One of them once asked him if he worked for Polariod. Dr. Land was surprised but said, ďYes. Yes, I do.Ē

    Groups of brilliant MIT students come every Wednesday night, dressed like small-town actors in a revival of Oklahoma. They are The Tech Squares, MITís square-dancing club. There are writers, academics, architects, photographers, musicians, film-makers. Once, a customer came up to me and whispered: ďDo you know that every famous young physicist in the world is at the center table eating ice cream right now?Ē Occasionally the strangely dapper Ballroom Dancing team arrive, part Cary Grant and part Chow Yun Fat, with an awkward charm that does not entirely conceal years of extra homework. Anybody can show up and not everyone is immediately recognizable. One time, we tried to casually go about our business while trying to figure out whether the man who arrived with an entourage in saffron robes was the real Dalai Lama or just one of our many local lamas. (It was the real Dalai Lama, and he ordered a chocolate cone.)

    So running an ice cream store is more often like being the host of a B & B, or the director of a day-care center, or sometimes, a cop in a Star Wars bar. Everyone is looking for connection, particularly in the sometimes harsh atmosphere of a large metropolitan area. If their car was towed, if the dog died, if the thesis was rejected, they should think that at least the person at the ice cream store was friendly and the Ginger Snap Molasses didnít disappoint them.

    We make ice cream. Weíre not undertakers. Itís not a plywood ranch where you hand someone a two-by-four and say: ďGood luck with the house!Ē I feel a bond with Paul Ruseesabagina, the hotel manager who succeeded in protecting hundreds of Tutsis in Rwanda. The world may be falling apart around him but he retains his civility and kindness. Have a cup of tea, he says, as soldiers are kicking down the doors. I hope you like it.

Posted by tom at March 26, 2007 10:15 PM
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Book cover



Read or print the Intro and Chapter 1 .

Read some book reviews at Inc, 1-800-CEO-READ, and the Miami Herald.

Read the publisher's press release.

Visit the companies that Tom discusses in the book

Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden


Read about other books and web sites about starting your own business.


Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.



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