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Women in Foodservice
Handel's Homemade Ice Cream storefront sign
Jennifer Schuler last week was named CEO of Handel's Homemade Ice Cream.

How Jennifer Schuler plans to maintain Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream’s legacy as it continues to grow

Schuler, who spent nine years at Wetzel’s Pretzels, likes the ice cream brand’s potential, unit economics, culture, and history.

It didn’t take much convincing for Jennifer Schuler to take on the CEO role at Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream when the opportunity recently presented itself. That’s because the brand felt deeply personal to her.

“My kids love Handel’s and now they can flex at school,” she joked during a recent interview. “I do think this business is so personal and you have to have a personal belief in what you’re doing and the value it brings both to your guests and franchise partners.”

Of course, there was much more to love about the brand for Schuler, who spent the past nine years at Wetzel’s Pretzels, including most recently as CEO. She liked its history, at nearly 80 years old. She liked its unit economics – according to the company’s 2022 FDD, the top 50% of units generated nearly $1.2 million AUVs. She liked the product; “it’s like Willy Wonka here. Everything tastes good.” She liked the people.

Mostly, she liked the brand’s potential – yes, even after nearly 80 years. From 2021 to 2022, the company grew from 74 units to 94 units, for instance. There are now nearly 130 locations. Also, according to Technomic data, sales grew from about $59.5 million to $82.3 million. The company has since surpassed $100 million and is forecasting over $130 million this year.

That potential, she believes, is driven by the allure of the concept itself, which is fueled by moments and fun versus providing just sustenance or convenience.

“Being the centerpiece of family celebrations and milestones and having memories with your kids; it’s a way to both celebrate a success and rebound off a bad day,” Schuler said. “I want to be part of those family moments.”

This desire has become even more pronounced in an increasingly digital, and fast-paced, world. She believes Handel’s presents that opportunity not only to create memories, but to slow them down in the process. It’s why she believes the company is on a remarkable growth trajectory despite its age.

“I think that there really is something to that timeout moment. Our frenzied lives post-Covid, and with more digital capabilities, our lives are faster than ever. So, I think people value slowing down and they like the highly visceral, simple experience of eating an ice cream cone and sharing it with your family,” she said. “There’s something about the simplicity. You can’t hold your phone and eat an ice cream cone.”

To be sure, Handel’s isn’t the only concept providing such simplicity and she acknowledges her former brand for providing the same type of basic indulgences. It’s perhaps why the snack category in general is growing. Schuler is quick to point out Handel’s differentiators amid an increasingly competitive category, however. The chain adheres to scratch-made-daily batches with real ingredients, sticking closely to Alice Handel’s philosophy when she founded the concept using strawberries grown in her own backyard.

“Guests can taste it and they notice. And I think there’s magic in that,” she said.

Handel’s also “strikes an interesting balance” with innovation, she adds. The company has developed over 140 flavors, and all of them have wide appeal. Schuler tips her cap to other growing ice cream concepts that have embraced more chef-driven, high-end creations, but that’s not in Handel’s DNA.

“What we’ve done and will do is focus on flavor profiles that are really approachable and I think that’s why we’re able to open these stores in different regions across the country,” she said. “You see immediate success because they’re classically appealing flavors; something familiar, but with a new twist.”

Armed with these attributes, Schuler is now spending her first few months on the job diving into the brand’s legacy and its relationships with franchisees, traveling to locations across the company’s 13 states. Notably, she owned a Wetzel’s franchise when she led that brand, so she already has some baseline knowledge in play. Once she gets her bearings, she’ll then focus on developing a strategy.

“When you’re in a rapidly growing brand, it’s easy to be seduced by the speed of everything there is to do,” Schuler said. “But I’m going to spend time understanding the core needs.”

That includes how to stay relevant and accessible as a “timeout” brand in a digital world. It includes maximizing efficiencies to navigate higher wages. It includes studying other brands with lengthy histories to understand the balance between innovation and tradition. And, it includes creating a roadmap to ensure Handel’s hangs onto its legacy even as it continues to grow.

“I think a lot of Americans feel strained. The movies just go so expensive, and Disneyland is out of reach, and how am I going to spend time with my family? Any family can come here and make it their treat moment,” Schuler said. “I love that about Handel’s and I love that if you talk to the folks who know its heritage, they’re always thinking about that.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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