Meet the couple behind Bears Ice Cream Company, the family-run Icelandic ice cream business with a British twist.
Two years after opening, Bears has established itself as one of London’s best eateries after being nominated for various London business awards.
Business Advice caught up with the duo who run West London’s Icelandic style ice cream parlour to find out how they started, the advantages of being married in business and their future plans.
Who are you and what’s your business?
We are Philip Harrison and Vera Thordardottir, a couple who run Bears Ice Cream Company, an Icelandic style ice cream parlour in Shepherds Bush, West London. The name came from our young daughter as we have always called her little bear. Phil already had a tattoo of three bears holding hands, so we decided that as a family this would be our Bears Ice Cream Company and the logo was born from that concept and the tattoo.
What made you want to start the business?
In 2015, we strongly felt that there was a severe lack of high-quality soft serve options in London. Soft serve ice cream or “Mr. Whippy” which was being sold from ice cream vans was made from milk powder and oil, and then mixed with a lot of air. This had given the soft serve ice cream a reputation of a substandard product and lower quality when compared to other types of ice cream. We knew this was not the case since in Iceland we mainly have high-quality soft serve culture and Icelandic people are crazy about ice cream. We decided that we wanted to bring back the high quality, all natural product. So, in early 2016 we opened Bears Ice Cream Company.
What makes Bears Ice Cream Company unique?
Our soft serve is lower in fat then Gelato and lower in sugar than frozen Yogurt. We only use highest quality Jersey Milk and all the ingredients are natural, even the stabilisers, we take this lovely base and let our customers get creative with it. There are many exciting things on our menu like our ‘Signature Cones’ which are a layered ice cream extravaganza in a cone, our ‘Little Bear’ (bear face on an ice cream anyone?), but our best seller is by far the ‘Glacier’. Our Glacier gives our customers the chance to select three different ingredients from our table and
smash them into their ice cream. So instead of having a table with different pre-made ice cream flavours we only have one base flavour and a table full of ingredients that can be selected. This allows our customer to make more than 4,000 variations of ice cream cocktails and tailor it to their own taste. We have made some amazing discoveries along the way like blueberry and basil milkshake or wasabi pea, coconut and white chocolate glacier – but we also enjoy making classics like an Eton mess or banoffee pie flavor Glaciers.
What was key in terms of getting started?
We have been very lucky with our team. From day one we had a group of “Bear cubs” who were all very excited about the concept and proud to be a part of the company. Having a good team to rely on is vital. We also opened in a neighbourhood full of creative people and foodies who were excited to try something new. Our community and our regulars are the ones who keep us going through the cold months (and Beast from the east snow storms). When you are a community business a special bond is formed between you and the customer.
Have your previous careers helped you in this venture?
Absolutely! We ran a hotel and a restaurant for a summer when we were in our early 20s. Although it was successful, we ran that business very differently to how we run our business today. In the meantime, we have been lucky enough to work and gather experience in with different companies. Phil ran the kitchen in the reputable Anglesea Arms W6 for many years, and Vera has worked with high profile fashion brands such as Celine and Hussein Chalayan.
The experience you get working with companies of a high calibre will always reflect in the work you do, there is a certain level of expectation and quality control that you get accustomed to and it becomes impossible to compromise and adapt to anything less than the highest standard. So, our experiences have helped us bring together a friendly concept with an excellent menu.
What are the pros and cons of working as a couple?
We have been together for almost 14 years and ran our first business together early on so we have had time to grow as both a couple and business partners. Working as a couple means that you have complete trust and you are very much a team in everything from your family affairs to your business affairs. We already share the same values for what we would like to achieve in life and that makes many decisions effortless, and that is a big pro. However, this can be a con when you have to separate your work life from your personal life and manage family time vs. work time.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your company?
Winter, as an ice cream parlour we rely on the mercy of the weather gods so there needs to be a strict cash flow management to anticipate those rainy days. Also, as a very small business, so we must be careful and clever with our marketing budget and seek inventive ways of reaching our customers, this is where social media has played a key role. As a retail shop, we also reach customers through Google AdWords which helps our customers find us and engage with our brand.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
Just after nine months of opening, we had received enormous amounts of praise from our community, which was very humbling, we received a runner-up award in the Time Out Love London Business Awards. We were also shortlisted for Hammersmith and Fulham business awards in two categories. We are also proud to be one of the few selected ice cream parlours that are rated in the Hardens 2018 guide. Phil is particularly proud of this as he was in this guide when he was a chef, and never thought a little ice cream place would get into a restaurant guidebook. But our biggest achievement is turning a small unit on the side of a roundabout into a place that fills so many people with joy.
What advice do you have for other startups?
Plan, prepare and persevere. There will always be some bumps in the road but you must deal with them and make sure to keep your standards up and motivate your team. It is a juggling act and good planning will help with that. Perseverance is key, as is keeping a close eye on your goals, there is a lot of distraction out there and it is easy to get sidetracked if your targets are not set in stone.
What’s the next step for Bears ice cream?
Now that spring is here, Bears will be moving in with our sister company Chilly Katz in Hammersmith. We have had a miniature version of the shop there during the winter but plan to launch the co-habitation officially in April. We are also working on a secondary expansion plan to launch in the coming month or two but that is very much under wraps at this moment.
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