The Shocking Meltdown of Ample Hills — Brooklyn’s Hottest Ice Cream Company
They had $19 million, a deal with Disney, and dreams of becoming the next Ben & Jerry’s. Then everything fell apart.
The after-school rush had just ended one weekday in the spring of 2015 when the phone rang at the Vanderbilt Avenue location of Ample Hills Creamery, the Brooklyn ice cream brand famous for its whimsical and elaborate flavors. Scooper Jason Smith answered the call, expecting to tell some customer what time they closed or that, yes, they still had Nonna D’s, a brown sugar cinnamon ice cream with oatmeal cookies. But it wasn’t just any customer, it was Oprah Winfrey, the kingmaker of modern media, calling to say how much she liked the company’s Ooey Gooey Butter Cake and Salted Crack’d Caramel.
Ample Hills was barely four years old, but even before Oprah called, it was clear the company had struck a chord. Ample Hills’ married co-founders Brian Smith (no relation to Jason) and Jackie Cuscuna, had opened their first shop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood in 2011, and almost immediately sold out of 130 gallons of homemade ice cream. The musician (and known foodie) Questlove started coming by for sundaes. On warm summer days, lines stretched out the door, and seven employees would somehow manage to serve 100 customers an hour — nearly two a minute — pulling in some $9,000 a day.
Disney head Bob Iger also had become a fan, and by 2015 Ample Hills had earned itself the title of official ice cream of Disney’s Star Wars film franchise, with limited-edition flavors like Dark Side, an ultra-dark chocolate, and Light Side, a marshmallow base with cocoa crispies. (Later, it would also partner with Disney’s Marvel, releasing flavors such as Spider-Man, with swirls of cherry pie filling, a nod to Peter Parker’s favorite dessert.)
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And that was just the beginning. From 2015 to 2019, Ample Hills raised around $19 million to fund its ambitious expansion plans, hoping to conquer the $11 billion ice cream industry. The company went from a handful of stores in Brooklyn to 17 locations, including one in Disney World. To support all this growth, Smith and Cuscuna built a Willy Wonka-esque, 15,000-square-foot production space — part factory, part museum — in arty and increasingly expensive Red Hook, Brooklyn, three blocks from an enormous Tesla showroom. Meanwhile, sales continued to climb.
What happened to the ice cream company the New York Times dubbed “Brooklyn’s Most Beloved”?
But on March 15, the day before New York City shut down for the pandemic — and as signage bearing Ample Hills’ farm animal mascots and the words “ice cream coming soon” was still up at a second Disney location — everything came crashing down. Ample Hills filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just short of the company’s 10th anniversary. It had nothing to do with the pandemic: Even as annual sales had grown, reaching nearly $10.7 million at their peak, so had the losses. Over 2018 and 2019, the company lost about $13 million. In June 2020, Ample Hills sold for just $1 million to perhaps the unlikeliest of buyers — Schmitt, an Oregon manufacturing company that makes laser scanners and sensors for propane tanks.
What happened to the ice cream company the New York Times dubbed “Brooklyn’s Most Beloved”? The bankruptcy filings tell a straightforward story: “In practical terms, Ample Hills built out a factory in order to increase volume and lower costs, but the opposite happened, and the losses have mounted.” But Smith acknowledges to Marker that while the factory was “probably the financial decision that ultimately led to the bankruptcy, in a way it’s too simple a hook to hang your hat on.”
Interviews with Smith and Cuscuna, along with more than a dozen employees, from scoopers to executives, reveal the perils of what can happen when a hot startup puts growth ahead of business fundamentals. As Smith tells Marker, having Disney behind them fueled much of the co-founders’ overconfidence, encouraging them to think they could become the next Ben & Jerry’s. Disney’s interest also helped the company attract investors, he says, which created “a runaway train of raising and raising and growth and growth.”
By chasing rapid expansion without paying enough attention to how much they were actually spending, the co-founders ended up making big bets that cost the company millions — and mistakes that left thousands of gallons of ice cream literally swirling down the drain. “It was a fairy tale,” says Greg O’Connell, one of Ample Hills’ biggest investors. “They were kind of living in a dream world because their marketing was so great.”
Smith wrote TV monster movies for a living, but he had long been obsessed with ice cream. In the early 2000s while dating Cuscuna — a teacher at an alternative high school in New York City — he’d hosted ice cream socials at her family’s cabin at Trout Lake in the Adirondacks, churning inventive concoctions.
After they married in 2002, Smith grew increasingly disillusioned with writing scripts, which he found formulaic and isolating. By 2010, the couple had an infant son and a three-year-old daughter — and Smith, then 40, was having a midlife crisis, he jokes. His version of a sports car: ice cream. He took an eight-week small business course sponsored by New York City and a one-week Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State, a class that has been taught for more than 120 years and whose alums include Smith’s heroes Ben & Jerry.
The story, Smith often said, was what made Ample Hills ice cream “more than just milk, cream, sugar, and eggs.”
Smith wanted to dive straight in and open a shop, but Cuscuna was more cautious. They compromised, with Smith selling his homemade ice cream that summer from a pushcart at the Celebrate Brooklyn arts festival. Smith was not interested in trendy “adult” ice creams, like lavender or saffron. He wanted Ample Hills — named after a line from the 1865 Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — to have flavors that would appeal to “seven-year-olds and to the seven-year-old in the 40-year-old.” Over time, flavor inspiration would come from pop culture. One called the Elvis Impersonator featured banana ice cream with swirls of honey-sweetened peanut butter and candied bacon. A flavor called Heisenberry came from Breaking Bad — vanilla ice cream with a swirl of strawberry preserves and blue rock candy that stood in for meth on the show. “We think of a story and then a flavor that draws on that story,” Smith later told Bloomberg. The story, Smith often said, was what made Ample Hills ice cream “more than just milk, cream, sugar, and eggs.”
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But the flavors were more than a good story; they were seriously delicious. Within weeks of debuting their pushcart, word had spread sufficiently far that a woman from Minnesota called to beg Ample Hills to ship her some maple candied bacon ice cream. Buoyed by the enthusiastic response, Smith and Cuscuna poured $225,000 — their life savings — into opening the Vanderbilt location, their first shop, in the spring of 2011. At the time, Smith was making all of the ice cream himself, so when they sold out their entire stock in just four days, they had to temporarily shut down in order to quickly hire and train staff. This kind of improbable runaway success quickly became the stuff of legend, chronicled even by the New York Times.
The crowds kept coming, and in its third year, Ample Hills opened another location in Gowanus, the trendy industrial Brooklyn neighborhood. At the time, Gowanus was equal parts bougie and gritty, having recently landed its own Whole Foods store, yet most famous for its namesake canal, a smelly Superfund site still awaiting a $500 million cleanup. The two-story 1931 building Smith and Cuscuna chose, and spent some $500,000 renovating, was not in a well-trafficked area, but they had confidence that if they built it “people will come,” as Smith later said.
A couple months in, one customer’s name leapt out from the online order sheet: Bob Iger.
The new shop had what would become an Ample Hills signature: a flavor exclusive to and redolent of the location, in this case, “It Came From Gowanus,” a cheeky, chocolatey nod to the toxic canal. Gowanus also gave the company something essential: A 1,000-square-foot kitchen. (The tiny 150-foot kitchen at Vanderbilt was so small that the shop had to close on Mondays just so it could make enough ice cream for the week.)
With the new Gowanus kitchen, Ample Hills began offering nationwide shipping, six pints for $60, packed on dry ice. A couple months in, one customer’s name leapt out from the online order sheet: Bob Iger. Smith, who had grown up in South Florida going to Disney World multiple times a year, seized the opportunity to make an impression on the Disney CEO. He asked artist Lauren Kaelin, a scooper from the early days who eventually became the company’s brand director, to sketch Mickey Mouse wearing an Ample Hills T-shirt, and he sent that along with Iger’s six pints. On October 17, 2014 — in an email Smith later read aloud twice on the podcast he and his wife launched in the wake of the bankruptcy — Iger wrote to praise the “simply incredible” ice cream: “If I can do anything for you, please let me know. Who knows??? Maybe we can get Ample Hills to Disney???” It took Smith a half-hour to recover enough to craft a reply saying, essentially: Yes, please!
Iger sent the ice cream to friends like J.J. Abrams and Oprah, who named Ample Hills to one of her blockbuster-making favorite things lists in 2015, declaring: “I once ate an entire pint in my pajamas.” Soon there were plans with Disney to create Star Wars ice cream and — on the horizon — to open a shop at Disney’s BoardWalk, a promenade in Orlando that sits outside the parks, open to the public.
“We were able to tell a story to potential investors, and they could see the next Ben & Jerry’s.”
It wasn’t long before the kitchen at Gowanus was struggling to keep up with demand. Two batch freezers were running constantly, making 15 to 18 gallons of fresh ice cream an hour, while simpler flavors like strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate were being produced by a co-packer, according to Will Hart, Ample Hills’ then-manager of distribution and logistics. Less than a year after the Gowanus location opened, Smith and Cuscuna decided there was only one way for them to keep up: Ample Hills would raise money and build a factory.
Raising money turned out to be surprisingly easy. Charlie O’Donnell, the founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, says he had been a fan since he stopped into the Gowanus shop for a large Pumpkin Cheesecake with Ooey Gooey after running the Staten Island Marathon. He and some two dozen investors — including founders from Brooklyn Brewery and Seamless — put in $4 million for the seed round. The Disney partnership was a huge sell. “We were able to tell a story to potential investors,” Smith recalled on his podcast, “and they could see the next Ben & Jerry’s.”
Building the factory was much harder. They looked at two cheaper locations upstate, however, Iger — who didn’t invest but had become an informal adviser to Smith and Cuscuna — counseled the co-founders to stick to Brooklyn, because they “could manage it more carefully,” Iger told Bloomberg in 2017. (Iger did not respond to Marker’s interview requests.) Smith and Cuscuna also sought advice from Jerry Greenfield, as in the Jerry — who had coincidentally gone to high school with one of their Brooklyn neighbors. Greenfield told them Ben & Jerry’s number one marketing decision was to put their factory in Vermont and open it to the public.
Ultimately, the couple chose a Civil War-era, 15,000-square-foot former cocoa-bean warehouse in Red Hook that would be big enough to make 200 gallons of ice cream an hour, or 500,000 gallons a year. Big enough to supply all the ice cream shops, big enough to supply all the hundreds of grocery stores they planned to be in, big enough to launch them into a mega-brand.
And perhaps, big enough to sink them.
Of the two co-founders, Cuscuna, who joined the company full-time in 2015 as chief creative officer, was the more approachable one. She was in charge of community-building, and for years, the one employees appealed to if they needed a shift change. Some of the hires were her former students. Smith, meanwhile, usually was head down in the vat pasteurizer making ice cream.
In the early days, Ample Hills was “some of the funnest work of my life,” says Jake Childers, who started at Ample Hills in 2014 as a scooper, rose to retail training manager, and left in 2019 in frustration. Employees had a phrase that became something of a mantra: “Scoopin’ is a lifestyle.” It was something they might say to each other as an expression of camaraderie when it was 95 degrees, there was a line out the door, and every customer wanted to stop and take a picture of their ice cream. Often it was a hashtag on pictures of their scooping arm muscles, off-hours get-togethers, and the Ampees, the silly awards like “Best Hair” that were Ample Hills’ riff on The Office’s Dundies.
According to employees, Smith and Cuscuna would fall in love with the story they could tell about a location and sign a lease without due diligence.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the company culture began to shift, but according to multiple employees who spoke with Marker, it started back in 2014, after the opening of the Gowanus flagship. They say Ample Hills began a pattern of aggressively opening new shops while the old ones languished. (In total, Ample Hills opened 16 shops, not including one in Orlando operated by Disney, and had signed leases for at least four more.) As freezers broke or fuses blew “we would have to throw away massive amounts of ice cream,” says Jason Smith. “They were all very simple things that could have been fixed or addressed. But they would say, ‘Oh, we just opened Chelsea so we have to put money into that shop.’” According to employees, the shops almost always were over budget and failed to meet ambitious targets. Smith doesn’t dispute that they prioritized expansion. “If something is working but just not working as well as it could, and your focus is on growth, then yeah, you’re going to make some of those mistakes,” he says.
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According to employees, Smith and Cuscuna would fall in love with the story they could tell about a location and sign a lease without due diligence. For example, they liked Prospect Park West because 100 years earlier it had been an ice cream shop; plus their original location was a cart in Prospect Park. Meanwhile, the rent was roughly $220,000 a year, with a projected $500,000 buildout. “There was no true P&L done on anything,” says Chuck Green, the former vice president of sales at Ben & Jerry’s who helped negotiate its sale to Unilever in 2000. (Green lasted just a few months at Ample Hills in 2018 as COO before being fired by Smith, and has since been rehired by Schmitt.)
To fund this rapid expansion, the company raised an additional $8 million in funding in December 2017 from investors including Rosecliff Ventures, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Struck Capital, and a lot of smaller funds and individuals. That was followed by two gap raises — one in November 2018 and the other in March 2019. “Money was kind of always an issue,” says former retail manager Jake Childers, “There was always talk of, ‘Oh, we got this big investor.’ And then Brian and Jackie would misspend it.”
At its peak in the summer, Ample Hills had 300 employees; in the winter the number could be half that. At the last company all-hands meeting anyone seems to remember — in late 2018 or early 2019 — Smith talked about his goal of opening 75 shops within the next five years. Employees were stunned into silence, recalls Jason Smith. “There was a lot of disbelief,” he says. “It’s really hard to see a company opening that many shops when the shops they had were falling apart.”
In 2018, as the opening of the Ample Hills Red Hook factory pushed close to a year over schedule, the cost clocked in at $6.7 million — $2.7 million more than the original $4 million budget. The factory was gorgeous, with high ceilings and great lighting — but employees claim Smith and Cuscuna skimped on the most critical elements, including the process engineering and freezer. “They were trying to do things cheaply [with the equipment],” says Hart, who spent weekends hanging Sheetrock in the factory to make extra money. Says COO Green: “You build a factory from the inside out, not the outside in. What they did was like building a beautiful house and filling it with crappy furniture and a crappy heating system.”
Producing ice cream in a factory is a feat of engineering. Mess up something like the flow rate of the mix during production and you can end up with ice crystals that are too large, ruining the end product’s taste, look, and mouthfeel. To do the process engineering for their factory, Smith and Cuscuna got two bids between mid and high six figures. Ample Hills’ director of production Matthew Scott says they ended up taking the one that was $100,000 cheaper, but from a company with a less than stellar reputation, ultimately costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more to correct the problems. (Smith acknowledges that they took the cheaper bid.)
“We knew it was costing a lot of money but we didn’t have a clear sense of how much.”
In the interest of cost cutting, they also ended up with some poorly chosen equipment. The company’s 600-gallon storage tanks, which were designed for milk, not viscous ice cream mix, failed immediately. They were replaced with tanks that also failed, and every time they did, it wasted about $4,000 worth of product. According to Scott, this cost the company well over 10,000 gallons of ice cream. Smith says they bought the original tanks “before we had proper guidance on what kind of tanks we needed — we thought we had gotten a good deal.”
They also bought a 1950s Cherry-Burrell at auction for $20,000 from Steve’s Ice Cream, a nearly 50-year-old hand-crafted brand from which Ben & Jerry reportedly found inspiration (and which had gone bankrupt in 2017). Ample Hills had previously been using a batch freezer: Put in seven gallons of liquid, wait 10 minutes, get 10 gallons of ice cream. The Cherry-Burrell was a continuous freezer, which extrudes 125 gallons an hour — a step up from the batch.
Many small ice cream companies lose product when they make adjustments from batch to continuous freezers, but it was particularly challenging for Ample’s thick ice cream mixed with “inclusions” (things like the cake chunks in the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake). In a batch freezer, you can just pour the liquid out of a bucket and scrape it with a spatula, no matter how thick it is. With a continuous freezer, if it’s too thick it won’t move through the system. The tweaking of the recipes went on for at least six months. “I don’t think we could actually do any ice cream without a ton of waste,” says Cuscuna.
They ended up having to switch back to the old batch freezers. She and Smith were “freaking out,” says Cuscuna, mainly about the lack of consistency in the product. “We knew it was costing a lot of money but we didn’t have a clear sense of how much,” she says. “We were trying to do too much at once.” Even at its height, the factory would only reach 20% capacity.
In the midst of getting the factory up and running, the couple was also trying to open their first West Coast shop, introduce an expensive new type of packaging, and get onto grocery store shelves. They had hired a new company president, Morgan Johnson, a partner at Nucleus Adventure Group and one of Ample Hills’ investors. Johnson favored explosive growth, all of the Disney licenses with which Smith was enamored, and getting press. Green, the COO and former Ben & Jerry’s exec, wanted slower, careful growth and an end to the licensing, which he thought detracted from Ample Hills’ authenticity. “You don’t license a wonderful super-premium brand,” he says. “Licensing is for Unilever and Nestle.” Battle lines were drawn and that’s when Green was fired. (Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I think if you have solid projections and a solid budget and you plan accordingly, you can certainly do all these things, but we didn’t have any of those,” brand director Kaelin says. Scott, who as head of production oversaw at least $1 million in expenditures, says in three years he was never asked for or given a budget, and never had to file an expense report for his company credit card. “I could put $8,000 worth of vanilla on a credit card and nobody would say a thing,” he says.
“It was like, ‘The rules of physics don’t apply to us. We’re Ample Hills!’”
Working with Disney was also time-consuming and expensive, but Smith was understandably smitten with the idea. “How on earth do you say no to Disney?” he says on the podcast. He came up with new flavors, inspired by the properties, and wanted elaborate packaging, including a box for the Star Wars pints that had a punch-out X-wing fighter. For Mickey’s 90th birthday in the fall of 2018, there were dozens of hand-painted watercolor illustrations of Mickey comic strips on the packaging, which took Kaelin’s team months of work and required a lengthy approvals process from Disney. While the work was rewarding, says Kaelin, it diverted the company from what it was good at. “It felt like a really convoluted way of making delicious ice cream, and it didn’t make financial sense,” she says. “I don’t think people travel to Brooklyn to try Spider-Man ice cream,” she says. “You went there for Ooey Gooey.”
In retrospect, Smith says he would have only done maybe one Disney licensing deal, not multiple. “They most definitely were not lucrative in the bottom-line sense,” he says, noting that the company could likely have gotten the same PR lift from just one.
To further complicate things, Smith and Cuscuna had fallen in love with the idea of bringing back 1930s-era square-pint packaging, with two spoons tucked beneath the lid to promote sharing. They hoped to stand out, like Talenti does with its clear packaging. They ordered the square pints — referred to internally as “squints” — custom-made from Turkey. If you don’t work in the ice cream industry, choosing square packaging reminiscent of the 1930s may seem like a fairly innocent aesthetic and branding decision. But there is a reason why pretty much everyone uses the round ones. Among other things, the corners of square pints melt faster, and the packaging breaks off. They are harder to fill properly — it took three months just to be able to fill them without it looking sloppy, wasting product and packaging. Plus, filling the squints required a custom-made $180,000 machine, one that, in the case of Ample Hills, never worked properly. (Cuscuna says they eventually got a refund for it.)
Despite pushback from the staff — including a small protest on a company whiteboard, with a drawing of a square pint, with a circle, a slash, and the words “No Squints!” — Smith and Cuscuna would not be dissuaded. “It was like, ‘The rules of physics don’t apply to us. We’re Ample Hills!’” Scott says. Smith, he adds, had begun to think of himself as “the Steve Jobs of ice cream.” According to both current and former employees, Smith frequently invoked the mercurial Apple founder, as well as Walt Disney. Smith admits the execution of the square pints was “an absolute unmitigated disaster,” but maintains the idea is still a great one. “I can guarantee you somebody will do it more effectively,” he says. “It’s always hard when you’re creating something new. That’s not a reason not to do it,” Smith adds, comparing it to Apple’s creation of the iPhone.
As the company wrestled with issues at the factory and with the squints, there were also complications at Ample’s new L.A. location in Los Feliz, an expensive neighborhood with historic homes and the landmark Griffith Observatory, but meager foot traffic. The buildout of a 100-year-old bungalow went over schedule and well over its $500,000 budget, with actual costs nearing $1 million.
The couple scrambled to cut costs. They stopped buying in bulk, did a small round of layoffs (about 12 people out of 120), and took salary cuts.
On the day the shop finally opened in October 2018, there were long lines for free ice cream, but then… nothing. Cuscuna acknowledges now that they didn’t “put enough dollars to marketing and understanding where to open,” she says. “We were so used to people coming to our shops, and it just being really busy.” Herb Ruetsch, former CEO of Fairway, who was briefly installed as Ample Hills’ CEO late in 2019, says Los Feliz was “a big loser. It didn’t do nearly enough business to cover the rent.”
Nevertheless, soon after Los Feliz opened, Ample Hills signed six more leases, including $124,000 annually for a location in Long Beach, $171,000 in South Florida, and $180,000 in Times Square, and $375,000 for a second Disney location.
But between the factory, the squints, and building out all the new locations, the costs were snowballing out of control. By the summer of 2019 — even as Ample Hills had lines out the door of its shops in Brooklyn — Smith and Cuscuna learned they were running out of money. “It was a shock to learn we were in dire financial straits,” Smith says. This they only learned when the company went down what Cuscuna calls “an investigative path” that summer, running a model that showed they were almost out of cash. What prompted the investigation? “I don’t know, honestly,” she says. “We had this confusing software, and we didn’t have enough help on that to really understand our books.” (Richard Saslaw, the director of finance who ran the models, declined to comment.)
By the fall of 2019, a dark cloud hung over Ample Hills. Ice cream is a seasonal business — winter is lean time — and Smith and Cuscuna knew they didn’t have enough cash to hang on until spring. The couple scrambled to cut costs. They stopped buying in bulk, did a small round of layoffs (about 12 people out of 120), and took salary cuts. They closed the new shops in Los Feliz and South Florida, less than a year after opening them. They even stopped paying rent.
As this was happening, Cuscuna says they desperately were trying to raise $3 million to $4 million. Employees remember investors setting up shop for days to look at finances. Greg O’Connell, their largest investor and the landlord of their factory and office, brought in his old family friend Ruetsch, the former CEO of Fairway. Ruetsch says the company’s financial records were a mess. Smith does not dispute this characterization. “The finance department was underfunded and understaffed and in over their heads,” he says.
Ruetsch took the books apart and determined that the company wasn’t close to generating a positive cash flow. The factory issues, he thought, were fixable. The problem, he says, was “some bad decisions that were made that were really dominating the cash flow.”
Meanwhile, Smith and Cuscuna still hoped they could fundraise their way out of the problem. Smith called Iger. ”We were basically begging and at the end of the road,” he says on the podcast. Ample Hills was too small for Disney to invest, Smith says, but Iger tried to help in another way, offering contacts to Jimmy Kimmel, who once a year shoots his show in Brooklyn instead of Los Angeles. “Why don’t you make a flavor of ice cream for Jimmy and let’s see if we can get it on the show?” Iger suggested, according to Smith.
Jimmy’s Bananas For Brooklyn, as the new flavor was named, appeared on Kimmel’s show in late October, but good press alone couldn’t turn the ship around. Cuscuna told Marker the factory had to double the amount of ice cream it was producing in order to achieve profitability, but in order to do that, they’d have to build out another 10 or 12 shops overnight. They needed money, and fast.
Smith and Cuscuna say they had pinned their hopes on an infusion of cash from their landlord and investor, O’Connell. There were several strings attached to this, including the arrival of Ruetsch, who was eventually installed as CEO, and who was advocating for either a prepackaged bankruptcy deal or a merger with a bakery — neither of which sat well with the founders. But by late October, O’Connell declined to invest, he says, “because what we were dealing with wasn’t a problem of just financials — it was a deeper problem of the founders and their need for control.”
According to O’Connell, Smith and Cuscuna turned down multiple qualified offers prior to bankruptcy because they wanted more control and more equity. These included an offer from Struck Capital, a tech-focused VC firm. (Struck Capital did not respond to Marker’s requests for comment.) The founders dispute this, saying they never turned down any qualified offers. Smith says the Struck deal and one from their investor-turned-president Johnson fell through around Christmas — Struck because they “couldn’t stomach the debt” and Johnson because his offer was contingent on other people writing checks.
With no options left, on March 15, Ample Hills filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Smith and Cuscuna were optimistic that they could still keep the company; that in bankruptcy the company would shed the crippling debt, and they’d find a financial partner who wanted them to be a part of it and would maybe even give them equity.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Cuscuna told Marker that the bankruptcy allowed, in her words, “bottom-feeders,” to snap up the company.
In the end, the only qualified bidder was Schmitt Industries, the Portland manufacturer, which bought the company for $1 million. Since then, Schmitt has reopened 10 locations and hired back about 95 of the company’s 110 former employees.
I went to meet CEO Michael Zapata at the Chelsea shop on a humid afternoon in September. He came out from behind the counter, where he was working with two employees, and we sat, masked, at a round table outside that was decoupaged with pictures of Ample Hills history. Zapata’s left elbow rested on a picture of Cuscuna holding a cone of Salted Crack’d Caramel. In the hour and a half we spoke, there was a steady stream of customers.
Zapata, a former Navy SEAL commander, is muscular and soft-spoken. He says when he heard about Ample Hills and its struggles, he became intrigued by the brand and how loyal its fans were. He says he enjoys turning around distressed companies (it turns out that’s also what he did with Schmitt).
Thanks to the bankruptcy, he has renegotiated leases and dropped some, including the Times Square location. (The first Disney store was shuttered and plans for the second were scrapped before he came on board.) He’s in the process of replacing the continuous freezer and the tanks and he’s ramping up a co-packing business to make the factory more profitable. In August, Ample Hills opened the Long Beach shop, with the signature flavor Smith had dreamed up for it, Spruce Goose: a banana ice cream studded with chocolate pecan bars that paid homage to mogul Howard Hughes’ mammoth wooden airplane, which took its sole flight from Long Beach.
But Smith and Cuscuna now are severed from their creation. Cuscuna told Marker that the bankruptcy allowed, in her words, “bottom-feeders,” to snap up the company, and says it was clear from the start that they couldn’t work together. Zapata, she says, wasn’t particularly interested in them, and she was not interested in “defending her worth.” (“Nobody’s irreplaceable,” Zapata explains, something he says he learned in his Navy SEALs days.) Zapata says he did eventually offer them roles, but they declined. Smith says he does not regret this. “We would have been miserable trying to operate with somebody’s vision who didn’t support us.”
Even after losing the company they have described as their third child, the couple hasn’t lost their enthusiasm for ice cream. They’ve spent much of the pandemic concocting ever more whimsical flavors for a new venture and sharing them on Instagram. On almost every post, commenters ask where they can get the ice cream. The answer: “Our kitchen. For now. But somewhere soon.”
Update: An earlier version of this piece misstated when Ample Hills ended its Disney contracts. They ended before Zapata took over the company.