Short tourist seasons can play havoc with a small island’s economy, but a clever entrepreneur in Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes, has found when one of his businesses slows down at the end of the season, he and his employees are at work on the other.
Most entrepreneurs of seasonal businesses cringe at thoughts of season’s end, but not so for Scott Linkletter, the president of COWS Ice Cream in Prince Edward Island. By the time October comes around and all but one of his local ice cream stores close until spring, he and many of his COWS employees are at work at his other seasonal business: Raspberry Point Oysters.
Both ice cream and oysters are naturals for the tiny island perhaps best known for the 18th century home of fictional heroine, Anne of Green Gables. Equally important, PEI is home to thousands of dairy cows grazing on the gentle hills and seeded oysters thriving in the pristine bays that circle the island.
“Actually,” Linkletter muses, “Anne of Green Gables had a lot to do with the success of COWS ice cream, which we began selling in a small store in 1982, not far from Avonlea Village. Not only did tourists stop for the ice cream, but PEI natives did, too.”
Linkletter, who had a successful career in the tourism industry before starting COWS , adds: “Our ice cream is based on an old family recipe probably very similar to the ice cream that would have been made in Anne’s 'house' when author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s relatives was growing up there. We use PEI cream, sugar, eggs, and vanilla and very little air in churning. This results in a dense, very rich ice cream with 16% butterfat.” The ice cream, available in approximately 30 flavors, is served in waffle cones that are made, one-at-a-time, in the store.
Ice cream alone wouldn’t keep this privately held family business going, Linkletter knew. By 1985, when he opened a new store in Charlottetown, the island’s capital, store clerks were sporting tee shirts and aprons with clever sayings and plays on words focusing on COWS ice cream. This, Linkletter, says was the beginning of what would turn out to be a large image and moneymaker for COWS, initially in the ice cream stores and later on the company’s website .
“Selling tee shirts, mugs, and aprons helped ‘prolong’ seasonality of the business as the COWS merchandise would be available year-round,” he notes.
Developing whimsical and clever names such as Wowie Cowie, Moo York Cheesecake, and Dairy Potter, for the more than 30 flavors of ice creams COWS offers keep the staff busy, Linkletter says. “We try to stay current with names for our tee shirts, aprons, mugs, and other products. Some of the names come from the staff, others customers. And, why did we call the company COWS? We just liked it.”
COWS produces between 15,000 and 20,000 buckets of ice cream (each bucket is 11.3 liters) during spring and summer.
Today, there are five COWS ice cream stores in PEI including one on the ferry that shuttles residents, visitors and their cars between Nova Scotia and PEI; only the Charlottetown store is open-year round. There are COWS stores in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Niagara-on-the- Lake, Ontario which also close for the winter. Because there is a “second tourism” season in Banff and Whistler, those stores remain open year round, Linkletter says. All stores are company-owned, and the ice cream is shipped from the plant in Charlottetown.
Although Linkletter is not one to chide high-end ice cream manufacturers elsewhere, he says, “We will not substitute high- fructose corn syrup for the sugar, which many ice cream manufacturers have done. Our ice cream is available in our stores only, and we have no plans of selling it in supermarkets.”
Large and Small “Pearls” in PEI’s waters
Although many of the stores’ employees are high school or college students working through the summer, Linkletter knew that for a seasonal business to be even more successful, the season needed to be extended, even if that meant another seasonal business.
Linkletter did not have to look far to start his fall/winter business, Raspberry Point Oysters in the mid 1990s. “My old farm home looks over Raspberry Point, in New London Bay which is adjacent to PEI’s National Park. So with 75 regular employees with COWS, we switch gears in October. We harvest oysters from our oyster leases year round, but our busiest time is fall and winter. “
Raspberry Point harvests and markets several varieties of oysters, including their largest and most abundant, Raspberry Point and Pickle Point. There also are Shiny Sea, cocktail-size oysters and Lucky Limes, oysters with greenish shells, which come from a particular part of New London Bay.
One refrigerated truck leaves every Friday on its way to New York. Here, the oysters are received by a distributer who air freights or trucks them to restaurants and markets in the United States.
Linkletter says Raspberry Point oysters are on the menu at such venerable establishments as Shaws Crab House in Chicago, the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC, and the Truluck’s chain of seafood restaurants in Texas and Florida. For markets within Canada, the oysters are shipped by refrigerated truck from Charlottetown. In total, they harvest and sell approximately 2.5 million oysters annually.
Cheese Now in the COWS Mix
Cheese Now in the COWS Mix
It was a trip to the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland that was responsible for COWS CREAMERY, Linkletter’s foray into cheese making, not an attempt to create a new seasonal business.
“My family traces its roots to the Orkneys, and the recipes for our line of cheeses are based on cheese found there. We produce COWS CREAMERY Extra Old Cheddar (aged for one year) now available in select Eastern Coast Canadian supermarkets. Last June, this cheese was cited ‘as an excellent aged cheddar cheese’ in a national Canadian cheese competition.”
COWS CREAMERY also makes Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar, which was awarded a Gold Prize in the American Cheese Society judging in Austin, Texas earlier this year ( 2009). This cheese is available in Whole Foods in metropolitan San Francisco.
Could there be other seasonal businesses in Linkletter’s future?
There’s a twinkle in his eye, but he isn’t saying.
Claudia M. Caruana is a New York-based writer who teaches at the Stern School of Business at New York University.