INTERVIEW: NATASHA CASE & FREYA ESTRELLER
For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do. NC: In a big picture sense, my role as CEO is to be the visionary and leader, create buy-in from my team via great culture, inspiration and transparency, innovate, and to set them up for success by allowing them to thrive at their specialty via the tools and resources necessary. I also happen to do a lot of the creative (merchandising, packaging, website design, marketing collateral, etc) because design is near and dear to my heart—and I find it keeps the brand very authentic to have our visuals generated from within our organization. Other than that, day-to-day is a lot of business development and partnerships discussions, press, public speaking/mentoring, always love a good sales meeting, general check-in’s with different departments, R&D for new flavors and products—and whatever else the day brings.
Architecture + ice cream: How did this concept come about?
NC: I’ve always been passionate about architecture and food. I started playing around with the concept of “farchitecture” (food + architecture) in college. One of my grad school professors said my model looked like a layer cake, and I thought, “why is that a bad thing?” For my next presentation, I showed up with a model made out of actual cake. Everyone loved it. I started making the ice cream sammies you know of today during my time at Disney Imagineering. I would name them after famous architects and design movements and share them with co-workers. It was 2008, so everyone was experiencing layoffs and it was some comedic relief for us all. When I met Freya, she really encouraged me to turn my hobby into a business.
Did either of you have any previous experience in the food industry? Or owning a business?
NC: I had worked one catering job in college and gotten fired for being ‘at the party’ instead of working it. That pretty much sums it up! I had a lifetime of experience of enjoying delicious food, though…
FE: No real experience in food. When I met Natasha, I had started waitressing evenings after my real estate job to learn more about this biz. As far as business, though, I did know how to make financial models, basics of operations, etc from my real estate background—I did minor in business in college at Cornell as well.
Once you made the decision to make Coolhaus a business, what was the first specific action step you took?
The very early move was to introduce Coolhaus to our ‘warm circle’ (family and friends) to get initial feedback, viability, interest, etc. We would discuss or have people fill out anonymous surveys. I cannot stress how important it is not to sequester your start-up concept until it is “ready” because seeing early reactions is vital… and nothing is ever totally “ready” anyway. I also think people fear ideas getting “stolen.” I hear that a lot. The thing is, the difference between an idea and successful execution is so massive, the likelihood of this fear becoming a reality is essentially non-existent. Anyway, after early introduction of the concept to our warm circle next steps were figuring out how to launch. Wholesale seemed murky and we did not have money for a brick and mortar—and seeing the viral popularity of chef-driven food trucks and their social media component—we decided this angle would be achievable for us. So, we essentially maxed out my personal credit card buying a $2900 postal van on Craigslist!
What were your biggest insecurities in the beginning? How did you overcome them?
In the beginning, my biggest insecurities were very much centered around management. How and why would staff listen to me if I had, essentially, no food service experience? Also, I was the same age, if not younger than much of our team—so that made achieving leadership boundaries even more difficult; how to be friendly without necessarily being friends, etc. I will say, though, management gets easier with time, as you grow up, essentially. You learn what motivates people; no two are alike. Now our team averages around 70 people in peak season and I feel much more in control of how to communicate, inspire, push my team—and what mood I want to set for the culture of our group.
Could you touch on the emotional journey of starting and growing your business?
There’s a lot to say on this topic. I think in the beginning I would just react, react to everything. It makes complete sense—we’re all human! Over time, though, I think you learn to have instant perspective. There are so many highs and lows, trials and tribulations—you can’t let it drive your mood all over the map. Now I try and say to myself: when I tell the story of this crazy incident, how will I sound in this story? Will I be lamented that I over-reacted and got into a screaming match? Or will I be able to say that I kept my cool and spoke my mind clearly and concisely? I think it’s almost like always living 10 minutes in the future. The big picture thinking helps a lot with tempering emotions—and creating a new emotion of calm confidence.
I also want to say that I had a particular type of emotional journey with the brand being married to the other founder. We definitely argued a lot and got very passionate/heated about particulars of the business. That was not easy to deal with. We tried to keep it separated, but sometimes it would just bleed into whatever space we found ourselves. I think you have to make the most of this kind of relationship, even if boundaries are tough sometimes. In the end, running the business made us as close as we could be, and we worked through a lot of issues—it’s an incredible bond. Now we don’t work on the day to day together (Freya has a new business), so it’s a nice reward to have some separation, but still give each other input.
Can you think back to a particular unexpected setback or mental block you had to overcome when starting out?
Our first angel investor definitely fits this bill. We didn’t vet him like we should have. We let him just vet us, and for a very long time. We learned that someone should be so lucky as to get to be part of our business—and we should treat the relationship accordingly. We also had a very good lawyer (thank God!), so another lesson learned is always to plan for worst case scenario with any business relationship.
What was your first ah-ha moment, when you knew all your hard work was coming together as a reality?
The very first ah-ha moment was at Coachella Valley Music Festival in 2009. That’s where we launched the company actually. In front of an audience of 100,000 people (NBD). We spent four days amassing a mini cult following in the campground area—even though we were operating out of a truck that literally could not drive. One morning, someone woke me up at 7am (we would generally get to bed around 4am when after hours music finally stopped) and said a line was forming at the truck. I knew we had something at that moment. Fast forwarding a bit, the next big ah-ha moment was seeing our products on the shelf at Whole Foods market—we thought, we have built a brand that has legs, can grow and scale sustainably, and is here to stay.
You ladies founded Coolhaus at the end of 2008 – before the food truck explosion and the beginning of the economic downturn. What advice do you have for others pursuing an idea with more uncertainty and risk than usual?
I encourage people to take risks if they are calculated risks. There are also great ways to limit the risk like keeping your current full-time job, and nurturing a new potential career as a side gig at first. Also, don’t spend money “perfecting” an idea – just put it out here and see if anyone is interested before you invest in fine tuning it too much. Also, think about the role you will play, and if there is a realistic way that you can get to a place where you are working on the business, not just in the business.
Knowing what you know now, what would you change about how you went about starting this venture?
Not much, because the mistakes we made were essential parts of the learning process and evolving. Also, sometimes a different goal is achieved than one you set out to make. For example, our truck business in Miami, FL was not worth keeping – but we ended up getting great distribution there due to the marketing that we did by operating there for about six months.
In 2015, you ladies gave a TED Talks speech about women and entrepreneurship. At one point, you mentioned how “not playing the victim” has helped you immensely in your Coolhaus journey. Could you elaborate on this mentality in regards to owning a business?
I think when you run a business, you have to empower yourself to control your destiny, and manifest your will. Waiting around for something big to happen, a buyer to accept you, a client to book your services – nobody has time for that. On the flip side, when something goes wrong, you have to rise to the challenge and overcome it—you will be better in the end if you do… and definitely no crying! Business is business – it should be hard work, but fun in the end.
You two emphasize a company culture of entrepreneurship and empowerment with your several dozens of employees. What do you consider the differences between a manager and a leader?
A leader is a visionary, and pushes the brand as far as innovation. A leader should inspire and define the mission of the company. A manager should guide and implement this vision; they should inspire the execution to be done to the best of the ability of the team. I also like to say that the manager is the ‘dreamcatcher’ for the leader – they stop the nightmares from forming but the best dreams will sieve to fruition.
What is one specific resource you can’t live without when running your business?
Firstly, Boomerang, an incredible scheduling and follow-up plug-in tool for Gmail. I also love Rapportive; great for knowing whom you are interacting with. Lastly, my dogs! A mini schnauzer, lhasa apso and chiweenie – they have an incredibly positive influence on the mood at the office.
What does a typical work day look like for you – morning to night?
Everyday is different, which I love. I usually start with a quick email check, pour-over coffee, and homemade breakfast by Freya. I also usually do my work-outs in the morning – cardio or tennis. I ride on my Brilliant bike to the office late morning with one of my dogs snug in my front basket. I usually spend half the day in meetings that are related to business development, PR, partnerships, sales, etc, and the remaining meeting with my team members related to different departments of our business, and on email. I usually do a bit of design everyday as well: packaging, marketing collateral, website, etc. Almost every evening I have a work-related event, dinner with a vendor/partner, etc—I love the kind of informal business dinner, where the folks are great company, but you can also discuss working together and big ideas. It’s a good excuse to try new spots to eat too!
You have become known for making odd ice cream flavor combinations incredibly delicious. What’s one flavor you tried but didn’t pan out?
Oh man. There are two epic failures to note here: Waldorf Salad and another with Pickles & Peanut Butter. We still think that both ideas had potential, but with the Waldorf Salad… blue cheese ice cream was just never going to work. The Pickles & Peanut Butter ice cream actually made an intern shriek after she opened the tub. That was a different kind of ah-ha moment.
L.A. LADY CULTURE.
Favorite area of L.A.? Mid-City Heights. We just bought a house there! It’s an amazing up and coming neighborhood with gorgeous historical bones and nice scale. We are sort of situated on a hill, so we have a view of Century City and the Palisades—it’s a really interesting perspective on L.A.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? Ta-eem Grill for street food (Israeli), Shunji for best Omakase, Cassia for seafood, Alexander’s Steakhouse for a super swanky meal!
Menu item we must order there? At Cassia, get the crab and oyster pan roast. Stop reading this article right now and order it!
Favorite happy hour? Since our HQ is in Culver City, Chestnut Club in Santa Monica or Corner Door… been meaning to check out Seventy7 nearby as well!
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Playing 9 holes at Los Feliz 9, Domaine LA wine tastings, hiking with the dogs in Baldwin Hills or West Hollywood, fishing in Long Beach, bowling at Bowlero or Spare Room with friends… Jumbo’s late night!
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? Something between Electro, Dance, R&B and Rock… which there is strangely a lot of these days.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? Magic Castle! I have a friend who is actually a magician there… we really need to go, witness the miracles, and eat dinner there… the whole shabang!!
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Revelling in doing ABSOLUTELY nothing! L.A. is magic for that. Sitting in our garden in our adirondacks with the sun beaming on us, the dogs prancing and sniffing everything in sight, the smell of the lavender, rosemary, parsley, oregano… having a long morning coffee couple of hours in the courtyard outside the bedroom… watching Netflix all [weekend] day! It sounds to good to be true, but in L.A., it’s not.
-Natasha Case & Freya Estreller, Co-Founders of Coolhaus