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Safe At The Top

Safe At The TopAjob scooping ice cream while attending Tufts led Amy Simmons toAustin, Texas, where her popular ice cream chain celebrates 20years of business. Medford/Somerville,Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.08.04] With a recipe that combinestwo helpings of tastiness with one helping of irreverence anda sprinkling of savvy, Tufts graduate Amy Simmons has turned acollege job scooping ice cream into a multi-million dollar enterprisein the hip, high-tech enclave of Austin, Texas.

"Austinis so incredibly supportive," she told the University ofTexas-Austin’s Daily Texan. "For a town that'salmost a million people, it's a tight little community."

And it’sa community that loves its ice cream. “Amy’s Ice Creams”– which employs 133 people at eight stores in Austin, twoin Houston, and one in San Antonio – went from selling 125,000servings of ice cream in 1984 to 1,125,000 last year, earninggross sales of $4.5 million, the Austin American-Statesmanreported.

This month,Amy’s Ice Creams celebrated its 20-year anniversary withhundreds of former employees returning for a weekend full of fun,food, raffles, and dancing. Amy’s also gave out free icecream to customers on November 1.

"It'slike a high school reunion as you'd want it to be, but never is,"Simmons told the Daily Texan.

For Simmons,a career revolving around 14 percent butterfat ice cream didn’tseem in the cards while a pre-med major at Tufts.

From 1979to 1984, the Michigan native scooped ice cream at Steve’sIce Cream in Somerville and helped expand the franchise to Floridaand Manhattan. But after the company was bought out, she souredto corporate culture and decided to open her own store.

Plans of eventuallyattending medical school quickly melted.

After a disappointingexperience in London, Simmons and her business partner at thetime, Scott Shaw, came to Austin after reading about the townin a magazine article. They quickly decided to set up shop inthe college town – writing a hot check for the first month’srent.

"In thethird year, I thought: 'Hey I'm supposed to grow up and go tomedical school now,'" Simmons told the American-Statesman,but compared to a doctor’s life, she called running an icecream chain “paradise.”

Though Simmonsgot her MBA from UT-Austin, her management style is far from corporate.She purposely seeks employees that don’t fit into a button-downmold.

"Backin the beginning, a lot of the employees were drama students,"former employee Andrew Dugas told the Daily Texan. "Amyallowed for creative craziness to go on as long as it didn't overrideprofessionalism. If it could be done, we were doing it."

Simmons activelyseeks out dynamic workers, using something she calls the “paperbag test” – applicants are given a white paper bagand told to bring it back with information about them.

Employeeshave met the challenge by transforming the bag into a makeshiftjack-in-the-box or returning it to Simmons via helium balloon.

"It wasnot an 'a-ha' moment at the time, but we just decided to keepdoing it," Simmons explained to the American-Statesman.

Some of thechain’s irreverence also manifests itself through wackytheme nights and acrobatic scooping techniques, flourishes thatentertain customers and workers alike.

Despite hersuccess, Simmons told the American-Statesman that shedoesn’t envision expanding the chain beyond Texas.

"We wantto be a strong regional company, not something you can get inNew York or Boston but can come to Texas and can get this fabulousice cream store," she said.

Her husband,Steve – no connection to Simmons’s former employer– pitches in as director of business development. They havethree children.

As for howa college job as an ice cream scooper snowballed into being asuccessful business owner, Simmons herself seems to find it hardto believe.

"It wasjust kind of momentum," she told the American-Statesman.




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