Turning an idea into a product with staying power is a challenge, yet that is just what Nicki Schroeder, co-founder and CMO of High Road Craft Ice Cream has managed to do. Along with her husband, James Beard award-winning chef Keith Schroeder, the two set off to make ice cream by chefs for chefs.  

In her FA&M keynote address, “Turning an Idea into a Brand,” Schroeder said, “My husband and I started off in 2010 with a blast freezer, a batch freezer, one hardening cabinet and one 30-gallon vat pasteurizer. He was freshly MBA’d and ready to go with an idea for making ice cream by chefs and for chefs. This idea is an important one because we were starting everything from scratch. Even today, 11 years later, we still make everything from scratch in-house.”

Schroeder said that when they started out as manufacturers, “or makers,” it mattered deeply to make things by scratch. “Not a lot of manufacturers do this, and it’s something that we’ve learned along the way that if we were going to connect with our community and our customers, that this idea of being a maker mattered deeply.”

Having the right people in the right places and learning as they moved along was important to the couple. “This ethos of being a maker was the backbone of our company and our brands,” Schroeder explained.

In the beginning, High Road Craft Ice Cream was focused only on the culinary community. Fast-forward, and they worked with retailers and then realized that consumers are also chefs. “They do care about their ingredients. They care about what’s going in their bodies. They care about where their food comes from, and we realized this is important. This is an important celebration of being makers and creating these beautiful products for consumers as well as the culinary world. So this idea was something that we built High Road on,” she said.

Nikki at High Road Craft Ice Cream
“Sometimes you have to tell people in the room, ‘I'm going to mess this up,’ or ‘I'm not going to get this right, but you're on my team so help me get there, help me figure it out,’” said High Road's Nicki Schroeder (above). Photo courtesy of High Road Craft Ice Cream

Schroeder offers anecdotes about her (sometimes bumpy) journey as a maker as well as some innovative ways to use equipment, creating scrumptious novelties that many of you have probably tried if not under their name brands—High Road, Ciao Bella and Helados La Neta—then under one or more of their private labels. They formulate ice cream, soft serve, custard and gelato mixes, innovate in the novelty space, and craft both small and large batch flavors for their chef and category manager partners. Schroeder managed to bootstrap the company to $500,000 in sales in its first year of operation. High Road is set to become a $50MM company in its upcoming fiscal year.

“Today is a celebration of women in manufacturing. This is important because we're making strides every day to grow more, to learn more, to be more. [It] is a celebration of us women making our way as makers,” she said.

Nicki Schroeder
Nicki Schroeder, co-founder and CMO of High Road Craft Ice Cream.
Ronda Wright
Ronda Wright, regional director of supply excellence for Mars Wrigley North America.

Schroeder’s keynote was the perfect introduction to the Women in Food Manufacturing panel discussion, which I was fortunate to moderate. Panelists include Schroeder; Kate Rome, president of Rome Grinding Solutions; and Ronda Wright, regional director of supply excellence for Mars Wrigley North America.

Rome leads the third-generation family run business. She has worked for the company since she was 16 years old, filling roles from purchasing and accounting to general management, and has served as president since 2014. During her time in leadership, Rome has been dedicated to helping women advance in the manufacturing industry.

Respected as a credible voice in manufacturing and operations, Wright has earned a seat at the table in strategic decision-making, determining policy and establishing governance boundaries. In her current position, she develops strategy for the segment’s continuous improvement journey with the ambition of driving business results through capability building. Previously, she held leadership roles at Coca-Cola, General Mills and Anheuser Busch.

Panelists were asked how they, in a predominantly male industry, stand at the table, knowing that sometimes women are viewed negatively if they take the same approach as men. How can they get their points across and make their voices heard? All agree that it is important to speak up, bring ideas and know your subject. Wright answered, “It’s important to remember that you belong at that table. You have the relevant skills, the right experience. So everything that you have to say means just as much as the next person. Maintain a level of confidence to understand that what you’re bringing has value and don’t be afraid to bring that voice.”

Having humor is key, too. Schroeder said, “I use humor a lot because so many situations can be uncomfortable. I’m almost 50 years old and feel like I still haven't figured out how to how to stand my ground and how to become my best self.”

Rome recalls walking into an industry board meeting years ago, and there were 14 men sitting there when she was the last one to arrive. “I walked in, paused at the door and said, ‘Yeah, you guys realize how intimidating this is, right?’ And they all got a big chuckle. But it was a nice icebreaker,” she recalled.

A little humility goes a long way, too. “Sometimes you have to tell people in the room, ‘I'm going to mess this up,’ or ‘I'm not going to get this right, but you're on my team so help me get there, help me figure it out,’” Schroeder said.

Panelists also talked about the lessons they have learned, what criteria makes them stay in their careers, connecting with co-workers, imposter syndrome, how they navigated thorough the pandemic, what they enjoy most about working in the food industry, connecting with co-workers, and much more. You can watch the live recording of it until August 2022 at https://www.foodengineeringmag.com/food-automation-conference/2021/agenda.