At the age of 25, Shane Stanger and friend Rob Robbins left behind budding careers to jump headfirst into business together. “We found a location and sort of just ran with an idea that we had for a while,” Stanger says. “We knew we were young enough to take the risk, and we had a lot of great ideas.”
In 2013, the duo opened The Baked Bear, a build-your-own ice cream sandwich shop, in their hometown of San Diego. The focus on ice cream sandwiches came naturally, Stanger says, as both he and Robbins are big dessert fans. They also wanted to incorporate a homemade, baked-from-scratch element. “A lot of our favorite restaurants are the ones that have that open kitchen where you can see what’s being made,” Stanger says. “We went with the product that’s fun, creates excitement, and is more novel.” Plus, the sweet sandwiches could be marketed in creative ways.
Baked in-house daily, cookies range in flavor from traditional Chocolate Chip and Red Velvet to colorful Funfetti Cake and the ever-changing Cookie of the Month. As customers walk in, they are met with all the cookies, Stanger says.
Customers can also choose a brownie or doughnut as buns. “One of the most popular items is the Baked Bear combo,” Stanger says. “It’s one side cookie, one side brownie. A lot of people like to get one side Cookies & Cream cookie, one side brownie, with Bear Batter ice cream, which is the blue cake batter with brownies and fudge. And then [it’s] hot-pressed, with fudge on top.”
The ice cream selection includes Salted Caramel Fudge, Toasted S’mores, and new Blackberry Crumble—a favorite of Stanger’s—that features a vanilla base with a blackberry ripple and crumble pieces like cheesecake crust.
The Baked Bear’s menu is meant to be simple, Stanger says, and relies mainly on customer preference, especially given the multitude of possible combinations. “There are probably hundreds of thousands of customizations, because you can split ice creams if you wanted to. You could do three toppings. You can do a double-decker,” Stanger says. “When I work on the line, I’ll serve 100 people, and each one will get something different.”
On average, Baked Bear locations are about 1,200–1,300 square feet, and increasingly the shops are being built with open kitchens. “You can see the windows through to the back, eggs being cracked, the mixer going, the baker’s hand scooping the cookies,” Stanger adds.
Decorated in blues, whites, and wood tones, pops of color play off cement floors to create an atmosphere that Stanger calls a hybrid of industrial chic. Originally the design was based purely on Stanger and Robbins’ own taste. As the brand developed, choices like the hand-painted bear logo and canvases of ice cream sandwiches on the walls continued to convey a homey, welcoming atmosphere.
On top of utilizing social media platforms like Instagram to gather hype for its seductively decadent product, Stanger and Robbins have turned to a community-oriented marketing strategy to entice customers in new markets. By taking its catering operation mobile, the Baked Bear can dive into special events. “Instead of spending a bunch of money on marketing, we spend time putting ourselves and our products out there,” Stanger says.
The Baked Bear
FOUNDERS: Shane Stanger and Rob Robbins
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
YEAR STARTED: 2013
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 25 (30 projected by 2019)
FRANCHISED UNITS: 23
As far as growth strategy goes, Stanger and Robbins focus on outstanding franchisees in dense areas. “We’re only talking to people who come to us,” Stanger says. “We’re pretty much just limiting the new growth to people who want to work in their shop day in and day out [and] who understand that it takes hard work.”
Early on, Stanger and Robbins opened and closed the shop for months. They prefer operators who are involved with their local communities, understand the value of supporting the store, and plan on giving it the passion that it needs to do well.
That philosophy reflects the Baked Bear’s origin story in which big growth was not a key consideration. “We happened to set our concept up in an expandable way, but our goal above all was to create that hometown, local, mom-and-pop ice cream shop,” Stanger says. Still Stanger and Robbins knew from the get-go that they had something special. “When we opened, we had lines down the street from day one, and it just never stopped,” Stanger says.
The enthusiasm has continued throughout the past five years, and the Baked Bear is now 25 locations strong, with five more expected to open by the year’s end. Beyond that, Robbins and Stanger foresee the Baked Bear opening five to 10 locations each year, with one to two stores per city.
“A lot of people think the best way to open restaurant brands is to saturate a market and prove that you can fill up a market,” Stanger says. “But that’s not how you make the business cool; that’s how someone makes a lot of money. For us, it’s about maintaining the strength of the brand and making the stores feel special.”
Even though growth wasn’t in their original plan, the team is having a great time. Stanger says what he enjoys the most about his job is training new teams and feeding off the excitement of the openings.
“It doesn’t feel like we have this really big company,” he says. “It feels like this small, tight-knit group of people.”
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