By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
There was a time in mid-1990s when Charlie Beaton had his doubts. He’d put money on his credit card and borrowed cash from his parents, hoping to get his little-known business making ice cream off the ground.
The University of Montana graduate had already tried selling insurance, and his new venture churning out a frozen dairy product didn’t come with a back-up plan.
“I felt like I’d failed selling insurance,” Beaten told a business group at a recent Blackstone LaunchPad presentation at UM. “Ice cream was all I knew. It was a scary time.”
Fast forward 21 years and Beaton, founder of Big Dipper Ice Cream, has turned a job he loved doing in college at Goldsmith’s in downtown Missoula into a franchise business on the verge of something big.
Late last year, Beaton was approached by the National Park Service about making Big Dipper Ice Cream for Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The requested volume didn’t seem plausible for his home-spun ice cream business, but Beaton found a way to persevere.
“They showed me the numbers and there was no way we could come close to making that much ice cream,” he said. “But I gave it some thought and met with Meadow Gold, one of our suppliers, and asked if they could manufacture it for us.”
Meadow Gold agreed and for the past five months, Beaton has been working to ensure the product meets his standards. The first batch is scheduled for delivery in April under the new brand Big Dipper Select.
The traditional Big Dipper brand, which has won the heart of Missoulians and led to franchises in Helena and Billings (and soon Bozeman), is made with 15 percent butterfat ice cream. Beaton said Big Dipper Select includes 12 percent butterfat, making it less expensive to produce in volume.
“It’s a little tricky because the ice cream is a little different,” Beaton said. “I don’t want to dilute what I’d done here, so the first thought was to name it something different, but they really liked the name Big Dipper, and I’d worked so hard to brand it.”
Beaton has sold nine flavors to the Park Service and the first batch is now in production, much of it taking place at a large-scale plant in Orem, Utah. He recently visited the plant and was admittedly surprised by the scale of what he’d agreed to do.
At his shop in Missoula, Beaton can produce roughly 12 to 15 tubs of ice cream each hour. The plant in Utah produces eight tubs each minute. The first batch of Big Dipper Select involves a 48,000-pound shipment of ice cream.
“It’s pretty exciting and it could be really big,” Beaton said. “Sysco will probably pick up that line too and start selling it here in the states in 48-ounce containers that go to grocery stores.”
Beaton’s success is a long ways from his early stresses as an entrepreneur with no back-up plan. Despite the worries of those early days, he still recalls them fondly – the hours he spent churning ice cream during college at Goldsmith’s.
It was there in the mid-1990s where he met most of his good friends, including his wife, Barbie. His mother made ice cream as a dietitian, making his fondness for the product something of a family tradition.
“It was the best job I ever had, making ice cream,” Beaton said.
Like his future Big Dipper brand, those early days would become woven into Missoula’s fabric. One evening, he met friend Tim O’Leary – future founder of KettleHouse Brewing Co. – at the old Bayern Brewery to talk about their business ideas.
“My original vision for Big Dipper was just to do wholesale ice cream,” Beaton said. “I didn’t have any vision of doing a store. I just wanted to make ice cream and sell it to restaurants and stores. It was real simple. I just wanted to work for myself and do the job I loved doing in college.”
Armed with separate plans, Beaton and O’Leary took up shop in an old pottery warehouse on Myrtle Street. After six months of cleaning their new digs, O’Leary set about launching his novel “you brew” beer business while Beaton began making ice cream in the back of the shop.
Beaton still keeps a picture of the process – the old ice cream machine and O’Leary’s small beer-brewing kettles. O’Leary would later move away from the “you brew” concept to launch KettleHouse Brewing in the same location.
“It’s interesting to look back at where we started,” Beaton said. “We weren’t worried about failure. When you’re young and starting a business, you really have nothing to lose. When we get older, we have kids and houses and things, and doing a business gets a little scarier.”
O’Leary’s business has since grown into one of the largest and most popular microbreweries in the state – but that’s a separate story. As for Beaton, he rested his future on an old gas station on the corner of South Higgins Avenue and Fifth Street in Missoula.
At the time, Beaton was still selling ice cream to wholesale accounts, including the Good Food Store and Butterfly Herbs. It was 2003 when bought out his partner, Dale Bickell, who now serves as the city of Missoula’s chief administrative officer.
“To me, 2003 is really when everything changed for us,” Beaton said. “We were working so much that when my daughter was born, my wife was working with her. Now my daughter works for us. Time really goes by fast.”
The successes came quickly in the years that followed. They approved a new franchise business in Helena. They bought an old truck and launched Big Dipper mobile. They won a contract with UM to sell ice cream on campus, and during Grizzly football games.
Then came a phone call in 2013 that would solidify their success.
“I got a call on Friday,” said Beaton. “Good Morning America was doing a show on best ice creams in America, and they wanted us on the show.”
Beaton ignored the call at first, thinking it was similar to a request from the Today Show, which also wanted ice cream. In that instance, Beaton said, he spent time and money shipping Cold Smoke ice cream to the Today Show. When it arrived, the hosts never mentioned Big Dipper by name, but they ate the ice cream.
Good Morning America, however, did feature Beaton’s ice cream, and more.
“They took us out onto Times Square and they’d built a little miniature Big Dipper ice cream stand,” he said. “They had our ice cream out there and we were giving it to the people waiting. It was a career highlight and it was so surreal. We’re in Times Square with all these reader boards, and here’s the Big Dipper in the middle of it.”