In 1991, Jamie Leeson moved to Taos, N.M., to spend the winter as a ski bum before heading to law school. He waited on tables and hit the steeps at Taos Ski Valley nearly every day. That winter was an epic one, an El Niño year that dropped legendary amounts of snow. By the time the season ended, he had decided to put off law school for another year. "You apply before ski season starts and you hear back in March," Leeson recalls, "which is a tough time to think about anything except 30 inches a week."
The next winter brought so much snow that the town's solar-powered radio station shut down due to lack of sun, and Leeson realized he had no desire to leave Taos-and even less inclination to become a lawyer.
Around that time, a local pizza shop owner started an ice cream company, named it Taos Cow, made a few not-so-tasty batches, then moved to Montana. He offered to sell his business-which consisted of a cow logo, some ice cream-making equipment and a few leftover pint containers. Leeson, a detail fanatic who speaks with equal enthusiasm and deliberation about everything from butterfat content to edge bevels, saw a way to remain in Taos without having to work as a waiter or bike mechanic or liftie. He and his then-roommate Todd Fortune pooled their personal savings and purchased the operation for $20,000.
Leeson attended college in Boston in the 1980s, right in the middle of an ice cream revolution. After years of bland, air-whipped supermarket fare, gourmet shops like Ben & Jerry's were developing new flavors using quality ingredients. In the Southwest, however, upscale ice cream pickings were slim. Leeson's business plan: Fill that void with Taos Cow.
First, however, he had to figure out how to make ice cream. Until Leeson and Fortune learned about liquid egg yolks, for instance, they broke and separated the eggs themselves-128 of them for a small batch. "We had to start selling from day one, so it was trial by fire," Leeson says.
Leeson and Fortune developed a number of flavors inspired by the Southwest. Café Olé (coffee ice cream with cinnamon and Mexican chocolate chunks) was an early crowd-pleaser. Other signature flavors include Cherry Ristra (cherry ice cream with roasted piñons, dark chocolate chunks and cherries) and Chocolate Rio Grande (chocolate, roasted piñons, pecans and dark chocolate chunks). They opened a scoop shop in Arroyo Seco, an adobe-and-dog-filled village on a curve in the road heading up to Taos Ski Valley.
With his money tied up in his new business, Leeson could no longer afford a ski pass. He resorted to hiking for turns in the backcountry or scamming tickets from friends who worked for the resort, including his now-wife, Doony. He also picked up snowboarding. Whether on skis or board, Leeson still managed to get out on the snow 80 to 100 days each season, even during the early years of the business. "There were times when I was too busy to ski that much," he says. "But I still skied that much."
In 1995, Taos Cow entered into a deal with a Colorado creamery to sell pints in 15 Western states. In a matter of weeks, the company went from churning out 1,500 pints a month to 1,500 pints a day.
The transition wasn't easy, as the company struggled to maintain the quality of the ice cream once it left the loading dock. While big companies such as Ben & Jerry's own fleets of trucks and control the product from factory to shelf, the trucks that delivered Taos Cow carried other frozen foods as well. Every stop, every pickup, when doors opened and pallets changed trucks, was an opportunity for the ice cream to melt, suffering "heat shock" and losing its silky quality.
Taos Cow also came on the market at a time when Ben & Jerry's and Hà¤agen Dazs were battling to control the super-premium pint business-and engaging in severe price-cutting. Leeson estimates his business eked out a slim 4 percent annual profit margin in the best of those years. "The fallout was that thhe shelves got cleared of a lot, if not all, of the little ice-cream companies," he says.
Taos Cow was one of those casualties. After hitting peak revenues of $300,000,it stopped producing pints in 1997. At the same time, Fortune left New Mexico and Leeson took over his share of the company. Alone with his ice cream, Leeson decided to take the manufacturing back into his Arroyo Seco factory, raise prices, and focus on his scoop-shop and restaurant business, which had thrived while the pint business struggled.
Leeson slowly began to acquire more restaurant accounts, and in 1999 he took on new partners, moved the storefront to a more prominent location on the main drag in Arroyo Seco and expanded the company's selection.
Today, Taos Cow provides ice cream for roughly 60 restaurants from Alamogordo, N.M., to Denver, Colo., with annual sales approaching a half million dollars. In the next few years, Leeson and some new partners plan to open scoop shops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos, and in the long run they hope to open franchises in Colorado ski towns as well. Leeson learned during Taos Cow's ill-fated foray into the pint business that ice cream is best when sold at an altitude close to that at which it is made-because ice cream expands or contracts at different elevations. With their factory perched at 7,500 feet, Leeson and his partners hope to leverage Taos Cow's ski-town identity in areas such as Aspen and Breckenridge.
"Had I known that 10 years later I'd be slogging and still struggling for cash, I'd probably have decided against it," Leeson laughs. "But if I see a big storm coming, I'll call my accounts and do my deliveries early to make sure I'm not working on the days it's snowing."
Name Jamie Leeson
Profession Ice cream entrepreneur
Personal Though avid skiers, Leeson and his wife, Doony, are also "frustrated snowboarders," forced by Taos' ban to travel three hours to shred.
Why Taos "The pow. The skiing. The quasi-Wild West feel. I like that it's not too crowded-and the climate is divine."