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By Andrew Gully and video by Alex Teng
| June 28, 2016
Vincent Petryk knew when he was scooping ice cream in Philadelphia after college in 1976 that he’d one day open his own ice cream business. But he wanted it to be so much more than just a store.
“I realized daily the power and magic of ice cream,” said the founder and owner of J.P. Licks. “I knew what I was serving wasn’t just a treat, it was love in a cone.”
In 1981, he started his business in Jamaica Plain—and opened the door to his “own little world” where people could come and be happier.
Vince, now 61 years old, said his office above J.P. Licks on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain reflects his mind. If so, the founder and owner of the 13-store ice cream empire has a lot going on upstairs. Corporate, it ain’t.
There’s a three-foot-tall illuminated Santa Claus; big, old signs for Hood, the YMCA “Flying Fish” swimming program, and eggs; crayon portraits of Vince and other wild characters; some off-color political bumper stickers; and aging magazine covers, among other things.
J.P. Lick’s started in an old firehouse on Centre Street. It then expanded, store-by-store, whenever Vince felt right about a location. He doesn’t franchise. Each store is, to a degree, unique—a reflection of Vince’s whimsy and design thoughts at the time.
Except for one thing: the cows. They’re moo-niversal.
The store offers 42-44 flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt in six categories, including vegan and lactose-free.
J.P. Licks has seen competitors and fads come and go over 35 years. It has survived and flourished because Vince is thoughtful about his product offerings, stresses quality and vivid taste, and consistently delivers on traditional flavors while offering a manageable number of new flavors.
But Vince tapped into something more than just great flavors. “I realized when I was younger that ice cream connects you to some of the fondest memories of your childhood: the love you received from your parents and the happiest times spent with family and friends,” he said.
Early on, Vince discovered a key element to delivering a happy customer experience: “You can’t deliver that quality experience if someone walked out of line and left the store because we didn’t get them their ice cream fast enough: We have to be good and fast.”
So, how do they pick the flavors?
When it all began, there were 20 people—including Vince. He hired a lot of Mass Art students in those early years, and they often came with tattoos, piercings “beyond the usual two,” dyed or teased hair, and wild clothes. It clearly wasn’t Brigham’s.
He loves to tell the story of the suburban guy who used to bring his wife to get ice cream and hang around because his favorite part was watching “the freak show”—meaning all the kids behind the counter.
A self-described “odd ball from birth,” Vince said he was badly bullied as a kid growing up in a small mill town outside of Philly. As a result, he’s always identified with the kids who often feel marginalized—in his words, the gay kids, the band geeks, and all the rest who maybe weren’t the most popular—and often hires them.
Today, the company has 375 employees, including one who started with Vince. Some have more than 20 years of service and a whole lot have been there for more than 10.
Some keys to good hiring he picked up along the way: trust and a smile.
Vince was wrestling with a business reality a few years ago: He sold a seasonal item, and since the cold months aren’t optimal for cold treats, he wanted to add something else.
So, he figured, since I have ice cream as a treat for the child in all of us, I’ll have coffee for the taste we acquire as grownups. And the idea took off.
Sure, they’re not grinding at the rate of Dunkin’ Donuts, but Vince doesn’t want to be a coffee megastore. He just wants good coffee, made right there.
In his early years, Vince had a lot of different jobs: a Santa Claus, plumber’s helper, short-order cook, and a ditch digger, among others. He flipped burgers at Wendy’s and worked his way up to manager, eventually specializing in opening new restaurants for the chain. He thought this was the best training he could get to open his own ice cream store.
He now runs one of the region’s most successful small businesses and has won a stack of awards—and yet,he seems almost bashful talking about it all. Sitting in his office, wearing the latest J.P. Licks t-shirt and suspenders, he pauses often and gets lost in thought for long moments. You can feel the former seminary student and Temple University philosophy major in many of his replies.
What drives Vince, even to this day, may surprise you.
Visit J.P. Licks at any of these locations all around Massachusetts:
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