By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Justin Cline remembers back when, if he saw someone wearing something bearing the logo of his business, Full Tilt Ice Cream, “it was somebody I knew.”
Not any more, though, still, he says, “I see our shirts and stickers out there, and it blows me away. But – we make the ice cream the same way we did when I was making it all myself.”
The output’s too much for just Justin to handle these days – 2,200 gallons a week, he calculates, and then some.
Full Tilt marks its fifth anniversary tomorrow: June 20, 2008, Justin and wife Ann Magyar opened their doors in downtown White Center, in the same little hole-in-the-wall-ish spot where we talked with him this afternoon, after receiving a note letting us know FT-WC will donate its anniversary-day profits to the White Center Food Bank tomorrow, as usual.
White Center is the original store in a Full Tilt group that’s now grown to four, in addition to a partnership for Highscore Burgers, which opened on the eastside earlier this year, and a Full Tilt shop about to open on the campus of Microsoft, where Justin worked as a programmer 15 years ago.
They also have a factory/warehouse facility in the South Park area; in the beginning, Justin made it all in the back of the WC shop.
Other numbers have continued to grow: Full Tilt Ice Cream is carried in more than 60 Northwest grocery stores and served in 24 restaurants.
The name is pinball-inspired (we note that when Justin’s phone went off during our interview, it was the clanging sound of a pinball machine; there are five at FT-WC, plus five other game machines). And any way you look at it, this business is a winner.
“We didn’t see it getting this big,” Justin reflects. “We thought we’d have the one store … I didn’t even think anybody was going to show up that first day (in 2008) besides friends and family.” (We had published the announcement a week and a half earlier, and it seemed obvious from the comments that the concept alone was a hit.)
“It’s just been really, really crazy.”
Did we mention, Justin and Ann became parents halfway through these first five years (just a few months before we interviewed them about their third anniversary)? Son Moss is now 2 1/2. The Full Tilt employee family has grown to 18; Ann, a longtime teacher, handles the books, and Justin says they have a fulltime salesperson, a former delivery driver who, despite sales experience, has converted cold calls into ice-cream deals, like an exclusive arrangement at the moment with Whole Foods carrying their vegan flavors.
Speaking of sales … Salted caramel remains the top-selling flavor. “Probably four to one” over everything else, Justin observes.
And he remains in awe of their products’ popularity. “I’m still amazed, every day, that (the ice cream) sells.” It’s still handchurned; they just make more of it.
Next goal, they hope to have Full Tilt Ice Cream carried all over the West Coast, “Canada to San Diego.”
But they haven’t gone too corporate – yet. “Ann and I still have a staff meeting every Monday to figure out what flavors we’re going to make.”
So what’s the secret of their success, beyond tasty ice cream?
If you really care about what you’re making, people are going to like it, he says, suggesting that most food failures are made by people who tried to make the biggest profits with the least amount of investment and the least amount of caring.
Looking across the street, he offers the example: “Proletariat (Pizza) does really great because they love what they do.”
As he does.
About the anniversary tomorrow (Thursday, June 20th): 2-10 pm, make a purchase at the White Center Full Tilt store (9629 16th SW, if you’re new in town) and the profits go to the White Center Food Bank. FT will be donating kid-scoop coupons too, Justin says.
P.S. There’s also a Full Tilt tasting scheduled at Metropolitan Market (WSB sponsor) in Admiral on Thursday, 4-7 pm.