By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog/White Center Now editor
Three is a big number for White Center-founded Full Tilt Ice Cream.
It’s how many years they’ve been in business, as of tomorrow (Monday, June 20th).
It’s how many locations they have open – though that number will rise soon.
And it’s how many members there are in Full Tilt founders Justin Cline and Ann Magyar‘s household, as of baby Moss‘s arrival 4 months ago – which made today Justin’s first Father’s Day as a dad.
On Monday, Full Tilt celebrates its anniversary by matching all the ice cream you buy that day with an equivalent donation to the White Center Food Bank (which also serves West Seattle, from Gatewood south). It also marks the start of 7-day-a-week operation, since till now, they haven’t been open on Mondays.
But before moving ahead, a look back: June 20, 2008, White Center and block-away West Seattle didn’t really realize an ice-cream phenomenon had just launched in their midst.
Certainly Justin didn’t realize what was going to happen.
He had expected to go back to work at a shipyard, while “making ice cream on the weekends.” (To this day, he still pays union dues, mostly in order not to lose the small pension he had earned his way to.) “There wasn’t some master business plan – though of course there is now; I was supposed to be a stay-home dad, that was the plan.”
Parenthood took three more years. Ann kept her non-ice-cream job, teaching in Highline Public Schools, though she has asked to cut back to part-time next year, to spend more time with Moss, whom she pronounces “insanely cute.”
The tasks of baby-raising were nothing new to her, as she had worked as a nanny in the past, but till Moss’s arrival, Justin confesses, he had never changed a diaper.
But back to the ice-cream story, which we discussed with Ann and Justin – and Ann’s mom, visiting from Detroit – at a table in Full Tilt’s White Center HQ.
Besides the Ballard location that’s been in the works a while, as well as the already-open Columbia City and University District Full Tilt shops, Justin says they are opening another WC facility soon – just for ice-cream production. All this time, they’ve continued to make it all in the back of the 16th Avenue SW store, even expanding the production/storage area recently, but the demand is now exceeding the space.
What’s the secret behind their growth? Aside from the ice cream itself, of course.
Justin believes that they happened to catch a wave at the right time. “Ice cream in general has taken off across the country,” but it was mostly mainstream – Baskin-Robbins, etc. – until Full Tilt and Molly Moon emerged, for starters. (Yes, he does give a nod to other flavorful pioneers like West Seattle’s own Husky Deli.) “We offered unique flavors, and we are family-oriented.”
Full Tilt was in the right place at the right time to make a difference in another way – the resurgence and revitalization of downtown White Center. We photographed Justin for WCN as he helped with storefront planter boxes during last year’s WC Spring Clean:
White Center’s changes have been more than cosmetic. Ann says, “We were so surprised at how many people were ready for White Center to be someplace to go” – and she means for longtime WC residents as well as the West Seattleites and others who now routinely venture in, not only for WC’s signature ethnic food, but for Full Tilt, Proletariat Pizza, Company Bar, Uncle Mike’s BBQ, and of course as of earlier this month, Zippy’s Giant Burgers.
And it’s all drawn attention far and wide, with regional media coverage starting just months after FT opened, and continuing in a relatively steady stream – we videotaped Justin and Ann being interviewed by KING 5 about a year and a half ago:
Popularity hasn’t changed the quest for unique flavors – or other Full Tilt signatures. Before they opened – as noted in the first story we published on June 8, 2008 – Justin and Ann talked about those flavors, and about the ice pops known as paletas that they had planned to make and sell.
And now? “Yes, we’re still making paletas,” Justin confirmed. When we talked at midweek, they were making 800 of them for this weekend’s Burien Wild Strawberry Festival.
And then there are the vegan creations. Plus, the more decadent treats: Peanut-butter bacon bars are coming back this week, Justin says.
The most popular flavor remains salted caramel – “We had no idea what a hit it would be, it outsells other flavors five to one,” according to Justin – so much so that one day a week, that’s the only ice cream they make, and they make some every single day. Customers get irate if they come in and they’ve run out, we’re told.
The most surprising reception they got for a flavor was grasshopper – Justin intended it as a gimmick, but he says they went through nine gallons in a day.
“The general concept seems to be, if we put it in ice cream, people will eat it,” Ann notes.
Another experiment is on the horizon; Justin says, “I’m going to see who will eat chopped grubs.” Seriously. Just watch their Facebook page, where a lot of these trial balloons fly.
We started with some numbers. Here are a few more:
-11 employees for Full Tilt
-100 gallons of ice cream made each day (at least – on Wednesday, when we spoke with Justin and Ann, 580 pints had been made as well)
-8 customers regularly order pints
-6 customers regularly order 3-gallon tubs (among them, West Seattle restaurant Avalon, they note)
-1 out-of-town customer – a natural-food store in Twisp, WA
-At least 1 fake customer – Ann tells the story of discovering an apparently bogus “pizzeria” mentioned online as a Full Tilt ice-cream customer
And since they mentioned there is a grand plan now, though there wasn’t one at the start, we had to ask about it. “We’ll probably open three more (locations) in the area.”
You may also see them going mobile more often. They’ve had an “ice-cream bicycle” for a couple of seasons – and expect to bring it back to West Seattle Summer Fest on July 8, 9, and 10 – but they’re also thinking about a full-fledged truck. (They’re big fans of the most recent one to come to West Seattle, Parfait, which hangs out at 35th/Graham with Marination Mobile 11 am-2 pm on Saturdays.)
They’re glad to be at a place where they can do that kind of forward-thinking. “We’re finally at the point where winters aren’t even really horrible,” Justin reveals.
“It’s been really fun and surprising – we had no idea what we were getting into,” adds Ann.
The word pride comes into play as well; Justin says they are proud of helping transform White Center, which he believes is “becoming a completely different kind of neighborhood,” thanks to people including the other entrepreneurs who’ve moved in – not just the ones mentioned earlier, but also 3.14 Bakery and Dubsea Coffee, among others. They had lived in White Center for about four years before starting the business, but didn’t know many people; now, a much different story. They barely knew their neighbors – and now one of them is running their U-District store.
The one thing they don’t mention much – but are known for – is community giving and involvement. Monday’s third-anniversary celebration White Center Food Bank donations will be just one more example of that (it’s a tradition dating back to anniversary #1). So any time after 2 pm on Monday, drop by Full Tilt, get some ice cream, know you’re helping deliver a treat to food-bank clients too, and wish Justin and Ann “happy anniversary.”