Coolhaus co-founders Natasha Case and Freya Estreller took their passion for food and architecture (aka “farchitecture”) and turned it into something lucrative—a fresh spin on an ice cream truck. What started in a beat up van they found on Craigslist has evolved into a national fleet of 10 mobile trucks and carts serving architectural inspired gourmet desserts. We got to know Natasha and Freya through their super sweet collab with Beyond Yoga, and just had to learn more about how they created their dream jobs.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 7-10 YEARS AGO BEFORE COOLHAUS?
FE: I graduated from Cornell with a degree in Sociology and had no idea what I wanted to do! So I took the first job I got and jumped into real estate development and project management for a big home builder in DC. I was the only woman working on a construction site in steel toed boots and pearls managing a team of all men and $15-20 million projects. You can imagine I learned so much from my experience there – leadership, team and culture building, and literally how to build a “haus” from the ground up.
NC: I was at UCLA finishing my Masters of Architecture, where I was playing around with ‘Farchitecture = Food + Architecture’ ideas like high concept dinner parties, different products, and bringing some of the iterations into my studio work. I then started working at Walt Disney Imagineering in hotel and master planning, where I continued to develop ‘Farchitecture’ as a passionate hobby. This time it took the form of my making ice cream and cookies from scratch and punnily naming the combinations after architects as comic relief at the office as the recession was setting in and folks were getting laid off. I had been only doing this for a few weeks when I met Freya, and the seeds of Coolhaus as a business were sewn.
IS COOLHAUS YOUR DREAM JOB?
FE: I’ll let Tash answer this for us.
NC: Yes, absolutely! I like to say that if I could tell my five year-old self what I would become at 32, I would think it was the coolest thing ever… and it is. I totally love what I do—it mixes so many of my passions, and the work is super satisfying and fulfilling (literally and not). I think when you can enjoy your work, you can work your butt off and not even notice the day flying by because you are having so much darn fun. I do believe that is possible, and I always share that vision with my team. I also love that I feel we are making impact at Coolhaus, and in many spaces: for aspiring architects who are thinking of taking a divergent path, for food makers who want to make a better product, for women who want to lead, for the mobile food industry who are looking to make their business more strategic and scalable… it’s all very exciting.
WHEN DID YOU HAVE YOUR “AH HA” MOMENT OF COOLHAUS?
FE: Natasha had the initial idea about marrying food + architecture and making ice cream sandwiches and naming the combination after architects, which I saw as a funny art project. I saw an opportunity in the artisanal, all-natural food movement and that there weren’t very many ice cream companies in that space. I also remember googling “hipster ice cream truck” and nothing came up! That’s when I realized we needed to be the first to reinvent the ice cream truck and that that was the perfect and lowest capital intensive way to start the business.
NC: To add, the original ‘ah ha’ moment for Farchitecture in general came when one of my professors criticized a scale model I made in studio, stating that it looked like a layer cake. I thought – ‘how is that a bad thing?’ So, I baked the next iteration of the model as a cake, and I saw that I had a different level of attention and excitement from my peers. I had already been interested in making architecture more fun and accessible for the public… but had been searching for a way to do that. I knew I had something!
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS BUSINESS CONCEPT AND DID YOU HAVE EXPERIENCE IN IT PRIOR?
FE: Well, it definitely started off as an art project, but as we dug deeper we saw several timely opportunities that we needed to capitalize on and be first to market in. I have a background in real estate and finance so applied those general business skills to the food space.
NC: No specific experience, but we had the vision, hunger, willingness to take a risk, and adaptability to make it happen… and I do think there is something in your DNA/when you have that entrepreneurial bug. I think Freya and I are both general problem solvers who get inspired by obstacles and how to overcome them, instead of getting dissuaded.
HOW DID YOU FUND YOUR START UP?
FE: In the beginning, friends and family! Then we worked with a microlender called Opportunity Fund to build more trucks. In year 3, we took on our first major angel investor who has proven to be an invaluable partner and have been able to use that partnership to grow the company to where it is today – 2 scoop shops, 9 trucks, 40 employees, and a fast growing CPG line sold in over 5,000 stores in all states and internationally.
NC: Even before raising money from friends and family, we used my personal credit card with a $5k limit to buy a truck and get to Coachella. So, I tell younger students that I speak to especially that you don’t necessarily need big dollars to start something great!
NAME 3 OF THE SCARIEST MOMENTS YOU HAD WHEN DOING THIS?
FE: 1. All the times the truck has broken down in the middle of traffic especially on the freeway. This has happened too many times to count. 2. When we were in between financing rounds and thought we were going to run out of money and not be able to make payroll, rent, etc. We always figured it out, but those were the early, lean and ultra boot-strappy days. I’ll let Tash add a couple
NC: To add on the first time, sometimes a truck break down has been a blessing in disguise—like when we couldn’t get the truck to start when leaving Reese Witherspoon’s birthday in Ojai… so they insisted we stay and eat some of their amazing food and hang out! Not too shabby… And for a third, once we were getting out of a late dinner (I’m talking like 1am finish time) at Roberta’s in Brooklyn, and we saw the truck driving around the neighborhood (!)… we tried to give the benefit of the doubt to the driver that they had to stay late at a gig or something got scheduled last minute that wasn’t on the calendar. The next day I got a call from the client (a TV show cater) saying that this truck manager seemed very ‘out of it’ and tried also driving the truck onto their set. Oy vey!
WHAT IS YOUR PIECE OF ADVICE TO ANYONE WHO WANTS TO STOP WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND CREATE THEIR “DREAM JOB”?
FE: Get to minimum viable product/service and get it out there so you can test the market and validate your idea. There’s a way to start our own business while still having the stability of a paycheck from your day job. I didn’t leave my real estate job until 2 years into Coolhaus. I worked basically 80 hours a week doing both, but I made sure it could afford to pay me until I leaned fully in.
NC: Also, THINK BIG. Don’t think of your idea as a product or a thing, think of the big picture stance of what it can be or become. Also, think about what you want out of it… where do you see yourself in the business, what role, for how long… how will you exit if you want to. I think it is so important to visualize, but also put it all down on the page. It helps for accountability to others, but most importantly, yourself.