At -321 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid nitrogen can be fascinating in a chemistry lab. Now, thanks to Jerry Hancock (BS ’98), it’s delicious too.
Though he studied chemistry at BYU, Hancock always knew he wanted to go into business. He and his wife, Naomi, started out with a New York Burrito franchise, but when it began to do poorly, they decided to come up with an idea of their own—and what could be better than ice cream? Hancock went to several ice cream manufacturers to get advice about how he could make an ice cream business work. “They only gave us one caveat,” he says, “’Don’t do it unless it’s different.’”
He’d noticed that one of the biggest attractions to ice cream shops was the option to customize an order with mix-ins. But how could he make it even more customizable than that? “The only thing I could come up with was: ‘Don’t freeze it until they order it,’ so that was the definition of our product.”
Thanks to his background in chemistry, Hancock knew that liquid nitrogen could be the key to making his idea work. He went to the chemistry department at BYU and asked them if they’d ever seen liquid nitrogen used to freeze ice cream. “They said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t sell it. It’s not good enough to sell,’” Hancock recalls. The problem with freezing ice cream on the spot is that the nitrogen makes a crusty frozen layer on the edge, but stays liquid in the center. Not exactly what you’re looking for when you go out for ice cream. But Hancock wouldn’t be dissuaded. He thought to himself, “Well, I think I can make it good enough. It’s just a matter of trying new things.”
After extensive testing, he developed a system that allows the ice cream to freeze by layers rather than puddling in the middle. “Had I not had the chemistry degree, I would have never come up with this idea,” Hancock says. “I honestly believe that much of the knowledge that I had to have in order to understand what we’ve developed here came out of my physical chemistry classes. They were some of the last classes I took that talked about thermodynamics and flow, the way liquids work, and the way gas phase changes work. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out.”
But that wasn't only the first problem he had to solve before his product was ready to sell. Flavoring that could be diluted for smaller batches without fermenting, counters that wouldn’t crack from the cold, systems that made efficient use of counter space, and the perfect lighting that would allow customers to enjoy the show as their order is frozen right before their eyes—a lot of seemingly small details had to be tested and perfected to make Hancock’s ice cream experiment everything it is today.
In 2004, Hancock opened the first Sub Zero Ice Cream store in Orem, Utah. Since then, their innovative idea has taken off and there are now 55 stores across the United States, with new locations opening soon. Their latest location, in downtown Provo, Utah, offers a great view of the City Center Temple from their restored 1880 building. Sub Zero’s growing popularity is certainly due in part to the many unique aspects that help it to stand out from other more traditional ice cream shops.
For instance, plenty of ice cream companies offer the choice to customize your order, but Sub Zero takes customizability to the next level. Not only can Hancock’s customers choose from a wide variety of mix-ins like cookie dough or mixed berries, they can also choose the type of ice cream mix that is used and the flavoring that is added to it. They can choose between traditional ice cream, frozen yogurt, or custard, and there are even lactose-free, vegan, and sugar-free options. Sub Zero offers eighteen standard flavor options to add to the base ice cream mix, like vanilla, mint, and raspberry, as well as “Sensation of the Month” flavors that don’t regularly appear on the menu.
But what Sub Zero has to offer goes beyond the practically limitless customization options. “We can reach more people’s dietary needs than anybody else,” Hancock says. “It’s not just choice. . . . One of our focuses has become that with choice, you also offer something that no one else can. Allergies are so broad today, but we can accommodate really any need.”
Hancock remembers one customer that was especially grateful for Sub Zero’s unique ability to meet her special dietary needs: a little girl with allergies so severe that the only thing she could eat was a special formula, which had to be fed to her through a pipe in her throat. “I’ve never seen anyone with allergies this extreme,” he says. “She couldn’t go to a restaurant and eat anything. But she could come here and get rice milk that was unsweetened, and she had special little chocolates that had been tested, that she wouldn’t react to. . . . Her mother would make the comment, ‘This is the first place we’ve been able to take her where she could actually order off the menu.’”
This ability to adapt to individual needs makes Sub Zero stand out from its competitors and has changed the way Hancock views his business. “It becomes more personal and it really changes the dynamic, not just of the business, but of the way you serve people.”
Building his business to the point it’s at today hasn’t always been an easy process for Hancock, but he’s found ways to work past obstacles and find solutions. “There are two ways to build a company,” he says. “You either raise a bunch of money and spend to get things done and make it worth something, or you use sweat. We’ve just done it by sweat. With the website, and the different versions that have been done, I was like, ‘You know, I can figure this out.’”
It might seem odd that someone with a chemistry degree would wind up with a chain of ice cream stores, but Hancock knows that it wasn’t just chance that brought him down this path. “One of my beliefs about everybody, period, is that people are who they are because of their experience,” he says. “Each one of those aspects makes us a unique individual. So what do I bring to the table? Why did I come up with this? I can give one answer to that, and it’s because I have a unique experience. . . . I was at a certain point of time with a certain set of experiences that then led us to come up with this product.”
Thanks to that ability to recognize the unique potential within his life experiences, Hancock has been able to create something new and different that his customers can enjoy. “The key is that everyone has their own unique experiences,” he says, “and how you capitalize on those experiences is what makes you successful.”