What I Learned From an Ice Cream Shop


My daughter has been working for a local ice cream shop (okay technically it is a custard shop) for about five months now and was explaining that over half of her peers were leaving in May for various reasons (some to attend college out of town). I was curious to understand more. I had lots of questions.


What is the owner’s strategy for replacing all of those positions in just a few months, during a labor shortage?

How much is the pay? Will you have to pay more?

How are they going to handle the training and productivity needs going into the summer months when ice cream demand is highest?

Are there aspects of the job or the shop that may be contributing to retention problems?


She blinked twice and looked at me perplexed. Then she said “oh my friends and I have already filled or identified candidates to fill every open position. We will also train them ourselves.”


Okay… now I had to hear more. I love my daughter but getting her to take ownership over anything feels like a Herculean task. She gets good grades, and is pretty good at helping around the house but not without a fair amount of prodding and encouragement. What was inspiring such ownership from her?


As we talked it occurred to me this ice cream shop did a lot of things exactly right in their approach to talent. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned from what she told me.


Lesson 1: Autonomy and self-direction produce great results. The shop is almost entirely run and managed by kids. I have to admit I was surprised when I dropped into see her at work and didn't see any “adults“ anywhere in the building managing the shop. She introduced me to her shift lead who is also about 17 years old. The store manager is 19. But that shop runs like a well-oiled machine. Large crowds are served quickly, efficiently and with good quality. They democratically divide the tasks, work hard and cover for each other. The employees are given great latitude to swap shifts with each other as long as the shifts are covered adequately and standards are met. It brought back to mind the success of self directed work teams in the 80’s and 90’s and a reminder not to underestimate the capability of self-directed employees. This is consistent with research. In their 2022 State of Talent Optimization Report, The Predictive Index notes The No. 1 driver of attrition is inflexibility - Inflexible work options/hours.


Lesson 2: Culture and employee experience are everything. My daughter’s co-workers are all nice people, the atmosphere is light and fun and they enjoy working together. The employees have a lot of say in who they work with and how the work is structured. Everyone enjoys this autonomy and consequently they all work hard to preserve this dynamic. They also invest a lot of time recruiting other people who share that view and get them to apply.


Lesson 3: Aligning pay with desired performance works. My daughter and her coworkers receive a base pay rate of $10 plus tips. That’s right - I said $10 bucks. However, the tips are almost always worth as much as the base pay. So if they please their customers they do better. They participate actively in the success of the shop. Tips are evenly distributed so co-workers not pulling their weight are not tolerated.


Lesson 4: Everyone has the option to advance. After 6 months my daughter is eligible to train to become a shift lead if she wants to. It comes with additional pay and responsibility but it’s not an easy job. Current shift leads train those aspiring to the role.

It reminds me that nothing beats fundamentals. If you want high performance and retention, clearly communicate the results you want and give your people autonomy and self direction to help you get there. Let them have fun at work with each other, police their own and empower them to help build the culture they want. Align pay with performance, allowing them to earn more with higher performance. The best source for training and development is employee to employee. These really work, and the results can be delicious.

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