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This NYC hotspot takes retail to the next level, infusing kids’ apparel and toys into the first nut-free ice cream parlor.
Sandy Roth has found the sweet spot for surviving retail’s meltdown. Welcoming ice cream lovers of all ages since March 2015, A La Mode Shoppe is located on the Upper East Side of New York City and offers a tasty balance of allergy-safe ice cream and delightful children’s apparel and accessories. From hosting ice cream parties to selling fashions from top children’s brands, the charismatic shop is a multi-faceted destination the whole family can enjoy.
“We wanted to provide a fun ice cream experience for all,” Roth says, explaining how customers come from near and far to enjoy the shop’s homemade, small-batch ice cream that includes nut-free, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Some popular flavors include Pink Sprinkles (pink vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles), Speed Bump (deep chocolate ice cream with marshmallows and white and dark chocolate chips) and Partly Cloudy (blue cotton candy ice cream with mini marshmallows).
Complete with classy chandeliers, hardwood floors and wrought-iron tables, A La Mode Shoppe’s 1,200-square-foot space is divided into two rooms. Doused in a soft pink and white color palette, the main room features an old-fashioned ice cream counter and black-and-white penny floor tiles. Beautiful built-in shelving with detailed moldings are used to display kids’ accessories and clothing, tempting customers to shop while they select their flavor. In addition, French doors swing open to a side room with more merchandise of primarily smaller toys. Roth notes her Melissa & Doug ice cream cart as most popular with little ones. And, if the shop’s trendy yet tasty fusion wasn’t enough already, Roth also hosts music classes for kiddies in the morning.
“There’s always so much going on here,” she says, explaining how each separate element plays off one another to create cumulative success for the business. “To be perfectly honest, it would be very difficult if we were just selling ice cream.”
The idea for A La Mode Shoppe came to fruition a couple of years ago when a space became available for lease near Roth and her family’s home in New York. As the owner of Showroom A La Mode in the California Market Center since 2007, Roth was no stranger to childrenswear and began daydreaming about fusing her passion for kids’ fashion with her affinity for ice cream that began when she was a Baskin-Robbins employee during high school. She recalls many of her lines coming out with prints of ice cream, cupcakes and other sweet treats around that time, continuing to fuel her idea for an ice cream parlor. The specific idea to make the shop allergy-friendly came from raising three young daughters and noticing how many of their friends struggled with nut and dairy allergies.
Agreeing that there was a void in the market, her husband, Marc, used his experience as a restaurant professional to fine-tune the perfect formula for allergy-friendly ice cream and ultimately surprised his wife with the signed lease. “He called me out on my little dream,” Roth says. “We just took the idea and ran with it.”
Over the past year, Roth reports business is booming. “Parties have been exponentially more popular this year,” she says. “Every party we have is like an advertisement for the next.” Since opening, the business has expanded its ice cream offerings into wholesale. Taking advantage of the opportunity to distribute not only through their e-commerce site but via broader accounts, A La Mode ice cream is now available nationwide at Costco, ShopRite and other select grocery stores.
Roth hopes to one day expand the shop’s website to sell children’s apparel and accessories along with the shop’s signature ice cream. She also expects the business to grow with more locations in the near future. “People have approached us about franchising, but we have held back on that for now,” Roth says. “We are starting the expansion by focusing on our distribution—our success comes from doing one thing at a time.”
How did you initially get the word out about your business? Someone took a picture of our sign outside and posted it on a no-nut mommy Facebook page. From there, it literally exploded. We got so many calls.
What are your most popular fashion brands? Egg by Susan Lazar, Imoga, Mini Dressing, Bari Lynn, Jellycat, Trumpette, Melissa & Doug, Playforever, Snapper Rock, Little Blue Olive, Halabaloo and Bluebelle, to name a few.
What is the busiest time for merchandise sales? The most profitable time for us has been weekend mornings before all those Saturday or Sunday birthday parties. Customers will come in when they need a gift for an event later in the day. The sweet spot in terms of price for a birthday gift seems to be $30 to $50.
How do you reach your customers most effectively? We do a lot with social media—mostly Instagram and Facebook. Also, if any school comes in and asks for an auction item, we always say yes. We stay pretty active in the community that way. Not only are we doing good by giving back, but we’re also exposing the store to huge groups of parents and children.
Any tips for merchandising your store? Since we have a fairly small space, my strategy is to stock less brands but always represent each brand well. Instead of picking a few things from many brands, I buy several items from only a handful of collections. I feel like if customers like a brand, they shop and will shop a lot of it. That said, we try to switch things out often. Every month we want our customers to feel like there’s something new in store.
How much weight do the childrenswear and toy sales carry? The retail aspect is huge for us. When it comes to just ice cream, the store can seem so busy yet you realize you’ve only rung up $40. The merchandise is very helpful, as well as the opportunity to rent the space for parties. We typically host first birthdays up to six years, however we are starting to see more parties for older kids. The oldest we’ve ever had was a 72-year-old’s birthday!
Any trends you’ve noticed in childrenswear of late? Ice cream is always a go-to trend! Every season Chaser and Egg by Susan Lazar include an ice cream print. (We always buy heavy in that obviously.) I’ve also been noticing more color for boys. And anything whimsical has been selling.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced this year? As our parties are picking up steam, other customers can get discouraged when they come and our store is closed due to a private party. When we have parties we are closed to the public. We put up a sign telling people if there’s an ice cream emergency to call, but people still get bummed out because they traveled all the way here to come to our store. In the summer, we’re hoping to run a cart outside during these closed-off times.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your business? The joy we bring to children and their families. We help make memories for them. It’s so nice to see families come from far away and watch them enjoy their time in our fun and safe environment. And now with increased distribution, I feel like we’re really spreading this special all-inclusive ice cream joy.