Key West’s Wicked Lick is a single-unit ice cream shop. Here’s how its owners plan to franchise the brand.
It’s hot and humid outside, and the QSR segment looks for ways to cool their customers down. Whether it’s a signature Frosty or a milkshake — provided the machine isn’t broken — ice cream has made its play for menu dominance, especially during summer months.
Wicked Lick in Key West, Florida, opened in 2018. So, what differentiates it from all the other independent ice cream shops around the country? It relies on nitrogen to make small batches with gourmet flavors.
Owner John Smotryski and his wife, Amanda Velazquez left behind their lives on mainland Florida for the sunny isles of Key West looking for a new venture. Smotryski, who has worked for a commercial corporate real estate company, and Velazquez, an attorney, wanted more time to connect with their children as a family while also being involved in their community. Turns out an ice cream shop was the perfect solution.
The found a vacant space that had used to be an ice cream store. Smotryski’s son had worked in Miami for a liquid nitrogen ice cream shop, and he thought it would be a perfect addition to Key West.
“With the vapors that come out of the bowls, it just kind of looked pretty wicked,” Smotryski said. “We thought Wicked Lick would be a good name.”
Wicked Lick has a cheeky slogan that catches a lot of attention — “If you don’t lick it, someone else will” — and the company sells a lot of merchandise like stickers, koozies, hats and t-shirts.
When the brand first opened, it made ice cream to order like many of the other nitrogen ice cream brands. Cream, sugar and ingredients like chocolate, rosemary or caramel are added to a bowl and liquid nitrogen is poured in at 321 degrees below zero.
“Everybody pretty much has the same concept,” Smotryski said. “You come in and order and they dispense cream and they add some flavors to it, then they add the liquid nitrogen and blend it together and mix it into ice cream.”
Owner John Smotryski makes a batch of ice cream in his Key West store, Wicked Lick. Provided.
That’s how Wicked Lick served their ice cream, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It gave us a lot of time to think about what we’re doing,” Smotryski said. “We lost all our employees and it was just me and (wife) Amanda and her son working there. I decided to change how we made the ice cream.”
How Wicked Lick differs is that it makes ice cream in small half-gallon batches instead, making 10 to 15 servings each with eight to 10 varieties at a time. The ice cream is then dipped out of a traditional dipper freezer. The bowls they use to make the liquid nitrogen ice cream fit perfectly where traditional buckets of ice cream would fit in their freezers. This method serves customers faster, Smotryski said, calling it a “hybrid” liquid nitrogen ice cream concept.
“We don’t make each serving to order,” Smotryski said. “When we realized how fewer people we needed to operate the store, it saved us money. We eliminated all that (single serving) equipment.”
Breaking down and setting up each day took about an hour and half, and this new way simply saved time and used a fraction of the liquid nitrogen.
Ice cream is made with real dairy, cream and sugar. Cookie Butter Caramel is the company’s biggest seller, followed by Cold Brew Cuban Coffee made with a local coffee brand. Pistachio is also a big seller, but Wicked Lick experiments with flavors like tarragon vanilla and ice cream using mangoes collected from a tree outside the back of the building.
“We love taking pictures of our customers,” Smotryski said. “We’ve got an Instagram spot at our store with Wicked Lick and our slogan above it. I take people’s pictures and I put them online.”
Ice cream is make in small batches using premium ingredients. Provided.
The brand’s biggest challenge is hiring, as Key West is a small town with just around 25,000 locals, but an influx of visitors yearly. “There’s not a big pool of employees to choose from,” Smotryski said. “In addition, the housing here is so expensive. It’s always at the top of everyone’s discussion about community housing (and) workforce housing. It’s just very expensive for people to come down here and work.”
The first few years – through COVID – were especially difficult, but Smotryski said they’re lucky to have a good crew now made up of high school kids and adult managers. “The first couple of years, it just sucked the fun out of it,” Smotryski admitted. “People would show up and decide they didn’t want to work and not come back. You’d show up for an interview and they wouldn’t show up at all.”
Inflation is also a challenge. Dairy prices have increased, as has sugar and even t-shirt prices from Wicked Lick’s vendors.
Now, the company is looking at expanding, as staying small and local isn’t as feasible as it once was with the rising cost of food and inflation. Smotryski started researching franchising and talking to consultants, and franchising launched a couple of months ago. The brand has had several of leads to date, and they’re working on pushing through them.
They’d love a dozen stores in the first year of franchising, but Smotryski says he wants growth to happen organically so the company doesn’t grow too large too quickly. They’d like to stay in South Florida during the initial franchising push.
“We want to be able to serve our franchisees and make sure that we’re there to support them, especially in the early stages of becoming a franchise,” Smotryski said. “We’d like to stay close to home for now, but eventually we’d like to take this nationwide. That’s our plan, and we’re going to take it as large as we can push it.”