Valley Native Natasha Case On Building the Coolhaus Empire
From selling ice cream from a broken down postal truck to nationwide distribution.
- CategoryEat & Drink
Running an ice cream company wasn’t exactly the plan when Natasha graduated from Harvard-Westlake and got two college degrees in architecture (an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and then a masters at UCLA). But while working as a Disney “Imagineer,” she came up with a unique ice cream sandwich that combined her interests in food and design. Cut to nearly a decade later, and Coolhaus is a breakout success story in the frozen foods industry. Available at 6,000 stores across the country, this year it is estimated the brand will rack up $13 million in sales. VB editor Linda Grasso chats with the 34-year-old Sherman Oaks native about growing up local and starting from scratch.
What was it like growing up here back in the ‘90s?
I have to say, I had a very happy childhood. When I was about 9, we moved to a cul-de- sac in Sherman Oaks, into a house my dad designed! I came to know a really great community of friends and families.
What was your ice cream spot growing up?
I ate a lot of Humphrey’s Yogurt back then (the ‘90s were a big era for fro-yo) and some Cold Stone here and there. Options were so limited compared to what we have now! I love seeing kids coming into Coolhaus and getting a jumpstart on quality, innovative ice cream.
Take us back to 2009 when you came up with the idea for Coolhaus.
I was working as a Disney Imagineer and, because of the economy, morale at the office was really low. I came up with the ice cream sandwiches basically as a way to lighten the mood. I’d been playing around with the intersection of food and design for a while. I started baking the cookies and making the ice cream from scratch and naming the sandwiches after architects. It was like, ‘Oh sorry to hear the bad news. Here is a Frank Berry [rhymes with Gehry]!’
So how did the launch happen?
I met my partner, Freya Estreller, and she really believed in what I was doing. She had a real estate development background, and we decided to join forces on Coolhaus. At the time, there was no innovation in the industry, and we aspired to be the first artisan ice cream truck of our generation.
And then Coachella happened.
Yes. For the music festival that April, we bought a beat-up, broken-down postal van—it didn’t drive, but it had chrome wheels! We had AAA tow it to the desert. Immediately people just started lining up and putting photos on social media. When we got back to LA, we had a rapidly growing social following.
Was that, in essence, a validation?
Yes. The festival was proof our concept had potential. Then after Coachella, a friend wrote a piece in Curbed. It wasn’t even flattering. But it didn’t matter. It went from there to other outlets. We were officially on the map.
How did you go from trucks to stores?
Two years into it, we had lots of buzz and a celeb following. But we knew we couldn’t be a household brand with just trucks, nor could we truly scale our business to an impactful size. We needed a brick and mortar presence and to be in grocery stores. We signed a lease for our first store in Culver City and thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get into Whole Foods.’ I essentially just showed up at one in Glendale. I introduced myself to the guy loading up the freezer aisle, and he connected me to the regional head. That was back when Whole Foods was very focused on incubating brands locally. They started carrying Coolhaus in three stores, and then it grew to 20 and so on.
Boil down the appeal of Coolhaus.
We are women-owned; we are locals; we do delicious things. We had community early on. In order to grow, though, we knew we had to invest. So we got an angel investor for a million dollars and we used the money to focus on the wholesale aspect of the business. That was a turning point. Now we are building our ice cream empire with our mind-blowing ice cream sandwiches and pints, and soon-to-be vegan versions, along with [dairy] bonbons!
Speaking of turning points, what do you think about the culinary scene on the Blvd right now?
I couldn’t be happier. I mean, 10 years ago, who would have thought this would be happening? LA, in general, has so many neighborhoods that are experiencing a renaissance, and I’m glad many of the Valley’s “hoods” are right on track with this.
Favorite Valley places to dine?
I love old-school eateries, but it’s also fun to embrace and support the contemporary moves that are happening. Have to give a big shout-out to Pita Kitchen on Van Nuys—my “go to” whenever I’d come home from Berkeley. They would actually recognize my voice on the phone; I had a tab back then. We love Augustine for wine and great snacks. I also love Asanebo for omakase, on a special occasion.
For more on Natasha, check out SheSez with Linda Grasso on Apple Podcasts— or wherever you listen.
For people who go ape over pizza.