Above: Joe’s Ice Cream celebrates its 60th aniversary in 2019 with a party attended by Joe Plitz (center right) and Mutsuhiko Murashige (center left)
Joe’s Ice Cream already had a rich history of serving countless cold treats in the Richmond District of San Francisco for over 60 years but, more recently, it was starting to evolve into something bigger than a neighborhood ice cream shop.
After purchasing the business from Mutsuhiko Murashige, new owners Alice and Sean Kim aimed to leverage their prior experience owning a burger restaurant. The Kims ambitiously expanded Joe’s horizons by adding grill items to the once dessert-dominated menu. Soon enough, burgers and fries were gradually becoming a match made in heaven for the store’s 50-plus flavors of ice cream.
Enter: The Coronavirus
As the novel coronavirus pandemic started to drastically impact San Francisco, the Kims’ brilliant vision was dulled by a nearly unpredictable force. Fewer customers showed up as more people stayed home. Recreating a vibrant family-friendly atmosphere has been much harder for them, and reconstructing the identity of a 60-year-old business in the worst of times has left them with their hands full.
Joe’s Ice Cream officially rebranded with the help of a marketing agency in February, one month before the pandemic turned into a national emergency. The shop now sports a new logo and recently launched a new website. New brand colors also grace freshly painted walls and updated menus.
Since then, the Kims have faced challenges getting the word out about their new look. Fewer customers are coming inside, and when they do, their visits don’t last long.
“Because of COVID-19, we don’t have any option. We have to serve customers only to-go. We need to serve a customer who wants to use their cell phone or computer online,” said Sean.
When betting heavily on rebranding, the Kims admittedly had not made online ordering and deliveries available for their business. So once the coronavirus left more customers at home, the Kims pounced at the chance to make Joe’s items available for as many locals as possible.
And these rapid, on-the-fly changes to the business have become as common as they are nauseating.
“We are hoping that these changes will go together. We really don’t know the direction we are going. So we are aware of the situation and keep following the directions, and all will be over,” said Alice.
Nearly every restaurant faces uncertainties during a pandemic. But there aren’t many that come out of one with pleasant surprises. Surprisingly similar to how their rebranding was intended, COVID-19 unintentionally helped the Kim family business transition to their grill-heavy offerings.
Before March, 60 percent of Joe’s sales were attributed to ice cream. Now, 60 percent comes from grill items, including burgers, sandwiches, and fries.
Joe’s Ice Cream’s decision to add online ordering proved to also be a contributing factor. Because frozen items don’t often maintain their best quality on deliveries, ownership promoted grill items on the platform.
The Kims knew locals would still crave menu items like the Bulgogi Burger and the Yucatan Spicy Sandwich. And while their decision didn’t entirely stop sales from declining, it reaffirmed their rebranding efforts and kept their business alive.
This success also retained their ability to make a positive impact on their Richmond District neighborhood. For the Kims, serving their community has gone beyond updating a logo or letting the world know they know how to make a good burger. It’s required real work that can’t be quantified by store visits or online orders.
In late May, Joe’s Ice Cream fundraised over $1,000 for families of Lowell High School students facing financial hardships due to COVID-19. Joe’s event donated free lunches, as well as masks, to help local youth find a sense of togetherness when people need it most.
The fundraiser’s success has prompted the Kims to explore similar options for Lowell families throughout the summer, especially with schools being closed.
And all while the business continues to serve great food and its traditional frozen treats.