A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

From shaved ice guys to nationally recognized brand; Florence-based Kona Ice is a household name

The tale of how his daughter’s bad experience with an ice cream truck vendor planted the seed for Tony Lamb to found Kona Ice has been shared many times.

There is a lot more to the story, however, of how the Walton entrepreneur turned that unfortunate encounter into shaved-ice gold.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Tony Lamb, founder of Kona Ice, which now has more than 700 franchises nationwide (photos by Mark Hansel).

At the time, Lamb was working out of Louisville as a contract marketing consultant and was on the road five or six days a week.

He was making good money, but just wasn’t happy about being away from his wife and four children for long stretches. The upside to spending so much time in the car, however, was that he had plenty of time to think.

“I started hypothesizing, I guess, about Kona Ice,” Lamb said. “When the contract came up for renewal, I had a nice conversation with the guy I was working for and said that I had been talking about this idea for so long, I’d like to do it.”

The “guy” – Ed Reynolds, who owns Eagle Financial Services and Sims Furniture – was so intrigued by the concept that he not only encouraged Lamb, he became a partner in Kona Ice. He owns 47 percent of the business.

“He doesn’t want the limelight, but if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here,” Lamb said.

Kona Ice is headquartered in Florence and employs about 40 people locally.

The company started conceptually in 2006 and the first trucks rolled out in the summer of 2007. The Franchise business began a year later with a handful of trucks.

“We worked really closely with those franchisees to develop the business model,” Lamb said. “That was planned. We probably could have sold more, but we wanted to focus on development.”

In 2009, Kona Ice sold 50 franchises, which is a significant number, but Lamb still felt the growth was manageable.

Fifty became 60, then 80, then 100 and in 2014 Kona Ice sold 142 franchises which ranked No. 10 nationally among all businesses that offer the licensing agreements.

That was when Kona Ice went from being just the shaved ice guys to a nationally recognized and respected brand.

“I’ve always been just blown away when we get national recognition,” Lamb said. “In 2014, Entrepreneur magazine had just told us that we were the No. 1 new franchise in the United States. When we announced it at the convention, the place went crazy, because it was validation for the franchise owners, and that’s when (the success) really hit me.”

Prior to that, Lamb had been reluctant to talk about the success of Kona Ice, but realized that he owed it to the franchise owners to focus more on media and publicity.

“If you want to talk about Tony Lamb, I’m not really interested,” Lamb said. “If you want to talk about Kona Ice, that’s great, but I want it to be about the brand.”

From a branding and marketing standpoint, there is plenty to talk about.

The Kona Ice FLAVORWAVE offers a wide range of options for customers to choose from.

The Kona Ice FLAVORWAVE offers a wide range of options for customers to choose from.

Lamb and his team have taken the simple shaved ice concept and developed a solid business model based on community partnerships, as well as financial success.

Since its inception Kona Ice has contributed $35 million to neighborhood schools, organizations and teams.

The idea was developed in the early days of the company when PTAs invited Kona Ice in and paid for the visit. When the economic downturn hit, however, there was no longer money in the budget for a “shaved ice day.”

That’s when Lamb came up with an idea that has become a hallmark of the Kona Ice business model.

“We turned it around and said, ‘Why don’t we come to school, let every kid pay a couple dollars and we’ll give you back a huge percentage of it,’” Lamb said. “Now we are just a great fundraiser. That’s the way I always wanted to do it, but I never thought you could get franchisees to go along, but they have.”

The concept includes other community organizations, such as the Boone County PeeWee Football League. When Lamb approached the league organizers, they had a shaved ice vendor who payed $400, but Lamb didn’t just want to pay a fee, he wanted to be a part of the program.

“I said, ‘Let me pay you a percentage of what I make and I’ll start off with $1,000 and they said, ‘We’ve got a new shaved ice guy.’”

Kona Ice also just completed a press box remodeling project at the league field off of Hopeful Church Road that included awnings and a new floor.

“I did it because I love being associated with it and they have always been so gracious to us,” Lamb said.

With more than 700 trucks, the business model is firmly in place and new franchisees are coming on board every day.

One of Tony Lamb's goals dreams when founding Kona Ice was to spend more time with his family. He has achieved that goal. Wife Susie Lamb, shown here, works with Tony every day and his four children are also actively involved in the company.

One of Tony Lamb’s dreams when founding Kona Ice was to spend more time with his family. He has achieved that goal. Wife Susie Lamb, shown here, works with Tony every day and his four children are also actively involved in the company.

Lamb has now turned his attention to the long-term stability of the business.

“We are actually getting ready to buy property in Austin, Texas to develop a flavoring company, Creations Flavoring,” Lamb said.

Texas is the biggest franchise state for Kona Ice, with about 125 franchisees.

“The thing that really has my interest right now is how culturally, we are moving toward a nutrition-based product,” Lamb said. “When we started, we were a desert truck, some would say a sugar truck, and I used to say it’s not hard to sell sugar to kids, but you can’t say that anymore.”

Lamb recognizes that, from a marketing standpoint, there is nobody saying we need more sugar, artificial flavors or gluten, so the move towards nutrition is going to continue.

“I enjoy a brownie as much as the next guy and everything is fine in moderation,” Lamb said. “However, we are in California, we are doing business with more than 6,000 schools nationwide and raising millions and millions of dollars. The push for nutrition is heavy and that’s why we started our own flavoring company.”

Lamb approached the company’s current suppliers, but there was not a whole lot of support for making a healthier product, so he decided Kona Ice would do it.

“We’ve developed all of these flavorings and got the bad ingredients out,” Lamb said. “We are working on an all-natural line and a dye-free line, things that don’t really exist in our industry.”

Of course, it seems nothing worthwhile is ever easy and all-natural products such as coconuts and peanuts, make for a very long allergen statement but Lamb isn’t complaining.

More than 700 franchisees and employees attended this year's Kona Konvention at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. The Florence-based business has grown from just a handful of trucks to one of the country's top franchises in just a few years.

More than 700 franchisees and employees attended this year’s Kona Konvention at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. The Florence-based business has grown from just a handful of trucks to one of the country’s top franchises in just a few years and contributed $35 million to schools and community organizations (Provided photo).

“We had to go down this road if we were going to focus on nutrition,” Lamb said. “We’ve reduced calories by 40 percent, by using a mix of estevia and cane sugar and the product is Smart Snacks in School approved.”

One of the biggest challenges in developing a nationwide brand with franchisees is consistency and Lamb has addressed that through Kona Kollege.

Founded in 2012, the program for new and existing franchisees is offered about every three weeks at the company’s corporate headquarters in Florence

“Watching the disparity of success with franchises, the only real difference was the amount of information they were operating with,” Lamb said “Our goal is to share the information.”

The course is available at no charge and the 47th class just finished its training. Lamb flies in marketing veterans to help train, demonstrate products and equipment, work on social media and build a website within the company site.

Lamb is not sure what is next for Kona Ice, but the goal of spending more time with his family has already been accomplished.

Susie, his wife of 23 years works alongside him every day. His son Jake, 21 runs the Boone County operation, which includes four trucks, and daughter Annie, 19, is interning with the company’s graphic designers. His other two children, Jonah, 15 and Ava, 13 are also actively involved in the family business.

“I don’t really have an answer for what’s next,” Lamb said. “There has been some interest from international markets, but I’m afraid that it would take my attention away from the local operation. Then again, I never thought we would be looking at 1,000 franchises and we are approaching that, so you never know what might come next.”

Related Posts

3 Comments

  1. Becky O'Nan says:

    Love you miss Susie! congratulations on your wonderful family and business!

  2. Jim Gardiner says:

    This is awesome! The Lamb’s are a great family and Tony is as good a man as he appears. What you see is what you get. This is the American Dream come true! Congrats!

  3. Mike Elam says:

    Tony had been a bud since high school. He has always had a big heart and giving back to others. I was happy to get a chance to meet his wonderful wife and family last summer who are the greatest. I had not spoken with Tony in many years but seemed like we picked up where we left off. A genuinely good guy who has a vision for big thinges and works hard to make sure things happen. A guy who deserves what he has accomplished

Leave a Comment