After a 27-year career in the United States Air Force, Clifton Fischer was in search of a business opportunity he could be passionate about.
In an upscale Chicago hotel last fall, he found what he was looking for. Over cocktails.
Rather, the answer was in the cocktails. “We were there to celebrate my wife’s birthday, and at the bar we ordered a couple of bourbons,” Fischer recalls. “Eagle Rare, as a matter of fact. I looked down at the glass, and here’s this perfectly two inch by two inch by two-and-a-half inch block of clear ice in it. I was completely taken out of the environment. I was completely engrossed in that glass. And I looked at her and said ‘This is what Jake and I were talking about.’”
Back home in St. Pete, Fischer and his business partner Jake Essman had lately been obsessing about ice, experimenting with inexpensive silicon freezer molds and dropping the curated cubes into their preferred whiskies, bourbons and rums. It made them smile. And it made them muse about whether there was any money in customized ice.
Craft ice, as it turns out, is big business in metropolitan areas, hipster meccas and anywhere else people care about the aesthetics of their cocktails. Bold and solid, craft ice has an old-fashioned appeal.
It’s said that the cubes’ density and relatively large size mean they melt more slowly – and dilute the beverage less. In other words, they stay cold longer, and solid longer, and preserve the integrity of the drink.
Fischer, Essman and third partner Troy Noonan have launched Doggery Craft Ice, the first company in the Tampa Bay area to manufacture and distribute craft ice – heavily-filtered, dense, crystal-clear cubes, cut into specific shapes for what those connoisseurs respectfully refer to as hand-crafted cocktails.
Prepackaged bag-ice is a $2.5 billion business. That’s for white ice, quickly frozen and crushed into little chunks, bland, undistinguished, pedestrian ice. Don’t even talk about the dinky cubes that come out of your home freezer.
Craft ice – also known as artisan ice – is different. Giant blocks are slow-frozen in custom machines made by the Colorado-based Clinebell company. The machine provides circulation, ability for expansion and a uni-directional freeze (from the bottom up, a process called the lake effect), resulting in natural ice with absolutely no trapped bubbles or suspended sediment.
The blocks are then cut, and re-cut, and chopped, molded or polished into pretty much any shape. It’s not ice sculpture, exactly, although the idea is kind of the same.
“Aesthetically, there’s all kinds of stuff you can do with it,” Essman says. “Out of the gate, we’re only going to do cubes, spheres and Collins cubes.” These are planks measuring around five by one and one-quarter inches, for tall glasses.
“Then we’ll start dabbling with freezing orchids, or roses inside the cubes.”
Also possible: Wedding mementos or company logos inside the cube or sphere. Or carved on the outside of the custom cubes, spheres or whatever. “There’s no limit, really, to what you can do with it,” he adds.
After securing financial backing – a single investor insisted on paying all the startup costs – the partners leased office space and a production warehouse in St. Petersburg. The plan is to get Doggery Craft Ice up, running, and delivering orders within a 60-mile radius of the city by mid-July.
At first, the production run will be between 40,000 and 60,000 cubes per month.
“The ideal is to sell to craft cocktail bars,” says Fischer, whose business resume includes ownership of a successful landscaping company (between stints of active duty overseas), and several home-based operations. “That’ll definitely be our meat and potatoes. Then you’ll have your large corporations – restaurant chains, hotels, things like that. We’ve spoken to a few of them, but we can’t solidify anything until we have a product to provide.
“We’ve got a couple that have confirmed that yes, we want your product as soon as you guys roll out.”
With Doggery Craft Ice, Fischer, Essman and Noonan believe they’ve discovered a void in St. Petersburg business, a void that needs to be filled. With something very, very cold.
Essman: “I explained all of this to my parents, way back when, and they said ‘We want to see what it looks like.’ So I brought a piece over. My mom put it in this crystal chalice. And they just sat there and stared at it for about 30 minutes. And they both said ‘That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
For Fischer, too, early indicators are that there’s no business like cube business. “I’ve got a few friends that have bought and sold multi-million dollar businesses,” he reports, “and one individual that bought and sold a billion-dollar business. And they were extremely on board. They were like, ‘Oh, this is the coolest thing ever.’
“And they started throwing ideas at us.”
Visit the Doggery Craft Ice website here.