Natasha Case is one of the biggest innovators in the food truck industry. Her one-of-a-kind creations are a fan favorite not just in L.A., but in cities all over the country. What started as an architecturally-inspired gourmet dessert truck, Coolhaus, named after Natasha’s favorite architect Rem Koolhaas (Natasha was an architecture major), has expanded to two different storefronts in the Los Angeles area – one on LA’s westside, one in Culver City, and one on the eastside, in Pasadena. In addition, Coolhaus now has trucks in Dallas and New York and ice cream goodness in grocery stores.
I had the amazing opportunity to do a Q & A with Natasha to talk about how she started, what her influences are, and of course everything Coolhaus. She gives some great insight about the industry and her experience that foodie fans and future entrepreneurs will want to check out!
Cara Meyers: What was your inspiration for Coolhaus?
Natasha Case: I have a background in architecture and wanted to make architecture more fun and accessible, so I thought food was the perfect medium to do that. I played around with the idea in grad school – making edible scale models. It started more as an art project than a business. I started baking cookies and making ice creams, naming them with architecture puns, while working at a Fortune 500 company and would hand them out to friends at work. People loved them, and kept asking for more architecture ice cream. Around the same time, I met Freya there and she mentioned that what I was doing could be a business.
CM: Why did you decide on a food trucks to start your business?
NC: A few different reasons:
- Cost – it’s more affordable to start a food truck than open a storefront.
- It’s an incredible research tool. You get to learn which neighborhoods enjoy your food. Food trucks are great data accumulators.
- Food trucks are awesome marketing machines. They are basically mobile billboards.
- Brand partnerships. Food trucks are a canvas for other brands.
- Social media. They’re great telling people where and when to find you.
In the net-net of things, food trucks are very, very compelling to start with, but should be part of the bigger picture.
CM: How was the transition from food truck to storefront?
NC: It was a good one, because we had a built-in audience with less of a cost. Before making the investment, we knew what our customers liked and wanted more of. We knew that Culver City had lots of architects. If you’re an architect and you know one brand of ice cream, it’s us. The storefront is our mothership, our creative hub where everything happens.
CM: Do you plan on opening more storefronts?
NC: Not at the moment. I look at the stores as our cultural capital. I don’t see it as an urgent part of the next strategy, even though I’m happy with sales. We are investing in the growth and that’s in the wholesale distribution. We’re going to be in 4,000 stores by the end of the year.
CM: What was your biggest challenge with Coolhaus?
NC: Learning how to manage people when you’re running a business. You learn to be more aware, especially as a woman. Over time you create a system and learn that people are motivated by different things, and it’s not always money. It also takes getting older and more experience. You learn a lot about you and what makes you tick, and what your passions are. I’ve learned that you can work really, really hard and have fun. When you see you and your team having a great time while working their butts off, it’s not just a job it’s a lifestyle.
CM: What’s the craziest thing you would want to do with your ice cream that may be too crazy?
NC: Crazy are the ones I go for. But once we did try a Waldorf Salad-inspired ice cream. It was a blue cheese base, caramelized apple, and walnut. The stink of the blue cheese was too much. We also wanted to try to do something pickle-ish, so we did something with Peanut Butter and Pickle – we were going for a Thai angle. But it was more of a visual problem than anything else. I’m about to try something with Chinese Sausage, and in the winter, I’m going for a whole breakfast menu.
Now about the ice cream…
CM: How would you describe your food?
NC: Magical, conversation pieces. For example, the pizza ice cream may not be one you have a whole scoop of, but once you have to taste it, it’s a conversation starter. I would also say [our food] is very adventurous. We are kind of like a dark and twisted fantasy.
CM: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
NC: Depends on the day. The one that I most often taste, in zombie mode, is the Salted Chocolate. It’s not overly sweet, and putting salt in a chocolate or vanilla base makes it taste like a malt or a milkshake. I like to finish with dirty mint, the palate cleanser. The one I eat most from pre-package is the IM Pei-nut Butter. It’s a dark and twisted fantasy! What can I say?
CM: How do you come up with ideas for flavors?
NC: There’s actually three different ways I come up with new flavor ideas: I either see what’s trending and try to get in front of it. Other times, the flavors can be client derived, where a lot of times clients will ask us to make a certain flavor for them. And then there are times when I’m eating something savory and think about how it could be an ice cream flavor.
CM: What’s the best reaction someone has had to your food?
NC: When a parent is here with their kid, and the parent wants Coolhaus, but the kid might want ice cream from somewhere else and hearing the parent go, “I want Coolhaus!” Or when a guy I was serving one time ordered the dirty mint. He was enjoying it and began to walk away when he turned back around and asked what the herb in the ice cream that was really different. He knows what he ordered so I wasn’t sure, but he kept asking about the herb. I finally said, “Do you mean mint?” He replied with, “That’s it!” And then he basically kicked his heels and walked away. We could write a whole book of good customer reactions. People expect it to be such an intellectual experience here.
CM: What are some of your favorite food trucks?
NC: Komodo is great! You have to give props to Kogi, they’re pioneers and it’s addictive. The women behind Border Grill Truck are awesome and we do a lot of events with them. We actually partnered with them for a No Kid Hungry event and contributed to the live auction. The prize was a party with the Coolhaus and Border Grill trucks for the winner and 100 of their friends. A guy in the front row bid $100,000 for the prize and won.
CM: Any advice for those wanting to embark into the food truck world?
NC: Think of the truck as a platform for a bigger picture. Food trucks are at their best when they are part of a larger strategy. Use the resources that are around you. Roaming Hunger is an incredible resource and we’ve worked with them on a number of events. It’s a tough job, and it can definitely get old, but the outcomes and smiles are so rewarding.
– Guest Contributor, Cara Meyers