From the December 2013 issue of Entrepreneur

In February, when Tom Ely and his partners bought the Bruster's Real Ice Cream in Hopewell Township, Pa., where he had served as manager for 12 years, there were things they wanted to change. One item on their list--a revamp of the 22-year-old building--was something they believed would have to wait a year or two. But that thinking changed when Ely and partner Mario Leone attended a franchise conference and learned about Bruster's Extreme Makeover Contest: The company promised $10,000 to whoever spruced up the exterior of their store best.

"When the contest happened, we thought we'd go ahead and redo the store and have corporate pay for it," Ely says. "We were confident we were going to win. We didn't think any store would go to the lengths we did."

They were partially right--the two, along with third partner Brenda Leone, ended up splitting the prize money with a store in Bowling Green, Ky. But besides the cash, what they got in return for their efforts was increased sales, a reputation as a community hub and the pride of having one of the most successful Bruster's stores in the system--all within their first year.

We sat down with Ely and the Leones to get the inside double scoop on how they rejuvenated their store.

Describe the changes you made.
Mario Leone: We added a 33-by-38-foot enclosed aggregate patio that seats 78, with a built-in waterfall. There are planters all around, and six new tables with umbrellas and several benches.

We painted the exterior and added six new LED lights in the parking lot. Before, it was just a grassy area with driveways on both sides, and there were a lot of kids running back and forth. Now it's safer. The driveways are closed off with fencing and walls.

How has the redesign affected the way people use the space?
Mario Leone: It's funny. We had a bridal party who stopped on our patio to take pictures in front of the waterfall the other day. They didn't even get any ice cream, but I'm sure they'll come back.

It has become a local spot for people to take pictures of their children.
Brenda Leone: We've always been involved in the community and think it's great that people use it. There's no sign that says it's a requirement to buy ice cream if you sit there. The other day a family came in with McDonald's and I heard the mom say, "Finish all your food and we'll get some ice cream." People stop to talk and just say how nice they think the patio is.

Have the changes helped your sales?
Mario Leone: I certainly think it has boosted our sales, but it's really hard to put a definite number on it. Our summer [weather] was not so nice, but our numbers were up every month. Typically sales go down when the weather is bad, so something had to help.

Ely: The store has always been in the top 15 percent of Bruster's, and our sales are up 10 percent this year already.

You ended up winning $5,000. Did that cover your expenses?
Mario Leone: We are new franchisees, and we were able to keep our costs low. We worked with a local landscaper and, in exchange for advertising, he only charged us the cost of the materials (labor was free). That is what helped us do it. We also did a lot of the work ourselves.

But it was like any project--we had a stated budget before we got into it. We originally started with $10,000, and that was just for the cost of materials and a lot of sweat equity. We exceeded that by more than 50 percent. But it was an overall investment and will be there for a long time. It will pay itself off.

Why do you think Bruster's held this contest?
Ely: It was a no-brainer for Bruster's corporate. They had 19 stores go out and fix up their exteriors, which increases their profits, which increases corporate profits and makes the brand look good. They got all that for just a $10,000 investment.