The Big Chill
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One of the coolest professions around--ice carving--is also becoming one of the hottest new growth areas for entrepreneurs. Given a boost by advertisements, movies, competitions and festivals featuring ice sculptures, carving has become a lucrative occupation for approximately 1,600 professionals nationwide, who earn $50,000 to $150,000 a year. A handful, like Jim Nadeau, 44-year-old owner of Nadeau's Ice Sculptures in Forrest Park, Illinois, tally up to $1 million annually.
Alice Connelly, executive director of the National Ice Carving Association, says that in the past three years, the association's membership has doubled, from 300 to 600, as demand for ice carvings has grown. "People are amazed at what you can do with ice," Connelly says.
The most common outlets for ice carvings are weddings, with the sculptures sold either through wholesale outlets or directly to consumers. Other markets include hotels, casinos, restaurants, caterers, party planners, banquet halls, country clubs and corporations, all of which buy ice carvings for a wide range of gatherings, such as open houses, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs, awards ceremonies, conventions, and class reunions.
But it doesn't stop there. In recent years, demand for ice carvings for other uses has fueled the industry's rapid growth. Movie studios have featured ice carvings in films like "Batman Forever." Advertising agencies buy ice carvings to hawk everything from alcohol to mutual funds. Nadeau has made ice sculptures to sell everything from Budweiser and Coca-Cola to Cheer laundry detergent and KFC chicken.
Richard Bubin, 37, owner of Ice Creations in Pittsburgh, landed contracts with liquor companies Absolut, Goldschl?er and Seagrams to create ice carvings for bars. Since launching his business full time in 1993, Bubin has also carved sculptures for amusement parks and community day festivals, creating carousel horses, rollercoasters, clowns, children and animals to delight the crowds.
Any month can be lucrative for ice carvers, depending on the market. May through September tend to be busiest for sculptors who cater to weddings, while the remaining months are busiest for those who take mostly corporate orders. In addition, cities nationwide sponsor ice- carving competitions and festivals where carvers can earn up to $4,000 per event. Bubin, who grossed $81,000 in 1997, spends his off-season teaching ice carving throughout the United States and abroad, in countries such as Italy and Taiwan, where demand is growing.
Many ice carvers start by working in hotels and restaurants. Some learned their craft when they worked as chefs; others were tutored by master ice carvers or simply picked up techniques through observation. But it's not necessary to have worked in the food industry to become a professional ice carver. Community colleges, culinary schools and individual experts offer courses for beginners. Would-be carvers need only be creative, good with their hands and strong enough to work with blocks of ice weighing up to 300 pounds.
The faster you carve, the more you can earn. Bubin, who opened his business after being downsized out of his job in a Pittsburgh hospital's food-service department, can carve simple wedding sculptures--a swan or a heart with two doves--in 30 minutes and sell them for $175.
Nadeau, a former hotel line cook and food production manager who learned the craft by watching a chef in Boston, now has 30 full- and part-time employees and produces 60 to 100 sculptures per week. He's known for pull-out-all-the-stops carvings, such as an intricate piece measuring 100 feet long and 13 feet tall, done for a party at Nabisco Co. in East Hanover, New Jersey.
Urban areas are the best locations to start an ice-carving business because of the number of potential markets, experts say, but smaller communities can support a carver if there is little competition. Most ice carvers are on the East Coast and in California. Connelly says there are many areas that have few ice carvers, meaning these are open markets for entrepreneurs. These include parts of the West--Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Arizona--as well as Texas and Louisiana.
Start-up costs range from $4,000 to $40,000; the average is $10,000 to $25,000, according to experienced carvers. That covers tools, such as a power chain saw, chisels and bits; a freezer; a professional-sized ice maker; a refrigerated truck to deliver the sculptures; and marketing materials. Some carvers lease space from ice manufacturing companies or build their own facilities, while others, like Bubin, work from home.
No matter how you choose to approach ice carving, one thing's certain: "To be successful, you need to be more than artistic--you need practical business skills," says Nadeau. If you've got them? "There is a need for ice carvers," he says. "I see nothing but growth ahead."
Pamela Rohland is a Bernville, Pennsyslvania, freelance writer specializing in small-business issues.
Ice Creations, 578 Lucia Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15221, (412) 824-5636
Nadeau's Ice Sculptures, (708) 366-3333, fax: (708) 366-3378
National Ice Carving Association, P.O. Box 3593, Oak Brook, IL 60522-3593, (630) 871-8431