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A Truly Cool Job

Though he sells a fun product, there is work involved in running Patrick Pipino's Ben & Jerry's franchise.

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It's 8 a.m. and Patrick Pipino is sleeping. At last. Yesterday, one of his employees was in a car accident and another was stranded, unable to come into work, so Pipino covered both their shifts, working at his Saratoga Springs, New York, Ben & Jerry's until 1 a.m.--all on the day he had planned to take off.

Today he plans to sleep in until 9. But the phone rings at 8:30--the landlord needs to talk to him. Fifteen minutes later, an employee calls with a question. Pipino knows the calls are going to keep coming, so he figures he might as well start the day.

"You have to constantly be available," says Pipino, 34. "In a lot of ways, you don't own your business--your business owns you."

While the idea of owning a Ben & Jerry's franchise sounds like carefree fun amidst endless scoops of ice cream, Pipino knows the reality of running the business means two scoops of hard work.

That's especially true in the summertime, when an ice cream store can bring in thousands of dollars from just a few hours of selling $3 cones and sundaes. During these "150 days of hell," as Pipino refers to the late spring and summer, a store's one-day grosses can top its all-month grosses for the winter.

Pipino's stores are busiest after lunch and dinner, leaving his staff just a few hours to make sure everything is stocked and ready to go between rushes. Of course, there are no guarantees, as Pipino learned last night. "I went in around 5, thinking it would slow down pre-dinner, so we'd have time to put the store back together and be ready for the night's business," he says. "But yesterday was a fluke. It was busy from 5 to 8, and then the big rush came in. It's days like this that you have to scramble, but for the most part, [the rush hour patterns] stay true to form."

Besides offering a helping hand in his stores, Pipino also handles the books, maintenance and personnel. His silent partner, the owner of a contracting business, handles the majority of structural repairs that need to be done. The partners determined to do as much as they could to lower operating expenses on the franchises Pipino earned through sweat equity and a SBA loan.

Pipino, who has a bachelor's degree in hotel/resort management, was working as a restaurant manager when the franchisee of a Saratoga Springs Ben & Jerry's approached him about managing the store. He agreed and ended up managing it for 4 1/2 years while earning an MBA from State University, New York in Albany in marketing and information systems. Pipino was interviewing for an information systems position at IBM when that franchisee gave him the option to buy the Saratoga location.

"I got a silent partner to put up 50 percent, and the prior owners of the store held the note on my behalf for my half," Pipino explains. "At 27, I essentially bought a $350,000 business with no money down, just sweat equity."

A year later, Pipino secured a SBA loan to purchase the Albany location. Pipino also owns a Ben & Jerry's on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and operates ice cream carts at 70 to 80 events each year.

Occasionally, Pipino speaks to high school and college students about topics like corporate social responsibility, economics and marketing. "That's a lot of fun, because you get to tell the kids how it really is," Pipino says. Though he lets the kids ask anything, their first question is usually the same: "How much do you make?"

Once Pipino spoke at a high school during a particularly trying week. Afterward, a student came up to him and said, "It sounds like you're not happy." Pipino's response: "It's not that I'm not happy. Owning your own business, particularly a Ben & Jerry's, is like having a baby. When your baby is smiling and happy and everybody's saying what a cute baby it is, it's the best job in the world. But when your baby is throwing up and throwing a temper tantrum in the supermarket, it's not that you would rather do something else, but it becomes a little more strenuous."

The strenuous times for Pipino? When employees call in sick, the health inspector wants to know why a freezer at an event is running two degrees warm, customers complain or the brand-new freezer begins melting down with $20,000 worth of product inside. The good times are hanging around with employees, seeing customers smile, looking forward to January in the middle of the summer rush or praying for August in the winter doldrums.

Despite the hard work and the potential catastrophes that lurk around every corner, the challenges appeal to the type--A Pipino. And yes, he says it's pretty cool running an ice cream business. "When I was managing restaurants, people seemed to come in there just to make your life miserable--they were going to go away unhappy no matter what," Pipino says. "Ice cream isn't like that. People come to our stores to get happy. During training, one of the things I love to tell all the trainees is that we don't sell ice cream. We sell fun."

After another day of selling fun to the people of Saratoga Springs, Pipino checks messages, answers mail and does the books. Maybe tomorrow will be the day he'll get to sleep in.