Before hitting her 40th birthday, Tamara Keefe had reached a vocational level that some spend their entire lives trying to attain. A successful executive at Abbott Laboratories’ Ensure brand, the Drucker School of Management MBA grad was marketing a $70 million business and had spent 262 days on the road in 2012.
Despite her victories ascending the corporate ladder, she had one problem:
“I was not living my life for me,” she recalled. “I was living it for someone else.”
Fortunately for her, Keefe didn’t have to trade in her success for a shot at something more satisfying. Now, as the owner of Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery, she’s found a way to put a lifetime of skills honed in the boardroom to work at her own self-funded startup.
Her business takes advantage of her love for making ice cream, a hobby the Southern California native discovered as a kid after her mother bought some secondhand, hand-crank dairy equipment for $2 at a yard sale.
The name for the business came from a friend of her grandmother with impressively long, silver hair.
“I just thought she was the most beautiful, elegant creature, and I just loved her so much,” said Keefe, 45. “I grew up saying, ‘Someday I’m going to have a little girl, and I’m going to name her Clementine.’”
Instead, the moniker went to her business.
“It’s kind of my baby, so it just worked out perfectly,” she said.
So has the creamery, which took only five years to expand from its initial storefront in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis to include four locations from Clayton to Lake St. Louis. With eclectic offerings ranging from persimmon cardamom to black tahini, the establishment has earned accolades far outside the Gateway City — even picking up the coveted imprimatur of Oprah Magazine as “Sexiest Ice Cream” on its 2019 “O List.”
Keefe, who also has been profiled in Forbes, was recently recognized with a coveted spot in the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. Now in its fourth year, the Beard program supports woman-identifying hospitality industry entrepreneurs, restaurant owners and chefs as they grow their careers and scale their businesses. Keefe was one of 25 fellows chosen from among restaurant owners, winemakers and chefs who have won regional and national acclaim.
Keefe also is a 2018 alumna of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. In 2019, she was one of 50 women business owners chosen for the Tory Burch Fellows program, which provides early-stage entrepreneurs with a year-long fellowship, a $5,000 grant for business education and mentorship through its peer network.
Last year, her St. Louis-themed gooey butter cake variety won top honors for the country’s best new flavor, according to the National Ice Cream Retailers Association.
“I think her willingness to say, ‘This is the plan, this is what I’m going to do to get there’ is pretty extraordinary,” said Stephen Christensen, the group’s executive director.
Christensen, who first met Keefe while teaching an ice cream program at Penn State University, also runs Scoop School, a Chesterfield Valley-based business in suburban St. Louis that educates in the art of frozen delicacies. Keefe’s unique knowledge of marketing, product creation and operations is what makes her so impressive, Christensen said. He also admits to a fondness for her salted cracker caramel flavor.
“She actually sends all her managers to our classes, which shows a bit more dedication than most would,” he said.
One of Keefe’s biggest innovations at Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery has been on the naughty side of the ledger. The hundreds of flavors she’s brought to life include various “boozy” ice creams — alcohol-infused products that include maple bourbon, chocolate cabernet and a banana rum offering. A Schlafly cider sorbet uses the iconic local craft brewer’s apple pie cider.
“It was something I had thought about that a customer actually pushed me to do,” she said of the idea of adding alcohol to her frozen treats. “I have a pretty extensive food science background, and I have access to the best food scientists and developers in the world because I worked in the food industry, so I had access to technologies and things that most people don’t. It was a matter of getting the right team together to see if something could work.”
Something did work. Now patrons of drinking age can sample flavors that encompass everything from pink champagne to tequila.
“Putting innovation into something that has been pretty much a stagnant category has been kind of a game-changer for us and the industry,” she said, noting that ice cream hasn’t had many innovations since the introduction of Dippin’ Dots in 1988. “Rum raisin has been around for 100 years. Everyone soaks their raisins in rum, but to do a super-boozy ice cream, we were the first ones nationally who did that.”
Of course, the path to success entailed a few risks. Keefe decided on a strategy that included neither debt nor investors. She proceeded to cash out her 401k while sinking her life savings into the new venture, which was drawn up in a business plan mapped out during the course of a weekend.
“I made the biggest bet of my life and put it on myself,” she said.
That wager paid off, but it wasn’t without its difficult moments.
“About six months in, I ran out of money and I do not come from a wealthy family, so I didn’t have anyone to go to,” she said. “I was a new business with a new concept, so no bank was going to give me any money. I couldn’t get any money from the [U.S. Small Business Administration]. That was a really challenging time for me.”
Rather than open a physical location immediately, she started to build her brand by introducing her product to local hotels and on restaurant menus. It worked. Customers flocked to the shop when her wholesale business shifted gears and she opened a storefront to the public.
Of course, success created a new problem as the lines grew.
“Then it was a matter of, ‘OK, how do we look at the business and what changes do we make operationally and physically in the stores to make the service go faster while maintaining the integrity of the experience and the quality of the ice cream?’”
That meant changing the store’s layout.
“We invested in better equipment and registers, [point of sale] systems and online support setting up an online store and doing delivery,” she said.
Keefe said each shop offers about two dozen flavors, with eight of them being “naughty.” Freezers offer another 40 to 50 different varieties packed in pints, which have become a significantly more popular option during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She noted that her corporate background came in handy.
“I think one key to our success was the fact that I ran big businesses,” she said. “I ran a [profit and loss]. I understand financial statements and documentation. I also happen to work in the food industry, so I understood food safety and being in manufacturing facilities and what does that look like? How do you build it? What does traceability look like?”
For many, the romantic concept of simply having a dream and the will to succeed doesn’t always pan out, Keefe said.
“There is a lot involved in running a business. It is not just ‘I have an idea. Let’s make this thing,'” she said. “It is production. It is manufacturing. It is planning. It is retail and store operations, negotiations, real estate, accounts payable and receivable. I think that is something people don’t think about when they start a business. They have a good idea, and then suddenly they think, ‘Oh, wait, I don’t know how to do this’.”
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, she noted. The risks and sacrifices can be difficult.
“There are amazing rewards, too. You are your own boss,” said Keefe. “But at the end of the day, guess what? Everyone gets paid before you do.”
Still, her future looks bright. Clementine’s is set to pick up a fifth location in Town and Country soon. She opens about one shop per year to keep quality high and growth manageable prior to scaling to a more far-flung operation. She looks ahead to a national launch after establishing 10 to 12 stores in the St. Louis region.
That’s a more conservative vision than her original plan to branch out to other regions after just four or five shops.
“We would rather expand into the market completely,” she said. “This year, it is a lot easier to manage. Then, when we are a lot bigger, depending on where we are at in terms of resources and time and people, we’ll be able to handle it much more effectively in other cities.”
She hopes that what she’s learned from the Beard program can assist her as Clementine’s expands.
“They are really teaching us about being better owners, ways to cope with stress,” she said. “It helped us put together a growth plan moving forward. They’ve been foundationally helpful with us females in the culinary space because there are not that many of them.”
In the meantime, Keefe plans to keep making her mark on the area and the industry — an impact others continue to notice.
“I always remember talking with her because the moment she walked away, I was like, absolutely we would like to be partners with Tamara and what she was going to do at Clementine’s,” said Eddie Cajina, a senior sales and marketing executive with Meadowvale, the Illinois company that makes the proprietary base mix used by Keefe. “She knew what she wanted, and it was different than what was out there.”
Cajina lauded Keefe for more than just her business acumen.
“For me, the key thing that Tamara has is that she’s a good person,” he said. “She wants to do good through the experiences that she’s providing to her guests, and in addition to that, the partnerships that she looks for and all the things she’s doing. It really makes her very special.”
That’s still an important part of the equation for Keefe, who opened her first shop in her own neighborhood and still brands herself as “St. Louis-proud.”
We’re a homegrown brand,” she said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the city being so supportive of us.”
That’s part of why she left her previous corporate life despite the uncertainty of a new beginning.
“When you start something new, nothing is ever easy,” she said. “It is always challenging, but at least I’m making a difference in the community that I serve. I make a difference for the people that I employ and for whom I provide livelihoods. And I own my own life now. I own my own destiny. And I love that I make people happy every single day.”
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