Story by Naomi Wood; Images by Dave Koen
The number of local businesses that have already closed in 2013 can no longer be counted on one hand. Opening a local business that not only makes it through it's first year, but is able to expand to the point that local ice-cream shop, Beth Marie's, has must have something special going on behind the scenes. Beth Marie's owner, Ken Willis, is the wizard behind that curtain. Not only is he as sweet and inviting as his beloved ice cream, but he's also a cunning businessman, too. With two stores and a bevy of ice cream now sold inside local grocery stores, Willis has a lot of experience under his belt and is still going strong. We sat down with this veteran of local business to see what advice he had for future entrepreneurs about opening up a business in Denton. He even let us try his new Red Wine and Blue Cheese-flavored ice cream which was way more delicious than our brains thought it would be.
What about your business model has kept your customers loyal to you all these years?
I think with Beth Marie’s it’s more about the nostalgia that keeps people coming back. We implemented the look of a 1950’s soda shop that made people feel something special. Also, the fact that we make our own ice cream from scratch in the back, and how fast we try to serve our customers makes them very happy. I’ve owned other restaurants where I may have a good or bad day with my customers, but with Beth Marie’s it seems like we just lucked out. I guess ice cream just makes people happy, which results in our employees being happy as well.
What would you say is the single most important thing a new business can do to establish themselves in a city like Denton?
Even though Denton is big, it still has the small town atmosphere. So with that said, I think a new business needs to understand who they are trying to cater to. I’ve seen some people come in, and think they understand who Dentonites are, and they really don’t. I can’t generalize an entire city of course, but Denton has a very special population of people who care about community and don’t like feeling like consumerists.
I think a business needs to get involved, even if they don’t have the money at first to spend, it’s the time that they can invest in the community that matters. I don’t know of a single organization that doesn’t appreciate an hour of your time. Getting your name out there is important, but also letting people know you care about the city is probably of even greater importance.
How important has the location on the square been to your success?
We’re fortunate to have our location on the square where there’s more than 30 events per year. Mainstreet Denton has a tremendous draw, and what’s great is that most of Denton’s activities are free. One thing I like to say is, “If you can’t find something to do in Denton, there’s something wrong with you.”
What was the motivation in opening your other store in Unicorn Lake?
We had a good idea at a really bad time, and unfortunately our grand opening was in 2008 right after the economy tanked. It would have made our life a lot easier if the timing wasn't so off, but today, people in those suburbs really enjoy that location. They get their families and their dogs out, and walk down there to have a cone. All the dogs in that area inspired our launch of the sugar free dog biscuit, and now people come buy them by the dozen.
Another benefit to having that location is the Cinemark and Chuy’s. Those two businesses alone bring a lot of customers our way, and when school’s out, Friday and Saturday nights look like a hill full of little ants. They love to sit on those hillsides with their ice cream cones, and its a really neat thing. Overall, we’re having our best years yet, and we hope that will continue.
What is unique about Denton as far as opening a business goes?
How well the business owners get along with each other! Downtown, we operate more like a family or a neighborhood. You always have those few neighbors who like to isolate themselves, but our city is really cool because we all want to help each other out. I don’t think I've ever felt like I was in direct competition with one of my storefront neighbors.
Another great thing about Denton business culture is that our chamber of commerce is so strong, and I've been in towns where the chamber doesn't do that much for you. Denton’s Chamber brings our town together, truly. I like to think that we all have the same goal of making Denton a better place.