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PARLOR GAMES : Robin Rose Dips Into the Super-Premium Boutique Ice Cream Market

October 06, 1985|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch, an attorney and a columnist for the Book Review, often splurges on chocolate ice cream from Robin Rose .

Robin Rose, euphonious of name but a rough-and- ready entrepreneur at heart, boasts of the quality of the ingredients she uses in her ice creams and candies: fine chocolates, raspberries from the Pacific Northwest, rich cream, exotic liqueurs. "Flavors with real integrity" is what she strives to create, and her Chocolate Raspberry Truffle ice cream is already something of a cult item among faithful customers, who gladly pay a 25-cent surcharge for the privilege of buying a scoop. But the popularity of this confection owes as much to her knack for small-scale, low-tech capitalism as it does to what actually goes into the mixer.

"I have a child, I have a passion--and it's Robin Rose Ice Cream & Chocolate," she declares. "There is no room in my life for anything else."

Today, at 33, Rose is the proprietor of a chain of ice cream and candy boutiques that started in a converted bakery on Rose Avenue in Venice and soon expanded to some of the poshest shopping centers in Southern California--the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills, the Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, the Galleria at South Bay in Redondo Beach. She has already opened a store in Denver, and soon will launch five more in Japan. And she's just signed a deal with Von's Grocery Co. that will put a Robin Rose "dipping store" in a Garden Grove supermarket at the end of this month, with seven more to follow next year. Each is a small masterpiece of what the shopping center industry calls "presentation"--she favors open, airy spaces with colorful tile work and a lavish use of neon--and each is a shrine of self-indulgence.

"Robin Rose has invented something truly innovative in what was becoming a tired industry," says one real estate broker who specializes in "high-end" retail locations. Indeed, next weekend she'll be flying to Savannah, Ga., to receive the 1985 Retailer of the Year Award from the National Ice Cream Retailers Assn. and Dairy Record magazine.

Above all, Rose is taken seriously within the highly competitive ice cream industry. Having invented herself as the purveyor of superb ice creams in distinctive settings, she can no longer be safely ignored by any player in the ice cream game, whether it's a rival boutique down the block or a global operation like Baskin-Robbins. When it comes to ice cream, Robin Rose means business.

Despite her protestations of single-minded dedication, Robin Rose has a distinctly sentimental streak, which expresses itself primarily in a fierce loyalty toward her parents, Ben and Florence Friedman.

"I come from a family of workaholics," she says, recalling the days her father drove a cab and worked on an automobile assembly line to supplement the meager profits of his small furniture factory. Later he realized an enduring ambition by buying a small farm in the Russian River Valley--he's called "Farmer Ben" by the young people who scoop at the Robin Rose stores--but he sold the farm when it became apparent that, as Rose puts it, "he was running a resort for friends and relatives." Significantly, the name of her corporation, which owns and operates the ice cream business, is BFD Inc.--"Ben Friedman's Daughter."

A graduate of Fairfax High School, Rose aspired to Stanford University, where she completed her bachelor's degree in a breathless three years. From there, she moved on to the master's program at the University of Chicago, chiefly because it was the home of economic guru Milton Friedman. "I read his book, 'Capitalism and Freedom,' when I was in the 11th grade," she says. "He was my Moses, and the University of Chicago was my Mecca." In 1974, armed with an MBA, she landed a job as a marketing executive with the Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery in Modesto.

"An aggressive and articulate woman" is how Rose is remembered by her former colleagues at Gallo, and she still lionizes Ernest Gallo and his company. "We have a lot in common," she says, referring to the improvised beginnings of her own ice cream and candy factory. "The first batch of Gallo wine back in the '30s was made from scratch with the aid of a pre-Prohibition pamphlet on wine making from the Modesto Public Library." Rose nevertheless resigned from Gallo to pursue her own grandiose notion of promoting liquor products as gourmet food.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was my failure to get a major company to buy my idea," she says now. As a result, she resolved to launch her own business, selling liqueur-charged chocolates through department stores. It took an initial investment of $250,000--"a quarter million too short," she says, but "what I didn't have in money I had in energy."

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