TAOS SKI VALLEY, N.M. — There weren't many people wanting to lick a buffalo chip until a couple of ski bums named Jamie Leeson and Todd Fortune came along. Now the two young entrepreneurs have fans across the entire West yearning for a taste of their Buffalo Chip gourmet ice cream.
"It's definitely good stuff. I eat about three cones a day myself," said Fortune, a gangly Generation Xer.
Fortune, 28, and Leeson, 27, started their Taos Cow ice cream company three years ago in a tin-roofed adobe in the quiet village of Arroyo Seco, just a few minutes from the world-famous Taos Ski Valley resort.
They wanted to make good ice cream with a Southwest flair, maybe make some money, have a little fun. These days, they're sending little tubs of goodies all the way to the West Coast. They're working nonstop and are possibly on their way to becoming a biggie in the world of gourmet frozen dessert.
"All of a sudden, it's happening and like whoa, we're just trying to control it," Fortune said.
A native of the sun and surf town of Laguna Beach, Fortune got a bachelor's degree in political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Leeson is from Narragansett, R.I., and majored in philosophy at Boston University.
After graduating, Leeson and Fortune both headed for northern New Mexico to be ski bums. They met on the slopes through mutual friends.
The snow was terrific, but finding ways to pay for lift tickets was a bit tougher. They soon were roommates, and were working at restaurants as cooks, busboys and waiters.
At the time, Ben & Jerry's gourmet ice cream was not available in the area, and urged on by friends, Leeson and Fortune decided to have go at the ice cream business.
They quickly became do-it-yourself experts: They took a correspondence course called Ice Cream Manufacturing from Pennsylvania State University, called friends and strangers in the business, and went to libraries for research.
Then they began to work, passing out samples at local stores, testing recipes on friends and family, brainstorming logos and pumping out gallons and gallons of ice cream.
They went from 100 days of skiing four years ago to just nine this winter, working 90-hour weeks instead. Their vacations consist of trade shows, festivals, powwows and fiestas, where they set up booths and sell 50 gallons in a weekend, one scoop at a time.
But they're quick to point out they're not just selling another tub of high-butterfat ice cream.
"There's lots of Eastern ice creams. We're the ice cream of the West," Fortune said.
With flavors going by such names as Adobe Chunk, Pinon Caramel and Buckshot Malt, they may have a point.
Taos Cow also uses many ingredients indigenous to the area--milk that is certified free of bovine growth hormones, brown sugar instead of white, less sugar than most ice cream and all natural ingredients.
These days, Leeson and Fortune pump out 1,000 gallons a week of their creamy concoctions--one flavor at a time--from their Arroyo Seco shop. Music plays, magazines are scattered about and the walls are dotted with signed ski posters and "Taos Cow: Made In The Shade" T-shirts.
The rest of their ice cream--about 12,000 pints a month--is now being made at their co-packer, the Poudre Valley Creamery in Fort Collins, Colo., where their recipes and guidelines are strictly followed.
With Poudre's help, Taos Cow went West this summer.
Fortune and Leeson have now wrangled their way into health food freezers in 12 Western states: California, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, Utah, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska and Washington. Next summer, they hope plan to go national, nestling in freezers along with Ben & Jerry's, which has arrived in Taos since Fortune and Leeson began their venture.
"We like to think of them as competition, but I don't think they've heard of us," Fortune said.
The Vermont ice cream company founded by former hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield has grown into a $150 million-per-year operation.
Taos Cow is dwarfed by that figure, but Fortune and Leeson's progress also has been impressive. In 1994, sales were $24,000. The next year, they hit $36,000. This year, they're well on their way to reaching their projected $140,000 in sales with their new distribution--a 380% increase.
So far, neither Leeson nor Fortune has seen their bank accounts grow from ice cream sales--everything is reinvested in the company. That company is definitely growing. This year, they opened their scoop shop in Arroyo Seco and hired a financial officer and an office manager.
And, as a real sign of becoming big, they bought a computer.
"We're going to put all our numbers in that thing," Fortune said, laughing. "Really, we are."