The taste of sweet success
September 14, 2012By J. Elias O'Neal
To an average person looking in, Christian Nye had it all – a beautiful family, loving children and a 20-year culinary career to match.
But to him, and those who knew him closely, it was a façade.
“I was absolutely the most miserable person,” Nye recently recalled of his time as an executive chef. “I had a six-figure salary, a nice home, nice cars and was not satisfied with my career, and had a tendency to take it out on my staff and family because I was so unhappy.”
And it only got worse.
Nye began abusing drugs, and once word got out, he was fired several years ago from his job as a chef – ending a career that included stints at the Cape Fear Country Club and the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort at Wrightsville Beach.
“I had hit rock bottom,” said Nye, who soon after sobered up. “The only job I could get was in the fast food industry … it was a very difficult time in my life. I needed to find my passion again.”
Little did Nye know that the inspiration to reinvent himself would come from his then 6-year-old son, Charlie, on his birthday.
“I made ice cream sandwich treats for his class,” said Nye, now the co-owner of Nye’s Cream Sandwiches.
But it wasn’t just any ice cream sandwich.
These sandwiches were handcrafted with two home-baked cookies (usually of the chocolate, sugar or chocolate chip variety), wedged together by a thick plop of cold homemade ice cream of multiple flavors.
Needless to say, for a classroom full of kindergartners, and their parents, the treat was an instant hit.
“The kids loved them, and I loved them,” Nye said. “Some of the mothers there said they were good enough to sell, and then the light bulb went off.”
Later that day, while speaking with his wife, Kelly, Nye pitched the idea of starting a business specializing in ice cream sandwiches – putting on hold his original plans to open a restaurant.
“She said ‘why not?’” Nye recalled. “And that’s where it all began, and here we are now.”
It was a humble beginning for the Wilmington-based ice cream sandwich confectioner, who launched his business in 2010. Using a lone oven and rented equipment, Nye’s Cream Sandwiches filled orders from the confines of the family’s kitchen, moderately growing business one ice cream sandwich at a time.
Featuring flavors such as Strawberry Shortcake, Vanilla Chocolate Chip, Peppermint Chocolate and Key Lime Pie, Nye, with the help of his older son Nicholas, became an ice cream sandwich-making machine.
“It seemed like it would take forever to just get the cookies baked because I had that one oven,” Nye chuckled. “I remember taking up all the freezer space, too.”
But despite some of the logistic hang-ups at the home kitchen, Nye was finally getting the chance to spend more time with his children – one of the most enjoyable experiences of launching such a venture, he said.
“Someday I want to pass this business on to my boys,” said Nye, wearing Crocs and a T-shirt at his flex space headquarters in Wrightsboro. “I do this for them and because I believe in this product … it’s a good product.”
And even with the extra hands, the orders kept piling up.
Nye eventually had to ditch the family kitchen for more room. For five months, Nye rented 800 square feet of kitchen space at the Little Pond Caterers facility on Princess Place Drive near downtown Wilmington.
Toting dozens of orders in the back of his unairconditioned, beat-up old Volkswagen Jetta, Nye was now supplying and refilling orders for stores and venues all across the lower Cape Fear, including Port City Java locations, Pine Valley Market and the Maritime Market on Bald Head Island, which alone grossed 1,200 sandwiches a week during the peak summer tourism season.
“We sold about 2,000 sandwiches a week,” Nye said upon launching the sandwiches during the summer months. “People loved our sandwiches, and they had such an appreciation for how they were crafted.”
But visitors and residents of the region weren’t the only ones obsessed with Nye’s Cream Sandwiches; so were celebrities and national
As word got out about the sandwiches, Nye began filling orders for actresses such as Julianne Hough, who recently wrapped up shooting in Southport for Safe Haven (for which Nye supplied more than 400 ice cream sandwiches to be prominently featured in scenes with the actress).
Actress Candice Bergen later learned about the cold pastry treat through Taigan.com – an online e-commerce site that caters to upscale shoppers nationwide – and began ordering sandwiches directly from Nye’s warehouse.
Nye also delivered an order to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton for a Fourth of July celebration at the State Department building in Washington, D.C. for family, workers and international dignitaries.
“It’s just been incredible,” Nye said of the response to his homegrown product. “I never thought that this venture would grow from a tiny kitchen operation to what we are today.”
And his ice cream sandwich machine continues to gain steam across the Southeast.
This summer, Nye was invited to attend the 58th annual Summer Fancy Food Show – the largest specialty food and beverage show in North America – that features 2,250 exhibitors from more than 100 countries and regions.
Nye added that he is also working with distributors in Florida and Atlanta, and is in talks with Whole Foods and Central Market – a Dallas-based gourmet grocery store chain located in five booming Texas metros – to expand his ice cream sandwich reach further west.
“Having a presence at the Fancy Food Show has done wonders for our business,” Nye said while grabbing a canister full of business cards from the coveted food event.
“It all but opened the flood gates for our business.”
Nye also added custom labeling to help his sandwiches serve as items for weddings, birthdays and baby showers in an effort to reach another growing retail demographic: women. He’s working on new packaging (which was approved by his wife) to appeal to female buyers for the sandwiches in area stores.
But as Nye grows his operation, challenges remain.
For starters, it’s pretty hard trying to ship ice cream from Wilmington.
“That’s our toughest challenge, trying to find a way to get the sandwiches shipped out of Wilmington and to their destination,” Nye said. “It’s not cheap.”
And then there’s climate and season.
Wilmington’s peak summer tourism season starts in June and ends in late August, while Florida remains, for the most part, nice and warm year-round and is a magnet
“We thought about moving the entire operation out of Wilmington and to Florida,” Nye said.
“As a matter of fact, we had found a warehouse and everything and were set to move. But we like Wilmington so much and want to stay here.”
Nye said with the help of his family, rave reviews and an acute marketing approach, Nye’s Cream Sandwiches is growing faster than he could ever imagine.
“God had a purpose for me,” Nye said. “If you asked me 20 years ago if I’d be selling ice cream sandwiches, I’d laugh at you. Now, it’s all I do … and I love it.”