By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Nestled in the scenic town of Park Hills, in St. Francois County, MO., sits a unique, niche 100% Black-owned business called Bold Spoon Creamery.
In January 2021, Rachel Burns and her husband, Corey Wilkinson, decided to sell their University City home and move Rachel’s business to the historic antebellum town about seven miles northwest of Farmington.
Rachel, who started making premium small batch ice cream in 2017, had grown the business to a point where she needed more commercial and garden space for her product. The fact that she officially started selling ice cream at the beginning of a global pandemic that crippled thousands of businesses nationwide, speaks to Rachel’s tenacity, resolve and, most important, ability to “pivot.”
“Initially my business plan was to sell primarily to restaurants,” Burns explained. “So, you can imagine in March 2020 that was not a viable option because restaurants were closing or only doing curbside services. I wouldn’t call it a set-back. It was more of a pivot. I had to find a new avenue.”
The Bold Spoon Creamery story speaks to the spirit of entrepreneurism. It began in 2017 when one of Corey’s college friends brought his family to the couple’s house for a summer swim. A year or so earlier, Corey had planted mint that came to dominatethe backyard. Rachel remembered the Cuisinart ice cream maker she had in her basement for years and, on a whim, decided to grab some mint and make a batch of homemade mint ice cream for their visitors.
It was a hit. Rachel began tinkering with ingredients, brainstorming combinations, and making notes of her original recipes. In early 2019, a group of friends who nicknamed themselves “The Spoons” served as official taste testers for Rachel’s unique, multiple-flavored ice cream recipes.
“I wasn’t making flavors like vanilla or strawberry; not that there’s anything wrong with them. I was making flavors like goat cheese and fig, or spiced honey or salt cheese & chocolate.” The name “Bold Spoons,” originated from the Spoons comments about her “bold” flavors.
Positive reviews from the Spoons motivated Rachel, a business consultant, to enter the retail ice cream business. She had just ordered a professional ice cream machine in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. Given the unknowns of the coronavirus, Rachel abandoned her plan to strictly market to restaurants and took to the streets. She rang doorbells and, before residents answered, she’d run across the street and yell, “Hi, my name is Rachel, I’m your neighbor. We’re starting a new business … just wanted to give you a little treat. Hope you enjoy.”
She left cards with an online address with the samples, and soon she started receiving orders. In about three weeks Rachel, Mark, and their son, Harrison, 24, were delivering ice cream every Saturday.
Shortly afterwards, Rachel started participating in local farmer’s markets. After positive press from magazines like Sauce and Feast, Bold Spoons gained entrée into dozens of local markets, such as Straub’s, SmokeHouse Market in Chesterfield, and Fresh Thyme Market at the City foundry, as well as regional retailer Schnucks.
She rented hourly space at St. Louis Food Works, a commercial kitchen in the midtown area, and bought a much bigger ice cream machine to meet the growing demand for her products. Last year, mostly because Corey wanted to move to the country, Rachel said, they bought a 57-acre farm in Park Hills.
Surrounded by hilly terrain, a gushing river on their property, and in plain sight of the Ozark Mountains, Rachel said it’s a treat to have people come to the farm, enjoy ice cream by the lake, and leave with products in hand. They have the space to grow apples, pears, strawberries, mint, and other fresh fruit and herbs that immediately go into her ice cream creations. With a small staff and much more space, Rachel manages to provide her products to almost 25 locations in St. Louis city and county and St. Francois County.
Rachel said she’s not even considering taking her products nationally, yet. She, Cory and Harrison plan to branch out and seize other local opportunities first. She’s getting requests to secure their kitchen space for baby showers and private parties where customers can make their own custom ice cream. She’s revisiting her earlier plans to deliver to restaurants and making custom recipes for local wineries. Bold Spoons is also a member of “Harvest Hosts” a network of wineries, farms, breweries, and other unique attractions that invite RVers to get off the beaten path and visit and stay overnight at various member locations.
For a Black-owned business born in the midst of a global pandemic, Bold Spoons is holding its own. Early in the pandemic, experts predicted that at least 40% of Black businesses would succumb to the crisis. Although COVID-19 did disproportionately hurt preexisting Black businesses, ironically, according to a 2021 report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, it also spurred the creation of a surprising number of new Black firms. That growth, according to the report, speaks to the resiliency of African American business-owners like Rachel.
“I don’t know if it was a problem for us because we started in it. But, honestly, the benefit of starting in the pandemic was that it forced us to be scrappy, resourceful, and to think quickly,” Rachel said. The challenges of the pandemic, she added, prepared her to move forward.
“I think that it [COVID] was a benefit,” she said. “Because when times are kind of normal again and you’re still able to hold on to those attributes, that way of thinking forward, then it can only be a good thing.”
Rachel was concerned when told of the number of Black businesses predicted to fail due to the pandemic. She knows she’s one of the fortunate ones and hopes others will be able to pivot and creatively survive through the ongoing crisis. For other Black-owned businesses, Rachel shared one wish:
“Hopefully they can still hold on to their dreams.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.