It's been nearly a dozen years since Ed Miller gave up his suit-and-tie banking career for a sweet gig as owner of the Bruster's Real Ice Cream stores in Columbus.
The first one on Whittlesey Road led to others on Macon Road, Schomburg Road and then at Fort Benning. In October 2012, he made a move to diversify with the Wingstop store on Weems Road, and he has a license to open another at some point.
Since Miller's debut as a purveyor of ice cream waffle cones and sundaes, the competition has grown locally in the market, with yogurt shops becoming plentiful. But the Columbus native, 52, has weathered the economic storm, so to speak, and is ready for the recent cold weather to break for good and lead to a warm spring and summer that typically draws ice cream lovers in droves.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Miller recently about his job, his move into serving wings, and his favorite flavors of both. This interview is edited a bit for clarity.
So how are things going with Bruster's?
Bruster's is doing good, considering the amount of competition in town. The biggest thing we face right now is there's so many frozen treat players in the market. I think there's like eight yogurt shops around town. They've just popped up all over the place.
When you first started there was only one -- TCBY?
That was it. (A quick check found TCBY no longer in the local market.) When we first opened, of course, we were one of the few players in the market, and now there's just so many. The more stores that open, everybody's pie gets a little smaller, and I think that's what you're seeing in the frozen treat category overall.
We certainly are holding our own; we're doing well and have a real loyal following, a strong customer base. So I think we've done better than average. But, still, we feel the pinch from it.
How do you deal with the competition, anything differently?
You have to up your game a little bit, I think, from a customer service standpoint. You make sure that you're running a good operation. You make sure that your people are giving 100 percent to the customer. You just try to stand out in the customer service arena, because when there's that many choices -- and we all basically sell the same product to a large degree -- you have to provide better customer service.
But we've just got a great quality product, and I feel like there's nobody else that can touch us. Yogurt and ice cream are two different things to a certain extent. People are going to go out and say, well, I'm going to get ice cream tonight. Well, they may go to a yogurt shop; they may go to an ice cream shop. Although there are slight differences in the product, we still see the same customers.
Has Bruster's changed its products and flavors over the years?
We keep reinventing ourselves to a large degree. The company is making some changes. They do have a new prototype store, although we're not really moving towards that new prototype anytime soon. We may down the road. It's more towards indoor seating. They call it a four seasons concept, where people can come more year-round.
When you get cold weather like we've been experiencing the last few weeks, in particular, having indoor seating certainly helps. But we're in such a good strong market and have such good weather 80 percent of the year, I think our concept still holds like it is.
Do sales typically climb when the sun shines and the thermometer rises?
Absolutely. Even if it's cool out, a sunny day makes all the difference in the world.
Is your job mostly office work or are you able to get out to the shops and make sundaes yourself?
I'm in all of my stores everyday, with the exception of Fort Benning. I probably get out there a couple of times a week. But the other stores I'm in there once a day, sometimes waiting on customers.
But, now, because I have a little bit bigger operation, there is a lot more paperwork involved. I do have an office at my Schomburg Road store, and I do all of my own bookkeeping. I do a lot of my day-to-day financials myself. A good portion of my day is spent doing that.
Right now, because the Wingstop concept is kind of new, I'm in there at least one to two hours a day, usually during the lunch period, helping customers and trying to make sure I stay in touch a little closer to that concept because it is new and it needs a little bit more hand-holding at this point.
Is Columbus a wing-eating town? And I say that knowing there are lots of competitors in that area as well.
Yeah, there are. But I really don't feel like I have as much competition in that as I do the ice cream business right now. Even though there are a lot of places open, we're one of the few that really is geared more toward carry-out wings. Seventy percent of my business is carry-out over at the Wingstop.
You have an Atomic Wing Eating Challenge coming up March 8. Tell us about that.
(Wingstop) does allow their stores to do it nationally. It will be the first that I'm aware of in this market, so I'm looking forward to having a lot of fun that day. I think the date I have planned for starting sign-ups is Feb. 22 at the store.
We're looking for anywhere from 10 to 14 people to participate, people that can handle hot. It's going to be the most Atomic wings that they can eat in a certain time period. Atomic is one of our 10 proprietary flavors, and it's the hottest.
How does the coming year look like economically? Do you expect people to buy and devour more ice cream and wings?
I think the economy is certainly improving, and I think more people are spending more money out now than they probably did in the last four or five years. One of the reasons I did the Wingstop was to diversify a little bit because having all of your eggs in the same basket is not always necessarily good. That's a brand that we want to grow, and I do have a development agreement in place to put another one in this market at some point. I haven't identified any spaces yet, so that's still down the road. But the idea is to try to grow that brand either in this market or other markets.
What's the toughest aspect of your job, juggling a lot?
There is a lot going on in five different locations, and a lot of employees, and you have issues you have to deal with. That's always a challenge, but it's also part of the fun because -- especially in the ice cream business -- I have a lot of young people working for us and it helps keep me young.
How large is your workforce?
This time of year, it's around 40. That will jump up to around 60 or 65 before the beginning of the summer.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love being self-employed and not constrained and confined to a desk all day. Having been a former banker, I had to do the suit and tie for many years. Now I'm a little bit more casual and I enjoy the flexibility that it entails from that standpoint.
What's the most popular flavor of ice cream you have now?
Probably still one of our most popular flavors is butter pecan. But one of our new flavors that's moving out the door pretty quickly is sea salt caramel with toffee. It's good. On the Wingstop side, probably original hot and lemon pepper wings are the most popular.
What are your favorites?
My favorite wing is Louisiana Rub. It's a fairly new recipe that Wingstop started a couple of years ago and it's really good. (On the ice cream side) it's chocolate peanut butter chip.
Do you have to exercise a little bit because of your businesses, or are you able to control yourself?
Well, it is hard. But, it's funny, as you're talking to me I'm sitting in the parking lot of Planet Fitness getting ready to walk in the door. (laughs) I'm going to try to get in an afternoon workout.
Name: Ed Miller
Current residence: Fortson, Ga., in Harris County
Education: 1979 graduate of Kendrick High School; earned bachelor's degree in communication from Georgia State University in Atlanta in 1985
Previous jobs: Worked in banking for 20 years, including regional vice president with SouthTrust Bank
Family: Marie, wife of 16 years and a marketing vice president with Synovus Financial Corp.; and children Matt, 26, Ryan, 23, Ray, 22, and Brianna, 21
Leisure time: Loves lounging around the beach, particularly in Panama City Beach, Fla.