Local Ice Cream Company Persists and Perseveres

by Robert Lauriston

In its 16-year history, Double Rainbow, the famous San Francisco ice cream maker, has had enough bad luck for a company ten times its size. Nevertheless, the company has survived to a win a special place in the hearts of Northern California ice cream lovers.

Owner-founders Steve Fink and Mike Sacher entered the ice cream business at age 13, selling cones at Coney Island for $3 a day. They also churned their own, which they believed was the best in Brooklyn, and fantasized that some day they would own their own ice cream shop.

In the mid-70s, when the frozen yogurt fad hit the east coast, they were still dreaming. Realizing that a California law banning frozen yogurt parlors would soon be repealed, Fink and Sacher saw an opportunity. They borrowed $13,000, leased a hole-in-the-wall shop on San Francisco's Castro Street, built their dream parlor, and, a few weeks after the law changed, opened Double Rainbow: the state's first frozen yogurt outlet. It was a big hit, and the partners quickly opened another outlet across town on Polk St.

At first, Double Rainbow didn't make its own ice cream--they sold Haagen-Daas. One day a rep from that company told Fink and Sacher their stores had "too much identity," and to keep selling Haagen-Dass they'd have to rebuild in the usual Haagen-Dass francise style.

Fink and Sacher fought back, embarking on a crash program to develop "the best ice cream in the world," as Fink puts it. "We were eating so many test batches, a gallon a day--I gained 20 pounds." He offers a professional tip: coat your stomach with plum extract and you won't get sick.

The new ice cream proved as big a hit as the frozen yogurt. They built a third store, but again had to overcome a legal barrier--it took seven months to get a restaurant permit. Then, the day before the store was to open, it burned down. But they finally got the store open. Like the other two originals, it's still in operation today.

The company grew quickly over the next few years. They built a small factory in a Mission District warehouse and licensed 25 franchises. They won Bay Guardian "Great Ice Cream Tasting" awards every year and, in 1982, top prize in the "Great American Lick-Off." Suddenly people all over the country wanted a taste, and Double Rainbow was to go national.

Enter Haagen-Dazs once again--or rather Pillsbury Corporation, its new owner. Its contracts banned distributors from carrying products similar to Haagen-Dazs. Pillsbury's lawyers turned up the heat, Double Rainbow lost its distributors, and its ice cream quickly disappeared from supermarkets freezers. The two companies sued each other. As the case dragged on, Double Rainbow's annual sales dropped by a third.

Finally, last year, they lost. To a layman, the verdict seems bizarre: Pillsbury's stifling competition wasn't even discussed. According to the judge, since super-premium ice cream isn't a separate market from regular ice cream, the way women's and men's shoes are, Double Rainbow simply didn't have a case. "Maybe it's for the best that we lost." says Fink. "We're happier being a great, small, local company instead of a big national one."

Maybe so--Fink and Sacher have put defeat behind them, and continue to develop new markets. Two trucks deliver their ice cream to franchises, corner stores, and restaurants. Independent chains like Price Club and Trader Joe's picked up the produce, and independent dairies like Clover-Stornetta are distributing Double Rainbow's pints to supermarkets.

Despite the recession, Double Rainbow has built sales back up to their previous high of $3 million a year (15,000 pounds a day), and hope to keep growing at a steady 10%. They're even adding a second shift to meet the increased demand. Is it really the best ice cream in the world? Fink and Sacher say so, but you'll have to judge for yourself.

Robert Lauriston is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.