By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
Ice cream can be a very happy business, especially when — unlike a double scoop — it stands up over time.
In an economic environment that has been brutal for retailers of all stripes, one Baskin-Robbins franchisee did the unthinkable on Oct. 28. She was giving away scoops for free.
“It’s kind of our way of celebrating and saying ‘thank you’ to our customers,” said Georgia Mizutani, whose 31 Flavors store in La Puente was decorated with banners, balloons and streamers as it marked 25 years in business. She and her husband, Ron, partnered with another couple to open the franchise on Oct. 30, 1986.
“My husband’s dream was to run our own business, so he looked around at franchises and he liked this one,” explained Mizutani, 55. She said the startup cost of $120,000 was manageable for the four partners and for the first year, it was happy times as they doled out sundaes, shakes and cakes.
In the early 1980s, the ice cream industry had undergone a revolution, with premium brands such as Haagen-Dazs adding an air of chic to the familiar dessert. For the Mizutanis, the investment seemed sound and despite the rigors of juggling the finances, it was fun.
Then came tragedy. Barely a year later, Mizutani’s husband succumbed to cancer, leaving her and her partners to run the business.
“Generally, ice cream is not a huge money-making business,” said Mizutani, whose soft-spoken nature can sometimes mask her proven tenacity.
“In winter months, business gets really slow, so I have to work for free and I can’t pay myself. You have to work hard, and often, there’s not much in return. Also, I was a single parent, so all those years, it was a tough road.”
Mizutani bought out her partners — her husband’s nephew and his wife — in 2006 and now runs the store with her 27-year-old son, Greg, who she hopes will soon take over the business.
A 1974 graduate of Roosevelt High School, she was named Georgia as she was born on Washington’s birthday. She earned a bachelor’s degree from USC, and when she and her husband decided to buy a Baskin-Robbins store, they settled on La Puente because of its proximity to their home in Rosemead.
Mizutani said as with any business venture, hers has had its ups and downs.
“Working here is fun, with the kids,” she said. “My employees come and go, so that keeps me young.”
Her other son, Jason, now 29, has worked at the store as well.
The worst days are easy to recall.
“We’ve been robbed six or seven times. This area is not the best. I was held at gunpoint,” she described with an uncanny calm.
Over the years, Mizutani has ridden the peaks and troughs of the local economy — through the salad days of the ’80s and mid-’90s, boom in the early 2000s and recessions in the early ’90s and today. The retail plaza on Hacienda Boulevard where her shop sits is anchored by a Hispanic market that has been boarded up for some time.
“It’s been tough the last few years. Sales have dropped a lot, but I’ve managed somehow,” Mizutani said, adding that ice cream is not an item that is considered to be recession-proof. “It’s a luxury.”
The decline in sales has come as a cruel instance of bad luck in one way. The parent company requires in-store remodeling from time to time, and a company-wide image overhaul took place in 2006. Even the traditional logo underwent a makeover, and franchisees were told they could expect a return of around 14 percent.
Her partners, who had been eyeing retirement and were not keen on the $60,000 cost of remodeling, offered their share to Mizutani, who bought them out for sole ownership. Shortly thereafter, the economy nose-dived.
Still, Mizutani does her best to see the cherry on top. She said her sales of ice cream cakes have remained strong, with her son having become well-skilled in decorating them.
“We’re really a cake store. Greg is very creative, so that’s doing well,” she explained.
She added that the introduction of coffee drinks to the Baskin-Robbins menu has been successful, to the point of being among their top-sellers.
Perhaps a telling key to Mizutani’s longevity in the business is her involvement and generosity within the community. She donates coupons for free ice cream to local students who complete reading programs, and of course, the free scoops to all customers on her anniversary is a bold step in fragile economic times.
“We didn’t advertise the free scoops,” she explained, saying that the shop would have been cleaned out. Chainwide, Baskin-Robbins celebrates its birthday every April 28 with 31-cent scoops, and Mizutani said there’s a line out the door on those days.
“A lot of customers don’t know we’re doing this, and they’re pretty surprised” on the anniversary day, she said. “I really can’t afford it, but I’m doing it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
And while she said retirement is something she’s looking forward to, Mizutani said in the same breath, “I hope to still be doing this 25 more years down the line.”
Georgia Mizutani’s Baskin-Robbins ice cream store is located at 1443 N. Hacienda Blvd. in La Puente. Open 7 days. (626) 917-1175.