Culinary Ladies of the Eighties - Amy Simmons

Ice cream entrepreneur wants to make your day

photo courtesy of Amy's Ice Cream

Amy Simmons always intended to be a woman of accomplishment, the kind of person who made a mark in her community, like the working mother who raised her. Even when Amy chose not to attend medical school after graduating from Tufts University in order to sell ice cream, she still had a plan.

“I worked at the original Steve's Ice Cream in Somerville, Massachusetts, while I was in college, and I realized that it was a business where people were glad to be there and always left the store happy," Simmons explains. "That made quite an impression on me.” Steve's was a pioneering Seventies ice cream shop that boasted handmade premium ice creams enhanced by “mix-ins” such as chopped candy bars, nuts, and cookies. When the owners of Steve's offered Amy the opportunity to open stores in New York City, she jumped at the chance. “Luckily for me, when I told my mom I wasn't going to medical school because I'd been offered a job selling ice cream and an apartment in New York, she was very encouraging,” says Simmons. Amy opened stores for Steve's in New York and Florida before the brand was sold to a large publicly traded company.

Her appreciation for the Steve's business model inspired Amy to create an ice cream shop of her own that focused on quality, customer service, and community involvement. She began scouting cities for her new venture and was prompted to consider Austin by an article she read in The Economist about the high-tech boom here. “I'd often heard Austin favorably compared to my hometown of Ann Arbor. I came down here and realized I'd never seen such an entrepreneurial city where the landscape wasn't dominated by national chains,” she recalls. In doing her due diligence, Amy interviewed local food entrepreneurs Mike Young, co-founder of Chuy's, and Judy Willcott of Texas French Bread. She was encouraged by their willingness to share information and the collegiality in the local food community. She also invested some time in researching potential locations, saying “I felt it was important to start in a walkable neighborhood where there could be synergy with other local businesses.”

In 1984, Amy and her then business partner Scott Shaw opened the first Amy's Ice Creams at 3500 Guadalupe, in the same block with the first Texas French Bread outlet. “I saw that the surrounding neighborhoods and the university supported the bakery and figured if Judy could make a living selling baguettes and croissants, I could do it selling ice cream,” she says. Amy's Ice Creams became an instant hit with Austin ice cream lovers, serving up distinctive flavors and adding what they called “crush-ins” with a theatrical flare that soon became the company trademark. Her experience with Steve's had taught Amy that the company wasn't likely to be very profitable with just one outlet, so they opened a second store in the brand-new Arboretum the next year.

There are now 13 Amy's Ice Creams stores, 11 in Austin and one each in San Antonio and Houston. Rapid expansion has never been Amy's top priority, but choosing locations based on affordable real estate and synergy with other businesses are paramount considerations. In 2007, the company took over an old gas station at 5624 Burnet Rd. in order to create an Amy's paired with a casual burger concept called Phil's Ice House that included a family-friendly playscape. The decommissioned neighborhood post office behind the new stores became the company commissary and corporate headquarters. The pairing of Amy's and Phil's was an instant hit with the surrounding neighborhoods and pioneered the re-development along that busy traffic artery.

In fact, the Amy's/Phil's combo was so successful that Amy and her husband, Steve Simmons, decided to replicate the pairing on South Lamar, where they were joined by Sergio and Erick Varela's initial Papalote Taco House and the first retail outlet of David Ansel's Soup Peddler. Convincing other locals to join them in their next location proved more of a challenge. “When we decided to take the space behind I Fly (13265 Research), we tried so hard, but couldn't get any of our friends to come out there with us, so we built an Amy's, a Phil's, and our first bakeshop, Baked by Amy's” Simmons explains. Based on the success of that development, the second phase already includes another Soup Peddler outlet with the second Papalote slated to open later in the spring. Simmons is also considering another Houston store next to the I Fly on the west side of Houston.

During the past 30 years, Amy's has come to be known as a quintessential Austin company, with a style and substance that are part of what keeps Austin weird. The multifaceted woman at the helm is the mother of three, an award-winning entrepreneur who is frequently invited to address business groups, and even a former city council person in the Austin suburb of Westlake Hills. She's eager to mentor other women in business. With a savvy strategy to make people's day with ice cream, Amy Simmons definitely continues to make her mark on Austin.

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Culinary Ladies of the Eighties, Amy Simmons, Amy's Ice Creams, Steve's Ice Creams, Mike Young, Judy Willcott, Chuy's, Texas French Bread, Phil's Ice House, Varela brothers, Papalote Tacos, David Ansel, Soup Peddler, Baked by Amy's

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