Sweet Dream Makers
On Rookie’s opening night, there were three things owners Holly, Jordan, and John knew for sure:
One, their ice cream sandwich food truck turned out exactly as they’d envisioned: a set-up built to resemble a loving grandmother’s kitchen decked out with picnic tables and cafe lights.
Two, they made the perfect team: Holly and Jordan Nickerson, a talented married couple with a dream, and John Rerick, a friend and classmate of Jordan’s from Liberty University, who shared that dream and had the operational and finance chops to help make it a reality.
Three, they had plenty of homemade cookies and ice cream—enough for an entire weekend’s worth of handcrafted ice cream sandwiches.
That was March of 2017. John remembers how it felt to be wrong about that last one. “Before the end of the night was over, I stood on a picnic table and told the 150 people waiting in line that we were out of cookies. It’s something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he says. “We’d worked for over a year to prepare for that first night. We were hopeful that it would go well, but didn’t even know what that meant yet. At the end of the night, we realized, maybe we have something more here than we even thought.”
Six years later, their businesses include Rookie’s, which still specializes in ice cream sandwiches and has grown to five locations in and around Lynchburg. They also own two locations of Bacon St. Bagels, known for its breakfast fare and NY-style bagels. And they own Corduroy Coffee + Kitchen, prized for stellar coffee and pastries.
But according to Holly, their business is bigger than the food they serve. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “We love good food, but we’re in it for the hospitality. We care about that a lot. It’s woven into all of our business models.”
As they’ve grown, the original trio has expanded to include Corduroy owners Courtland Smith and Jordan Hawkins, and Jon Ireland on the Rookies team. They each have their own talents, interests and areas of expertise.
But they all share Jordan’s original vision. “We’re all serial entrepreneurs,” says Holly. “We love teaming up with people who are like-minded in that they really value people and our culture—the way we treat our staff and team—over pretty much anything else.”
According to Jordan, cookies and ice cream and coffee are just vessels for training, mentorship and development. “From day one, when someone comes in as a cashier or a baker or an ice-cream scooper, we are focused on what we can give them above and beyond a part-time job with part-time money. We’re kind of obsessed with that idea.”
Jordan and John agree that the lessons they learned in their graduate degree were critical to their success. But they also believe that, in general, something is missing in the educational pipeline. “Students need a hands-on educational experience. We want them to be able to work with us, learn a lot about business, and help in the networking process for the next job,” says Jordan.
John gives an example of how that has already played out: “A young woman who was in college worked for Rookie’s for the last couple of years. After her associate’s degree, she decided to take a gap year before going on to finish her bachelor’s. She came to us and asked if she could shadow the owners and operators more to determine whether she wants to be a small-business owner one day,” he says. “She helped us launch Corduroy. After the experience, she realized this space makes her incredibly happy, and she wanted to own a business more than ever. But she needed that hands-on experience.”
Corduroy co-owner Courtland Smith had a similar experience. After two years of making bacon and eggs at Bacon St., Courtland believed he was ready to fulfill his dream of owning a coffee shop. When the opportunity presented itself, Jordan Hawkins, co-owner of Bacon St who had worked closely with Courtland, asked Courtland to join him as the general manager of a new coffee shop he was opening with Holly, John, and Jordan Nickerson. Now, 26-year-old Courtland is part-owner of Corduroy.
“Those two stories are important to us,” says John. “We all want to be good stewards of what we’ve been given. Yes, we have to do bagels and ice cream and cookies and coffee really well for that to be the case. But our goal isn’t to hire college students who will sell cookies until they’re 50. They all have another dream they’re chasing. When opportunities arise, we want to continue to add value by providing pathways and access for hands-on experience.”
It’s impossible to quantify what that means to customers and employees, but their ease in finding enthusiastic applicants speaks volumes. “This spring, we got 30 applications in three weeks to fill one position—no solicitation, no ads,” says Jordan.
Holly, Jordan, and John agree that their Lynchburg home base makes it all possible. In addition to the city’s colleges and universities filled with talented young people, Lynchburg has a low cost of living that makes entrepreneurship accessible.
“I really believe that this is one of the only cities where we could have done this,” says Jordan. “I’m from Massachusetts, and if we opened Rookie’s there, it would probably have taken us two to three times as long to save the money,” says Jordan. “It’s a lot more palatable to take a risk here.”
Jordan is proud that they took that risk. “When Holly and I were younger, we decided we wanted to be a family who did things. We loved brainstorming and ideating, but at the end of the day, we wanted to be one of those couples who follow through,” he says. “It’s kind of surreal to realize that every day, we’re doing something we dreamed of.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.