Amber and Joe McComish both come from a long line of Wisconsin dairy farmers, and they intend to keep that line going through a mix of determination, entrepreneurship and ingenuity.
The husband-and-wife team works on Joe’s family farm, 20 minutes east of Platteville in Darlington, and they intend to own the farm someday—but with Wisconsin’s dairy industry in crisis, that wasn’t going to happen without either taking on significant debt or diversifying.
Amber’s entrepreneurial spirit made diversifying the obvious choice, so three years ago they launched what would become Lucky Cow Gelato. They’ve built up a wholesale business slowly from a commercial kitchen space in the Platteville Business Incubator, selling around 300 containers of gelato a week to local restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores.
Between the cows at the farm, the kitchen in Platteville and three young kids at home, however, the amount of time driving from place to place quickly became an impediment to growing the business. They began searching for a kitchen in Darlington, and found one in a former bakery right on Main Street. With a brick-and-mortar location right in the heart of town, a retail operation was a natural next step.
Then COVID-19 hit the U.S.
“We had postponed the opening a couple weeks, and then our milk market crashed—tanked , really. The hardest fall in history, I think. For most people that combo would probably be the time to throw in the towel for both businesses,” Amber says. “We are not most people.
“We decided—after some coaxing and grit from my husband—that we needed to be a light in a dark situation,” she adds. “Our store and products are here to cheer up people’s day.”
They were already putting gelato in containers, so curbside pick-up was an easy adjustment to make to the business plan.
“Opening during COVID-19 and not before was a slight advantage. We didn’t have a routine yet. We could start from scratch and try different things,” she says. “We had pretty low expectations going into this, but our first day open was crazy. We had cars lined up down Main Street.”
As the pandemic has progressed, they’ve had to navigate a wide range of expectations and comfort levels from their customers. They’ve focused on transparency in their efforts and providing customers with a manageable amount of choices.
“I have found that moms love the curbside pick-up. They keep their kids safe in the car and they still get a fun treat. Other people just want to have a conversation with someone, face to face,” she says. “The community has been super supportive and very accommodating, knowing that we’re new to the retail business. Darlington has lacked an ice cream store and coffee shop for a long time, and I think they’re just grateful to have that option.”
Lucky Cow Coffee and Gelato is open weekday mornings for coffee and serves up hand-dipped gelato all day Friday and Saturday, leaving the rest of the week for making gelato and working the farm.
“So far it’s been a great fit, and I feel like we’re in a better place to begin growing the business,” says Amber.
Lucky Cow has applied to WEDC’s We’re All In Small Business Grant Program and is taking advantage of the other resources provided by the We’re All In and Focus Forward initiatives. The store is also listed on the Main Street Marketplace, a new website facilitating online shopping and curbside pick-up for businesses in Wisconsin’s Connect Communities and Main Street communities.