If the current state of affairs has you reeling, there’s no reason to feel ashamed. It’s a tumultuous moment for all of us, in one way or another. It's also the dead of winter, and there seems to be no end in sight. But those particular sentiments are a reminder that we have to find ways to keep positive where we can and when we can.
Simple pleasures are coming to mind for me, these days. The idea that today is the first day of February gives me a sense of relief that, at the end of this short month, comes March. And in March, the time changes, and the days are longer, and the sun starts coming out for longer and with more frequency. The cold weather turns to cool weather, and the cool weather turns to warm weather, and flowers literally start coming out of the ground, illustrating our world with brilliant colors and new life. The concept of the magnificent earth we live in feels more tangible, and that alone is something that we absolutely must hold onto, even while the periphery seems like a sad, dark place.
So, simple pleasures. I’m embracing them now, more than ever. Watching my son figure out how to wash his hands on his own, look up and yell “Poppa! Poppa! Look look!” Sitting on my couch, and letting my old dog curl up next to me. Reading a book, with pages to turn. Cooking something delicious, and savoring each bite. Taking a family trip to the ice cream stand, and having a treat — sometimes, more often than not.
And ice cream is the thing for me, when it comes to desserts, and growing up in Champaign-Urbana, ice cream meant Jarling’s Custard Cup.
It’s true: Custard Cup isn’t ice cream. And in fact, it’s not even custard. It’s an ice milk product, but sometimes, it really doesn’t matter what you call it if it tastes good, and makes you feel good, and gives you a sense of nostalgia and warmth, even when it’s cold outside.
When word came down a couple years back that Christy and Doug Jarling were selling their Champaign location, you’d have thought the world was coming to an end, in some ways. The already long lines got longer. People were speculating about this, that, and the other. For a lot of folks, myself included, the idea that Custard Cup would no longer be an option on a hot summer day started to feel like a reality.
And after a year or so, we all breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that the brand and the shop had been purchased by a group of dedicated and (in some cases) high profile locals with the means and history to keep the place open for years to come.
For a long while, I’ve wanted to learn more about how it all came to pass, how former Illini sports heroes and coaches could partner with local investors to make Custard Cup a place to embrace simple pleasures for years to come.
My search led me to Tom Siegel, the principle investor in the new Custard Cup… or Jarling’s, depending on who you ask. A former Illini basketball and baseball walk-on, he grew up in Belleville, Illinois. He has a penchant for classic C-U restaurants like Papa Del’s, and truly just loves the community. We met for coffee and had a nice long talk about his history here, the changing face of a Champaign institution, and why staying open through the winter seems to make the most sense from here on out.
Smile Politely: Tom, thanks so much for spending some time with me today. Can you tell me a little bit about your professional history? Give me the two minute drill. What led you from college walk-on at Illinois to where you are standing today?
Tom Siegel: After my MBA, I went to work for KPMG Consulting in a custom rotation that included a little tax, audit, and primarily M&A (Merger & Acquisition) consulting, operations reviews, board assessments, and technology consulting. I had started a few companies with my brother while in college and after a few years, I left to continue my entrepreneurial side; started a company that focused on software and systems integration. Over the next eight years, I ran that company, acquired a publishing company, acquired a food company, and then got into venture capital in 1997. Fast forward until now and I’ve been in venture capital with three different firms across five different funds. I founded Shepherd Ventures in San Diego, moved out there with my family for 11 years, and moved back about 4 years ago now. I love both, being an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist.
SP: So, you and your partners bought Jarling's Custard Cup. This was huge news when it broke last year, as I think lots of folks were really concerned about its future here in town. Can you tell me a little bit about how it all went down? I am sure there were a lot of buyers knocking on the door.
Siegel: I first heard about the iconic place being for sale in the Spring of 2015. Not much happened the rest of the year as the previous owners (the Jarlings) were busy running the store through August 2015. When the season ended, they focused on organizing the process and sorting through the large interest of potential buyers. There’s no way we could let it stay closed and that really wasn’t ever in jeopardy; it was simply a matter of them finding the time to run a process to sell the business and importantly, find the right buyer in their eyes to carry on the tradition. I’ve always loved the product; it really is the best. I kept in contact throughout 2015, staying poised to possibly be the successful acquirer. I heard through my network there might be others that want to be involved, but that didn’t want to lead the effort. So, in early 2016 I put together the winning bid with a handful of other investors that all share a love for the product. And yes, there were other buyers/bidders. Many fell away and their interest didn’t sustain, but in the end it was very competitive and we are ecstatic to have won the bid. We closed on the purchase on May 1, 2016 and reopened on May 7th.
SP: To remind folks, you and your group put together a pretty sensational group of investors, all of whom have had a big stamp on this community and campus. Can you run down for us who officially owns Custard Cup?
Siegel: The owners of Custard Cup include Bruce Weber (former Illini head basketball coach), Ron Turner (former Illini head football coach), Kurt Kittner (former Illini football great), Tony Pashos (former Illini football great), Sholem family members, Dan Siegel (my brother), and a few other individuals
SP: That’s just crazy, honestly. Unprecedented in this community, I think. How did you assemble such a team of investors? Tell me about the process and how it came to be.
Siegel: The law firm of Meyer Capel helped with the transaction and I credit them for being super helpful with the transaction and process. Coming with experience as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, I was planning to go it alone. But without any real effort, a lot of interest surfaced in just a few days through my network and 2nd degree connections. We will only consider raising additional capital as significant growth might occur. I was a basketball and baseball walk-on at Illinois, so I encouraged the involvement of the Illini sports family. We have a group of committed folks that have a real emotional attachment to Jarling’s Custard Cup and a sincere love of the product. About half of the investors live in town and the group has 8 degrees from U of I. Even for those not based in Champaign-Urbana any longer, for the most part they have family in town and are back quite often.
SP: So, in a nutshell, how are things going for you all thus far?
Siegel: Very well. We opened to long lines in May 2016 and had a very good first busy season in the summer. Lots of new people to train and there are some little changes we are making focused around making the customer experience fantastic and never-ending improvements. But rest assured, we aren’t changing the product and we won’t be changing the menu very much. The plan is to stay open all year round! We are closed for a few weeks now because there were a few improvements to make in the store such that we couldn’t stay open and get those things finished (new cooling cabinet, much improved storage room, new bathrooms for the public, etc). We will be back open at the beginning of February. (Editors note: Custard Cup re-opens today!)
SP: Woah — bathrooms for the public would be a big deal, I think, especially for families. I've made my way over to Hessel a few times over the years. But yes, the decision to stay open through the winter was met with a lot of fanfare and excitement when we broke the news here on Smile Politely. Being such a strong brand name in town, do you feel like it can sustain? Any plans for a unique spin on what you do during the frozen months?
Siegel: Absolutely the year-round operation will sustain. What we found is that most people still don’t know. In spite of our marketing efforts, the majority of folks aren’t aware that we were open through the end of December. We are creatures of habit and as the weather turned cold in the past, we never thought of Custard Cup being open. We were very pleased with the increase in awareness that we observed among our customer base. We are considering many options as part of our Jarling’s Custard Cup R&D. I can’t tell you everything on our list of ideas, but some of the obvious ones are hot drinks and Christmas trees! We will be very selective on which initiatives to drive forward. It should be a lot of fun.
SP: Tell me a little about your history in Champaign-Urbana? What are your earliest memories?
Siegel: Well, my earliest memories were visiting my three older brothers when they were attending U of I. The Champaign-Urbana area has so much to offer; a gem nestled away in east central Illinois! I’m amazed at the growth of the facilities on campus, the Research Park, and all the development off campus, too. It’s just cool to see so much going on. Of course, my fondest memory was in the mid-80s when I was in school and used to frequent the Custard Cup! Of course, that means I’ve had quite a few cold fudge sundaes over the years.
SP: When the sale first came up, Tom Hanks famously tweeted about how he and Irving Azoff should invest. For those that don't know, Tom Hanks' brother is a Professor of Entomology at UIUC, and as such, he's been here for visits on numerous occasions. Have any of you tried to reach out to him about the sale of the place?
Siegel: No; certainly am grateful he is a fan though!
SP: So... Jarling's? Or Custard Cup? What do you know it as, and what do you think most folks call it?
Siegel: That’s such a great question. I’ve known it as Custard Cup ever since the 80s! Based upon customer surveys and search data from the Internet, we know that just under 50% know us as and call us “Custard Cup”, just under 50% “Jarling’s”, and a very small percentage know us as The Cup.
Custard Cup re-opens today, February 1st, at 12 p.m. noon. It’s located at 309 W. Kirby Ave. Champaign IL 61820