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From Disney to Desserts: How I Turned My Side Gig Into a Full-Time Ice Cream Startup

From Disney to Desserts: How I Turned My Side Gig Into a Full-Time Ice Cream Startup Credit: Coolhaus / eatcoolhaus.com

As an undergraduate, I earned a scholarship through the Walt Disney Company to pay my entire college tuition. I studied architecture and urban studies at UC Berkeley, including a year abroad in Italy, and then did my Masters in Architecture at UCLA.

When I graduated and applied for a job as a Disney Imagineer, I essentially told them I was their investment: It made sense to hire me for a field that was a great application of my education — because they had paid for that education. They understood my point about ROI, and eventually they did hire me.

Disney was a great place to learn how to use spaces, products, media to tell stories about characters and connect with folks in a way that lasts a lifetime. There were corporate systems and methods in place, but also a creative workforce. Many had side hobbies, and Disney was a supportive place for those with varying creative interests, which made it a comfortable environment for nourishing a side startup like Coolhaus

I wanted to make architecture more fun and accessible using food as the medium. I imagined that creating a brand like Coolhaus would be a great way for me to use my visual architecture skills with an alternative application – something that is also a part of Disney’s process. As part of this umbrella of thinking, I started making cookies and ice cream, and naming the combinations after architects and architectural movements. 

My business partner, Freya Estreller, and I met through a friend with whom I studied abroad in Rome. The friend knew we would hit it off, but did not anticipate the romantic connection as well. We were instantly hooked on each other — we had so much in common, and I told her all about my Coolhaus idea, which I had just started tinkering with a week or two earlier. She was intrigued by the quirkiness and business potential of the architecturally-inspired ice cream. Before we knew it we were in business together.

The recession was setting in while I was at Disney, so I would give the punny architecturally-inspired ice cream sandwiches out as comic relief at the office. I’ve always believed that experience is what drives positive memories and associations, and that is a very core belief at Coolhaus: Eating the ice cream is so memorable, and it makes learning about architecture fun. Many of the fundamentals I brushed up against at Disney about the architectural designing experience at Disney have been an on-going theme for me at Coolhaus. 

Ultimately, my Disney contract ended up expiring and not getting renewed. But instead of wallowing, I quickly found another job and continued to grow Coolhaus on the side. Today, we're one of the leading innovative small dessert businesses, and have grown significantly to include four trucks and two storefronts in LA, two trucks and one cart in NYC, two trucks in Dallas, Texas, and distribution in over 5,000 gourmet grocery stores. I think I have very much learned to see setbacks as diversions to a higher ground, as opposed to permanent road blocks. 

About the author: Natasha Case co-founded Coolhaus, an architecturally-inspired gourmet ice cream company, in 2009 with her partner, Freya Estreller. The company has become one of the leading innovative millennial dessert businesses, growing significantly to include trucks, carts and storefronts in Los Angeles, NYC and Dallas, Texas along with national distribution in 5,000+ retailers, fast casual restaurants and venues. Learn more about Case's entrepreneurial journey in this interview on Free Enterprise.