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Happy Ice was found by Lemeir Mitchell, who moved to Los Angeles after his father was sentenced to life in prison and his brother passed away in a motorcycle accident. Mitchell got his start in the new city as a tattoo artist, sleeping in the shop to make ends meet, and quickly fell in love with L.A.’s food truck culture. That’s where his idea for Happy Ice was sparked.
With support from his mother, Mitchell opened Happy Ice as a food truck concept on Melrose Avenue in September 2017, and the water-ice brand has since gained a cult following of celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Post Malone, and Ellen DeGeneres. In 2018, Mitchell partnered with investor Ted Foxman, who provided Happy Ice with close to $1 million and kick-started Mitchell’s plan to open a brick-and-mortar location.
After many COVID-related setbacks and Mitchell’s move to hand out Happy Ice to protesters in the midst of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Los Angeles, the storefront finally opened its doors this past weekend on June 20.
Fortune spoke with Mitchell and Foxman for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected their business, their thoughts on the future, and how they are working through the pandemic.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Building upon a successful food truck business, you were already far along in the process of launching a brick-and-mortar location this year. Then COVID-19 got in the way. When did you know the pandemic would affect your plans?
Mitchell: We had a final inspection with the Los Angeles Health Department scheduled for March 16, my birthday. This inspection would give us final approval to open. They were supposed to come at 10 a.m., and we got an email at 9 a.m. that they were not coming anymore. So that was an unfortunate birthday non-present.
As the weeks went on this spring, how did you push ahead with trying to open Happy Ice’s stand-alone location? And how was business for the food trucks?
Mitchell: We just had to be patient and wait for the Health Department to come in for the final inspection and approval. It’s been a month since we got the approval, and now we are pushing to get everything done for the opening, including training the staff. During the lockdown we were prepping for the grand opening as much as possible and talked about how we want it to run, along with merchandising ideas. We also connected with influencers and searched for a PR company.
As far as the trucks go, the business was amazing. We were unsure if we wanted to reopen at first, so we took it one step at time to get our feet wet. After being closed for over three weeks, we sent out only one truck with limited hours when we first reopened. It was so busy—we were very surprised. So we went back again, and it was busy again and got even busier, so we decided to extend our hours. And it stayed busy. We became the go-to destination since parents were home with their kids and had limited options to get out of the house and do something fun with the family. During the pandemic, it has been busier than ever before.
Although Happy Ice’s storefront hadn’t opened yet, you offered free scoops to protesters in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in Los Angeles. There’s also been a concerted push on social media to spotlight and encourage the support of black-owned business nationwide. What can members of the business community—especially nonblack consumers and business professionals—do to amplify and sustain support for black-owned businesses?
Mitchell: I think what people can do is continue supporting businesses and spreading the word. Continue to help with exposure and posting on social media. Support the businesses by physically going to the stores. A lot of people will be happy to see what black-owned businesses have to offer.
With me and Ted, he saw that I had a bigger idea than just selling water ice and making money; he saw potential. When he and I met, I did not have the funds to build a storefront, but he knew my idea was a good one. So what I am trying to say is that people can provide further support by getting behind black-owned businesses financially to help them prosper. Having a mentor in Ted has also been very important.
Foxman: Using social media to convey your support for a brand has never been easier. People just have to fall in love with the brand and share their enthusiasm with others. Be on the lookout for people who have great potential and deserve opportunity, and get out there to help them with their idea.
Last weekend, Happy Ice finally opened the doors to its storefront. How did the opening go?
Mitchell: If I had one word to describe this experience, it’s “unbelievable.” Opening this store and everything that went into the opening of the store has been the experience of a lifetime—breathtaking, unbelievable. I opened the shop, I proposed to my future wife; this was one of the best days of my life. I wouldn’t have changed anything about the way this entire experience went—even with the challenges that arose. It feels like there’s someone up above guiding me every step of the way, giving me the route to follow (shout-out to my brother Kevin “CBK”).
I’m so grateful to everyone who came to support us every step of the way and especially on our opening day. It was an incredible experience filled with happiness. We were busy the entire day, with a socially distanced line down several blocks—people coming from the start to the very end of the day to try Happy Ice. It was a wonderful celebration and a dream come true for me and my whole family.
While the pandemic is expected to continue indefinitely, what is your long-term plan for keeping both the food trucks and the brick-and-mortar location going? And have you implemented any special precautions for social distancing?
Mitchell: We are following the guidelines as requested. Both locations are to-go, and we will continue to be to-go until told otherwise. We are also helping promote safety in a way where our own Happy Ice merchandise is used to make people feel safe. For example, we will have our own Happy Ice bandannas that people can use to cover their faces. We are also planning to start shipping Happy Ice directly to people’s doorsteps; this will be happening in the next four to six weeks.
On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?
Foxman: This period in time has been difficult for many people. But this situation just inspires me more to push forward and to provide people with something special and positive. We are more driven than ever because we are providing something that is very difficult to achieve right now—that is, having a positive and enjoyable time with your family and friends.
Mitchell: It has been a challenging moment for the world. I became stronger at this time. I had a lot of time to think about the brand. I had more time to work with my staff. We upgraded the experience to make people feel special. Everything that is happening is because I had more time than usual to think about it. The world did not give us much to be happy about, but Happy Ice is definitely a shining light for me right now and hopefully for everyone who experiences it with us. Now is the time to be inspired. Our purpose and our mission is to bring happiness to people and create a space for unity and community—that’s become more important now than ever.
More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:
- Why black-owned businesses were hit the hardest by the pandemic
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- George Floyd protests, coronavirus face masks pose challenges for facial recognition
- The enduring history of health care inequality for black Americans
- E-book reading is booming during the coronavirus pandemic