Much more than cream, sugar, and milk.

On a painfully windy, icy, and slippery February morning, perfect for an interview about ice-cream, I got off the bus and realized my beanie (pipo) was going away with it. Then, as I was finding my way through the woods via GPS, my phone decided to declare itself on winter vacation and went to sleep, leaving me lost, cold, and pipo-less. Thankfully, a friendly mom walking her baby on one of those hi-tech, all-terrain prams, cheered me on. The Kolmen Kaverin Jäätelö factory, she said, was just a few hundred meters away. It got better from there, because Heikki, one of the kaverit, before offering me tons of delicious ice-cream flavors to sample, prepared hot coffee for me. Bless him!

Hello! Who are you?
My name is Heikki Huotari, and I’m one of the three founders of Kolme Kaverin Jäätelö (Three Friends Ice-cream). Ilkka and Sauli, the other two owners, are on the road today.

Where do you come from?
I was born in Kuhmo, which is about 600 km from Helsinki. I came in ’93 to study Production Development and Economics at the Technical University. After graduating in 2000 I went to work at a consulting firm, and was there for about eight years.

What are the origins of 3KJ?
Ilkka, who had his own company, found me on the Internet when I was working at the consulting agency. He called me and said “Heikki, we need some help” and we met. He and Sauli had a small cafeteria, and were making different kinds of food, like paninis and such. Sauli was also very good at sales and at creating recipes, but neither did understand production very well. So I gave them a hand, and we met about five times per year or so. Two years later Ilkka called me again and said “Heikki, why don’t join our company?“. And the truth is that when we worked together we made a great team and it was lots of fun, so I said “why not?

After a while, we thought it would be fun to make something new. But what could that be? We bounced different ideas around: it should be fun, something people like very much. What about… ICE-CREAM! We loved it, of course, we had eaten it forever. But to make it is a different story altogether.

Whose idea was it, originally?
Ilkka says it was my idea, but I’m not sure. When we make things together, it’s a collaborative process. But the idea was not only to make ice-cream, but to make it out of REAL ingredients.

What do you mean?
Well, nowadays, when you pick some random vanilla ice-cream from a supermarket… surprise! There’s no vanilla in it. 95% of it is made from artificial flavors. Same thing with any strawberry ice-cream; there aren’t any real strawberries in there, and the color comes from beetroot, a natural colorant. So our goal was to offer the real deal.

So we set out to learn how to make ice-cream: we bought a small, 200 eu machine that could make half a liter per time. We got cream, sugar, milk, and then we made our first ice-cream!

Don’t tell me: it was awful…
The taste was not that bad. But when we froze it for a few hours it didn’t taste so good. It was too hard, uneatable. Obviously, we needed to learn a lot more about the craft if we wanted to be taken seriously. Sauli then searched on-line and found a place in Italy called the Ice-cream University. It’s not a real university, but they offer high-quality courses. We signed in, and we flew over there.

The three of you?
Yes. We were there for a week and a half, and it was very intensive. They taught us a lot about balance and quantities, how the machines should be used, and many other things. During the days we were studying, and making ice-cream like crazy, and on the evenings we were cruising around town, checking out the gelaterias, tasting all the delicious flavors.

Three crazy Finnish guys learning about ice-cream.
I know! The taxi driver that took us from the university to the airport was curious about us. He asked “where are you from, and what were you doing in Italy?” When we told them we were from Finland, and that we had come to learn how to make ice-cream, he thought we were pulling his leg!

I imagine they eat a lot of ice-cream in Italy.
They do, but did you know that in Finland people consume an average of twelve liters per year, and in Italy only six?

Wow. I would have thought the opposite.
And in Italy, most of the ice-cream is sold at gelaterias, whereas in Finland it’s sold through supermarkets, and this difference is probably due to the weather: here you don’t want to stroll around with an ice-cream in your hand in the middle of cold, dark, windy January; you eat it at home. So anyway, after Italy we bought our first big machine, and started making tests.

How were you surviving, economically, at that point?
I had worked for many years, the other guys also. My wife was working too, so we were in a situation at which we could have a cushion to continue paying the bills while we developed the project. But yes, it took a long time to get it going.

How did you pick this place for the factory?
There’s a funny coincidence about it. I heard about this company called Primula. After going bankrupt, they left behind a small place, an old supermarket founded in the sixties. When I came to check it out it was all dark and creepy. And just at that precise moment, as I’m trying to look in through the blocked windows, along comes a man walking down the street. I ask him “do you happen to know who owns this place?” and he says “as a matter of fact, I do, I am the owner!” He was one of them, actually. We contacted them, and they were indeed looking for somebody to restore it, so we agreed on a fair deal to rent it for a fair price against a renovation on our part. And since the place had been used to make food before, it was relatively easy to adapt it into an ice-cream factory.

So now that we had found the place, we had the equipment and the know-how, we had to come up with several things. One was a cool name for the company. First off Sauli said “let’s keep Three Friends Ice-cream for now, until we think of something better,” and it stuck. My mother-in-law asked me “Heikki, it’s good you’re starting an ice-cream company, but what is the name of it?” I told her “Three Friends Ice-cream,” and she says “that name is really bad!” Then we needed a memorable color for our product, something that would be easily recognizable. We started with white, but after we asked a shopkeeper friend to test how it looked in the freezer among others, it was totally boring, and invisible. It was Sauli who came up with the orange color, and we also got help from a graphic design company for the logo and other stuff.

What’s it like, to get permission to make ice-cream?
In Finland every business that makes food must follow the same principle, which is called Omavalvontasuunnitelma. It means you design and look after your own procedures, and inspectors come from time to time to check that everything is okay. Everything must be thoroughly written down and documented in an operational manual: ingredients to be used, processes involved, how everything will be cleaned… If anything important needs to be changed at some point, you contact the authorities for permission. They have laboratories to test any samples that you send them, and will approve the changes or not.

Is it easy to write? How long until it gets green-lit?
For us, the manual is like thirty pages long. I had made some manuals before, so it was not difficult. It takes a month or so to get it approved.

How do you distribute the ice-cream?
We mainly distribute in Helsinki, Espoo, and Vantaa, where the shops are owned by either of the two giants, Kesko and S-Group. We contact the shops, offer them some flavors, and negotiate the price and the quantity. They place the order and then we send them the ice-cream. We don’t have our own truck, so we have to arrange transportation once per week or so.

How long does it hold in a freezer?
Up to a year, in proper freezing conditions.

That’s quite a lot!
Modern ice-cream stays in good shape for a long time in a freezer. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, can hold up to two years. But the temperature must be consistent; if it goes up and down, up and down, the ice-cream will go bad fast.

In general, does ice-cream go bad when you thaw it to serve, then freeze it again?
Not if you do it quickly. But you can tell it has spoiled when it feels more like ice than ice-cream.

How much stuff do you make per day? How do you estimate if you’re making enough, too much, or too little?
Ah, that’s not easy to figure out… In general, we are making 300, 400 liters per day, and it’s enough. But some weeks you may have to tell customers “we don’t have that flavor this week, but we’ll have it the next.” And our factory is not that big, so we can’t make more than ten flavors at the moment.

What’s it like to be a small producer?
It’s good in many ways. Big companies couldn’t cope with the way we handle the berries, for example. Or the coffee flavor we make; they can’t make something like this the way we do it.

Do you have a partnership with Paulig for the coffee?
We do. At first we tried to make coffee ice-cream on our own, but it was incredibly difficult. We made strong coffee, we made ice-cream… but the two would not play well together! Then one day (another coincidence!) a lady at Paulig called us: “would you guys be interested in making coffee ice-cream?” “Yes, we would!” So they were here with us for three days, teaching us. It turns out the coffee must be super-strong to achieve the proper flavor. And we didn’t have the proper equipment for it either. If you think about an espresso machine, and how much coffee it uses to make a single cup, basically the machine that makes coffee ice-cream is a monster espresso machine, very weird. But bottom line, if you want to make coffee ice-cream, you must master both ice-cream and coffee making!

Who’s your current competition?
In Finland it’s Nestlé and Unilever. Ice-cream is essentially about milk and cream. When big companies like Valio and Ingman dominated that segment, they didn’t need to get them from other producers. And back in 2000 Valio sold ice-cream, so it was tough to buy the essentials from them, because they were the competition. They could put any prices they wanted, and there was nothing you could do. But today Valio doesn’t offer ice-cream anymore (they sold their ice-cream branch to Nestlé in 2004) so we get fairer prices for the milk and cream. And then there was Ingman, a big family-owned dairy, but they sold their milk and yoghurt business to Arla, and their ice-cream branch to Unilever.

Any other small producers?
There are some small producers scattered around, but they are mostly strong in their local area. I think independent ice-cream is trending right now, and there will be more shops. It’s like breweries: two or three big ones, owned by international players, and two or three independent ones popping up every year. And as it is with trends, the ones who love what they do (and can survive) will remain.

Do you use domestic products?
We promise our customers that the milk, the cream, and the eggs, all come from domestic produce. And berries like raspberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, blueberry, and strawberry, are also domestic. All the colors that you see in our ice-cream come from real berries. We use so many that you can not only taste them, but see them.

What about preservers?
Nothing chemical. We use a little bit of carob powder (johanneksenleipäpuujauhe) that comes from Croatia -kids eat it like candy there- so the ice-cream won’t melt so fast.

What does each one of you do?
I do daily activities here, mostly production. This small place functions as our office and our negotiation room too.

Sauli does sales, health-related stuff, and product development. When we think of new flavors, he’s the one who will be testing them at home (he’s got a small machine there, for his experiments).

And Ilkka does lots of things: insurance and financial stuff, paperwork. He used to be a policeman, then went to the middle-east (Egypt, Israel, and other places) for some years with the Finnish peace-corps.

Whoa. You don’t want to see him angry.
(laughs) He never gets angry. He always keeps his cool, and he’s great at negotiating.

Do you guys do anything else besides 3KJ?
No. We do this 24/7.

What does the future hold?
Yeah, we are being asked where will we be in five years or so. And we answer that the idea is to make good ice-cream; that’s what we know how to do. Then it’ll be our customers who will tell us where to go. If they suddenly don’t like our ice-cream anymore, then the company can’t survive. A fundamental thing is, when you make something people like, you have to keep it the same way you made it. But when companies grow, they forget, they lose the way. First it’s milk, cream, vanilla, and eggs. Then it’s “hey, we don’t need to use the real deal here, we can use cheaper stuff to cut costs!” And then they take the berries out, and it’s a slippery slope. Companies make a lot of changes all the time, and after twenty years their products don’t look nor taste like the original thing at all.

I understand your intentions, but you can’t control the taste of berries.
Yes, this is true; we can’t control every little aspect. For example the berries. Each year there are, of course, differences in flavor due to the natural events of the season (rain, sun, humidity, pesticides, and so on). But if the changes in taste are too much, we just stop selling that particular flavor, we can’t make it anymore.

Using so much natural stuff must keep your costs horribly high. How does this impact on the final price?
We are on the same price range as Mövenpick, Häagen-Dazs, and Ben & Jerry’s.

How do you pull that off?
Our economy is different from that of the big players. Our main costs are of course the raw ingredients, and the salaries (ten in total, for now). But after that, we can save a lot of money. If we were at Unilever, we wouldn’t be in this tiny office. And whenever we needed to make tests we would have a costly, dedicated lab, but we do them at home. We pay five euros monthly for the Internet connection. We keep our costs low and our quality high.

Are you living off this?
Yeah, we calculate the price in a way that it’s enough for us. If the customers are happy, we are happy. For Unilever or Nestlé nothing is enough to cover their tremendous costs. And they have to pay their shareholders at the end of the day.

Can we expect a 3KJ gelateria in Helsinki?
I hope so. It would be great to offer new flavors there. If we invent something at home, it’s not ideal to let people try it on the supermarket. But with a gelateria, we could make small quantities for them to sample…

Can I take photos of the equipment?
Er, actually no. There are several machines in there which took us many years to find, and other custom equipment that we prefer to keep secret. They are our secret weapons (smiles).

It seems many happy coincidences contributed to the creation of 3KJ…
Yes! For example, I had been trying to make a special thing, and I couldn’t figure it out for some time. Then I met this Danish guy who’s been making ice-cream for thirty years, and he just told me how I could do what I wanted to do, and also sold me a small machine that I could use. Happy accidents happen, it works like that. If you want to make something new, it may take some time. You will search and you will get help. Just think in your mind that you will find the answer, and you will.

The delicious Kolmen Kaverin Jäätelö ice-cream is available in most super-markets of Helsinki, Espoo, and Vantaa. This is their website.