When Miami New Times readers voted Lulu’s Ice Cream as the best in the city, the review described the Biscayne Boulevard shop as charming, with wooden panels covering the walls and picturesque tables delicately accented with fresh flowers. Owner Luisa Santos, 26, describes the ice cream as made from scratch, using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. The final product is chilled with a splash of liquid nitrogen, creating a cloud of mist floating from a row of metal bowls.
In the two years that Santos has been in business in Miami, locals have feasted on her Nutella, coconut, cookies and cream, hint of mint, coffee and strawberry creamy sweets on handmade waffle cones. But her days are much more than balancing the books and doing payroll. The Miami Dade College alumna spends her time meeting with fellow entrepreneurs, asking farmers about milk and training new staff at one of her two rustic ice cream shops.
“Every single detail is extremely thought out,” Santos said during a lunch break at the Idea Center at Wolfson Campus, where she is currently enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, aimed at helping small business owners. “From the cups we use, to how we label them, the spoons we use, the napkins we use, to whether we provide plastic cups or glass cups for people to drink water out of.”
Lulu’s joins a crowded field of nitrogen ice cream shops like Brain Freeze, ChillN and F27 across the county but what sets her apart is her philosophy of sustainability, freshness and supporting other local businesses.
The ingredients are also different. Instead of buying a premade base, Lulu’s buys milk and cream. There’s also a variety of vegan-friendly options using coconut milk as a substitute and sorbets with local fruit.
A cup with one scoop costs $5. Two scoops cost $6. A pint is $11. Toppings and sauces are all $0.75 extra.
Lulu was Santos’ childhood nickname, but now it has a new face.
Lulu the cow lives at Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City, Florida and is just one of many cows that provide the milk and cream for the ice cream at her shops. The cows, a major part of the company’s story and branding, are described as the “happiest grass fed cows in Florida” on the company’s website.
Santos’ business success allowed her to expand to a second location in Miami Beach during the summer of 2016. Santos has also sold some wholesale to Scandinavian Airlines.
The young entrepreneur thinks of her business as a journey and is excited to continue evolving.
“We don’t have recipes today that we’ll have in a year,” Santos said. “I realized there’s a lot of awesome innovation starting in Miami. There’s a lot of awesome people with awesome ideas working hard to make this city into what we’re going to become known as. I want to be a part of that.”
Establishing A Foundation At MDC
Santos was born in Bogotá, Colombia but her family moved to Miami when she was 8-years-old. She graduated from Coral Reef Senior High School in 2010. While in high school, Santos took dual enrollment classes at MDC. After graduation, she became a fulltime student at the Kendall Campus Honors College.
She graduated from MDC in 2012 with an associates degree in international relations and then transferred to Georgetown University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political economics with a minor in education in 2014.
For Santos, coming back to the institution that first inspired her to become a global leader is a part of her development as an entrepreneur.
“To this day, I can’t really leave, I love this place too much,” Santos said. “I’ve continued to find ways that Miami Dade College contributes to my growth.”
Santos was highly involved during her time at MDC. She attended both the Washington and Salzburg seminars, and was part of the Model United Nations delegation. She also served as student government president and interned in the office of College President Eduardo J. Padrón the summer before transferring to Georgetown.
Santos credits her extracurricular involvement with a lifelong desire to create and leave a positive impact on the world.
“I ran for student government because I wanted to be able to build initiatives, do things. And to create a positive impact,” Santos said. “l have always been driven by those two things and eventually I was able to channel that into starting a company, but that wasn’t my plan.”
With dreams to work for the United Nations, Santos never thought she’d end up being an entrepreneur. Her former international relations professor and Model UN advisor, Michael Lenaghan, thought the same.
“Some of my students, I swear they think I make up people like her to give them encouragement,” Lenaghan said. “But she’s a great example of someone not being limited by their original plan but being inspired by their opportunities and then making it work for her. To me, that’s a good definition of a well educated person.”
Dorm Room Beginnings
The idea for Lulu’s Ice Cream came about within the confines of a college dorm room in Georgetown. After hearing about the uses of liquid nitrogen for ice cream from her sister, Santos convinced a local nitrogen distributor to deliver a tank to her dorm room.
From there, Santos claims things grew organically.
“I started selling [ice cream] at the farmers market on campus, then I started doing catering and then finally I started doing off site farmers markets,” Santos said. “This was all very fun, but I was still sending in applications for full time positions after graduation.”
It wasn’t until Santos was almost graduating that she decided to pursue Lulu’s as a full time job.
“I remember sitting in the library in Georgetown at 2 a.m. and being like, ‘Why am I writing another resumé and cover letter?’” Santos said. “I have this thing that I really enjoy doing and I should just give it a shot and run full force with it, and see how big I can grow this.”
Once Santos made up her mind about Lulu’s, she entered in various business pitching competitions and sought out to assemble a team of solid investors.
Santos met Barbara Crocker, of the Washington, D.C.-based Barbara Crocker Design, through her involvement in the Georgetown Scholarship Program. Crocker eventually became one of Santos’ lifelong mentors and helped Santos launch the company’s first location in downtown Miami.
“Luisa has a great sense of how to make things happen,” Crocker said. “She’s a phenomena.”
Santos admits she encountered challenges along the way. Funding and licensing while opening her first brick and mortar were among her main issues.
“To survive as an entrepreneur you can’t let challenges become your concern, you can only let solutions become your concern,” Santos said. “That is where I spend my entire day, finding solutions.”
Without a formal business background, Santos gained her knowledge from books, workshops and other fellow entrepreneurs. Now, she teaches every Lulu’s employee personal finance and social entrepreneurship.
“It’s just about how many doors are you willing to knock on and how much are you willing to learn in a short period of time,” Santos said.