Eric Banks left the classroom last year after 10 years of teaching.
He spent the next nine months doing homework in preparation for life's next big test: An ice cream shop called Cold Stone Creamery.
From the looks -- and tastes of it -- Banks is passing with flying colors.
"This is a real leap of faith for me," says Banks, 44. "But it's really working out well. I'm very happy with what we've done."
Cold Stone Creamery, located at 1921 Hamilton Blvd. makes Sioux City's hottest cold treats. The 1,500-square foot facility is a happenin' place, featuring a bright red color scheme, a staff that sings and fresh ice cream that seems to sell itself.
"We make all of our ice cream right here every day," says Banks. "When I had it for the first time, I described it as cold taffy. There's no other ice cream like it."
Cold Stone Creamery was founded in 1988 by Donald and Susan Sutherland of Tempe, Ariz. According to Banks, the couple experimented with various ice cream mixes and flavors until they found one that appealed. They have since franchised Cold Stone Creamery and it's becoming a big thing in the ice cream world.
"We'll have more than 1,000 stores by the end of the year. We're opening 469 this year alone," says Banks, a franchisee and area developer who oversees operations in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.
"We're projecting having 50 stores open in those four states by 2010," he says.
The Cold Stone Creamery on Hamilton is Sioux City's first, joining two stores in Lincoln, Neb., and one in Sioux Falls in this region. Another Sioux Falls store will open soon.
Banks knew nothing about the company until a friend asked him to start one last summer. The same friend, he says, helped start a Pizza Ranch franchise in North Dakota four years ago. Banks also participated in that franchise.
"My friend had quit his job four years ago to get into food franchises," Banks says. "He told me to quit my job and do this. I thought he was nuts."
Then Banks drove to Lincoln and sampled his first Cold Stone Creamery creation. The concept and taste convinced him this was something Siouxlanders would support.
"I loved teaching, I really did," says Banks, who farmed for 10 years near Westfield, Iowa, before teaching. "But I thought that if there was a time I could do something like this, it would be now. I talked it over with a lot of other people and, with the encouragement of my family, gave up my teaching job and spent the school year working on this."
Cold Stone Creamery opened May 28 and has enjoyed a warm reception from customers throughout its first three weeks.
Sixteen original ice cream flavors are featured, ranging from cake batter ice cream to banana ("We puree three pounds of bananas for that," Banks says). The staff makes all of the waffle cones on site as well. Each creation is scooped, mashed and stirred on slabs of cold stone kept at 16 degrees. Hence, the name.
Sizes aren't small, medium and large. Rather, they're "Like It," "Love It" and "Gotta Have It."
"My favorite is the Pecans and Cream Passion," says Banks. "It has French vanilla ice cream with pecans, caramel and a Graham cracker pie crust."
In addition to the ice cream treats, Cold Stone Creamery employees make up to 30 cakes per day, several batches of brownies, and stir dozens of malts, shakes and smoothies.
Banks, who taught at two elementary schools in Sioux City, hired eight former students to work at the store, among about 40 total employees. His wife, Shelly, and two sons, Austen and Aaron, also work aside the former educator. Shelly, by the way, still teaches first grade at Irving Elementary in Sioux City.
A staff that sings
Heard the phrase whistle while you work? At Cold Stone Creamery, that whistling becomes song. Everyone, it seems, carries a tune while crushing brownies or sprinkling...sprinkles.
"We don't interview employees for hire, we audition them," says Banks. "It's not uncommon to see our employees singing about the ice cream, especially in the evening."
One song to the tune of "My Girl" starts this way: "I've got ice cream...on a sunny day. When it's hot outside...I've got sorbet..."
"There's never a dull moment here," says employee Robert Kellogg, 15, a former third-grade student of Banks.
"We used to sing our math minutes in third grade," adds Tyler Guffy, 15, also a former student of the man they still call "Mr. Banks."
"It's a fun job," Guffy adds. "Everyone's nice. You get to sing. And I get to eat strawberry malts."
For Banks, the experience is just the tip of the ice cream cone. When he's not serving customers in Sioux City, he's meeting with prospective franchisees all over the Midwest in the hopes of opening dozens more. It's a far cry from his days on the farm or those conducting the math minute at Leeds Elementary School.
He looks around, smiles and says, "This is the ultimate ice cream experience."