Michelle McMullin may have married into the world of frozen desserts, but after opening the regionally-acclaimed Gracie and the Dudes in five locations throughout Monmouth County, this teacher-turned-entrepreneur-turned librarian continues to raise the bar for premium homemade ice cream. Inspired by her own children’s tastes and the freshest ingredients, Michelle turned her passion for sweets into a brand that can’t be stopped – even after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. NJMOM had the pleasure of hearing about Michelle’s love for the Dave Mathew’s Band, foster puppies and her family’s favorite holiday destinations around New Jersey, including Anne Ellen Christmas Tree Farm in Manalapan.
Owner of Gracie and the Dudes & NJMOMpreneur:
NJMOM: What do you offer to your clients and how is it different than other professionals in your field?
Michelle: We make our products without any artificial flavors or colors or high fructose corn syrup; all-natural ice cream is really what we are known for. We make everything we sell in our stores; from the ice cream and Italian ice to the hot fudge and caramel, to the brownies and cookies, we make it all. Additionally, our ice cream flavors are proprietary to us. We spent months perfecting our flavors: our mint, orange, strawberry – so you won’t find them replicated anywhere. This was a difficult feat, but one of which we are especially proud. Most other ice cream shops, even those making their own ice cream, call up a supplier and order more mint flavoring or banana flavoring, for example, and it’s the same flavor that anyone can buy.
NJMOM: What inspired you to get into your line of work?
Michelle: I married into the frozen dessert business. My husband owned a DQ franchise when we met and together we opened a Rita’s Italian Ice. Once we had our first daughter, I became concerned about what was in the food we were giving her. We were concerned particularly about artificial colors and HFCS. While the products we offered tasted good, we knew the quality was missing. We decided we could do a better job ourselves, offering a more natural product that still tasted amazing. We taught ourselves to make ice cream, experimented with different ingredients, found amazing suppliers, and Gracie and the Dudes was born.
NJMOM: What is your favorite part about your business?
My favorite part of my business is our unwillingness to compromise on quality.
We offer super premium ice cream, which means we use a high butterfat and a low air overrun. If you pick up a pint of our ice cream, it’s heavy. It isn’t pumped up with air like supermarket brands, or our competitors. Do we make less money than they do? Absolutely. But we are known for quality and we won’t sacrifice that. My second favorite part is seeing the relationships between my husband and our customers, or our employees and customers. We have girls who come back from college each year and they remember a regular’s order, and it just puts a smile on that customer’s face. It literally melts my heart to see that. I also recently received a picture of a customer who takes a photo with our ice cream statues every summer, so it was a kind of growth chart. Things like that are always fun to watch.
NJMOM: What is your background in your business expertise?
Michelle: I have none. I was a high school English teacher by trade. I did attend franchisee training for our Rita’s, but that’s about it. I am completely self-taught.
NJMOM: What are you most proud of in your career?
Michelle: I was conversing recently with a new colleague and I told her that my husband and I owned Gracie and the Dudes. “You built a brand!” she said to me. “That is amazing! You did that, all by yourselves.” That really made me proud, and the idea that we have created something recognizable, using caricatures of our kids, I just think that’s pretty cool. However, I am most proud of rebuilding after Sandy.
We own our building in Sea Bright and there was just total devastation. It was devastation followed by depression and struggle, both emotional and financial. Having four kids and no livelihood, when the biggest investment we ever made in our lives got totally destroyed. That was a very dark time for our family. We rebuilt, with little help from insurance at the time, and no one came that first summer. The town was still a mess. We doubted if we made the right decision. And now, looking at how beautiful and amazing Sea Bright is, there is no doubt we made the right decision.
NJMOM: What is something few people know about you?
Michelle: Few people know that I am actually beginning to pursue my other dream, which is to be a school librarian. I completed a double major in college, in English and Secondary Education, and I’m just a book nerd. I love reading, from picture books to YA novels to beach reads to self help and historical fiction. I am currently working as a library clerk in a school district and I hope to pursue my master’s in library science. As a bonus, I’ll also tell you the things that anyone who knows me knows, but maybe other people don’t. I love the Dave Matthews Band. I laugh very, very easily and loudly. I literally would not ask for help if I was drowning, which is my biggest fault. And I’m obsessed with true crime podcasts.
NJMOM: What can we expect from you in the new year?
Michelle: This is a tricky business, ice cream. Owning and operating four stores is not easy and while we had a successful summer financially, we struggled with anything close to a reasonable work-life balance. The old adage is true, good help is hard to find. We need to regroup and decide if owning this many stores is the right decision for our family. Everything always goes back to our kids. We want what is best for them and their futures. In other news, we are excited to be changing up one of our product lines, but we aren’t ready to officially announce that yet! Our daughter just started high school, and our son is right behind, so that completely changes the family dynamic and our personal lives. I liked it much much better when they were six and five and I was in charge of everything. I’m struggling with giving up some control, but I know it’s necessary to help them become independent people. As I said before, I am looking into graduate school so hopefully this time next year I will be a student again. I am also a member of the Oceanport Board of Education and we are working incredibly hard to present a referendum for a school construction project. I would like to see that come to fruition in the next year as well.
NJMOM: What charitable cause are you most passionate about?
Michelle: We have four rescue dogs. Yes, four kids and four dogs in one house. I love dogs. My husband also loves dogs, and to his credit, he cooks them dinner every night. We feel so strongly about pet adoption. Grace and I can spend an entire night on Petfinder!
NJMOM: Who is your role model?
Michelle: My father in law who passed away in 2007 is my role model. He was an entrepreneur, but more than that, he was just the best man I’ve ever known. He would do anything for his children. He loved going to work and he loved talking to his customers. He loved his wife, he loved his kids, and his grandkids. He never for one minute made me feel like an “in law.” He loved me and treated me like a daughter. My greatest regret is that he isn’t here to see what his son and I built. He would be so proud! Hard work was his middle name and I know he is just smiling down on us, happy with what we accomplished. He is our guardian angel and was just a great example of how to live.
NJMOM: What is the best piece of advice a role model ever gave to you?
Michelle: My mother in law used to always say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” She even bought us the book. When we were younger, we would sweat all the small stuff. With age comes experience and wisdom and you discern the small stuff from the big. And we have had plenty of big, so we have learned to let the small stuff float away.
NJMOM: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
Michelle: This quote comes from an odd source, a Hannah Montana song, but Grace was big into Hannah when she was little and this CD was on repeat in our car for months on end. The full quote is, “I learned from you that I do not crumble. I learned that strength is something you choose.” Most of the time I shorten this quote to, “Strength is something you choose,” and I remind my children of it almost daily. I have, unfortunately, suffered multiple great challenges in my life. My husband had a stroke and two subsequent open heart surgeries just days after we learned we were pregnant with our second child. Between our two sons, we lost a baby at 24 weeks of pregnancy. We survived Hurricane Sandy. Most recently, our son suffered a trauma which left him blind in one eye. There have been other, deeply personal losses as well. And through all of this, I have always thought, I have to let them see me go on. I have to show them how to be strong. I have to let them know that strength isn’t a gift. It isn’t something bestowed upon you or wished for. It is a choice. We do not crumble. We pick up our heads and put on our big boy or girl pants, and we play the hand we’ve been dealt. It sometimes is the hardest thing in the world, but it has to be done. I’m very proud of the way I have demonstrated that to them. It is probably the thing I am most proud of in my life.
NJMOM: What are your favorite things to do in New Jersey with your family?
Michelle: Our favorite thing is picking out our Christmas tree! We go to Anne Ellen Christmas Tree Farm in Manalapan where they give you a saw and you cut down your own tree.This is just so much fun. We all take turns sawing, or pretending to saw, until my husband actually does it. I recommend bringing gloves because it hurts your hands. They also have a petting zoo, a food truck and a gift shop. We love going there every year. One of our kids, whose anonymity I will protect, hates the beach. So in the summer we love to go to Seaside and hit the water park there. We love the Point Pleasant Boardwalk and the aquarium, too.
NJMOM: What is the best part about being a mom for you?
Michelle: There are a few. There is nothing like being pregnant, and then holding that snuggly little baby. As they age, it’s amazing to see them turn into people. I am always secretly analyzing them, “She gets that from me. He gets that from you,” and so on. Now that they are older (Grace will be 15 in two weeks), they are just so much fun. I love hanging out with them and laughing together. They are (knock on wood) so comfortable to ask and talk about anything. We are trying so hard to teach them to make the right choices because they are the right choices, not because we told them to do something. It’s incredibly gratifying to see that play out.Tto look at these four and how different they are and to think that I made them – that’s just so incredible. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for each of them, as long as that future is within a two hour driving radius.
NJMOM: What are your favorite businesses in New Jersey?
Michelle: Of course, we love Sea Bright Pizzeria. Our favorites from there include Grandma, Buffalo Chicken, and Sausage. It is ridiculously delicious. We also love Nunzio’s in Long Branch and have been going there since the kids were little. Salt Creek Grille in Rumson is always a favorite and we love Distinctive Toys in Fair Haven. They have a great selection and they gift wrap. Bagel Oven in Red Bank is so crispy and delicious, and we are patrons of Gravity Vault and Shrewsbury Gymnastics.
NJMOM: What advice might you have for a fellow NJMOMpreneur who is just starting out?
Michelle: Success doesn’t come overnight. We opened in January of 2009, probably the worst time of year to open an ice cream store, and we could count the customers on our fingers the first few months. Make sure you have enough capital to sustain you for a bit. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself. When we first started, people assumed my husband was in charge. He (adorably) still says, “I’m not the boss. I just work here,” but in truth we are partners and complement each other well. Flexibility is key.
Owning a business and raising a family is a constant balancing act that is impossible without organization and flexibility.
I used to get super stressed about things like attending social functions late. Now my friends know I will rarely be on time. We need to cross our t’s and dot our i’s before we can leave for the day. It’s just the way it is.
NJMOM: Anything else you’d like to tell moms in New Jersey?
Michelle: Yes! There is an amazing app called Life360 which helps you stalk your kids! It shows you where they are, what their battery percentage is, where they have traveled, how fast the car went, and more. It is truly technology’s gift to moms of teenagers. I’m telling all of my friends about it so I can be the most hated mom ever. You’re welcome, kids.