Omaha – When a teen says his business was inspired by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, adults tend to pay attention.
After all, how many children (not to mention the elderly) even know who he is?
Entrepreneur Aaron Burns, for example.
Burns, 17, a student at Omaha Central High School, already has his own ice cream shop. And it’s not even his first business venture (it had to do with e-commerce).
Roll-N-Sweetz has been open for about a month in a mall near 59th Street and Ames Street. She sells rolled ice cream, which is created when a cup of the “secret mix” of a’Ron (chilled milk and sugar) meets a surface that is cooled to minus 21 degrees.
The staff smooths it into a thin layer, mixes it with things like candy and cookies, then makes rolls that are served in cups with a variety of toppings.
Burns says he’s so far pleased with the community’s response.
“It’s been crazy since we opened,” he said last week.
This success comes as no surprise to Willie Barney, who founded the Carver Legacy Center with his wife, Yolanda, and another couple, Martin and Lynell Williams. The center, a joint venture with the US National Bank, helps black entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.
Barney said Aaron and his mother, Alexis, came to Carver for help earlier this year when they encountered obstacles while renovating the space they had rented for the store.
He was immediately inspired by Burns, who calls himself a serial entrepreneur.
“We were really amazed by their business plan and strategy,” he said. “His brilliance really impresses everyone he talks to – the duty he’s done, the research he’s done, and his entrepreneurial experience.”
The people of Carver were so surprised after their initial conversation with Burns that they took immediate action.
“After that meeting, we got in our cars and actually walked through the building with him,” Barney said.
The result was an investment of $95,000 in the project from the Carver Renovation Center and the equipment needed for Burns to open the store.
Burns said he’s been interested in the business since he was a little kid. He read everything he could about entrepreneurship, including material about Kroc, who made millions in the fast food business.
“He’s an influential person,” Burns said. “I watch a movie about his life every night.”
He got the idea for Roll-N-Sweetz from working at a similar store downtown. He targeted North Omaha in his first store because he wanted to support his community, not only with a business unique to the area, but also with the jobs it would create.
He surveyed neighborhood store owners and did additional research to gather insights into his business plan. He learned that 24,000 cars pass the area every two days and that residents and business owners miss Dairy Queen, which was nearby.
And he did it all while attending classes at Central.
“I had to mature faster than some of my colleagues,” he said.
He’s taking classes at Omaha Burke Summer School so he can go to school for a half-day in the fall and graduate in December, because he has big business plans. It already has more than 15 employees, including some adults, although its store manager, Ciara Mercer, is a senior in Omaha North.
I worked with him at the ice cream parlor downtown, where the owners gave him a lot of responsibility and offered him a chance for a promotion before he decided to open his own place.
If they took such an opportunity, he said, it would be a contradiction not to trust her.
In addition, he said, “Initially I appointed a 26-year-old (as manager), but they did not attend.”
In the middle of the afternoon on a recent weekday, Burns (wearing a card bearing the COO’s name, as with the COO) and Mercer cheerfully greeted all their guests, even the woman who just wanted to use the bathroom. They get a fair amount of foot traffic, although there is no sign outside yet.
“The city is backed by signage licenses,” Burns explained.
Two girls, both 15, attended because one of them found out about the store on social media.
“I saw it on Instagram,” said Jay Siona Fisher, who lives in Mesa, Arizona, and is visiting her cousin in Omaha.
I ordered #12, Candy Land: Made with a lightly rolled unicorn cake, dipped in strawberry syrup and served with whipped cream and cotton candy.
Burns said his mom created the menu, and that his favorite is No. 2, Annie Brick’s, made with butter fudge, Chessman Pepperidge Farm cookies, caramel, whipped cream and chocolate Pocky sticks. It also came up with the name.
Alexis Burns said her son wanted to keep the list simple, but it prevailed.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no. Ice cream is my favorite dessert, and I knew if there were multiple copies (in a store), I’d keep coming back,'” she said.
The store is open from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and noon to 2 a.m. on weekends. Late-night traffic is something that made opening days very crowded, Burns said.
Alexis quit her job at the Omaha Housing Authority and spent money from a 401(k) to help her son meet his goals when she realized he was serious about the project. She has an online store for women and helps with Roll-N-Sweetz.
She said, “I love him.” “It doesn’t feel like a job.”
Burns has plans for additional Omaha stores, one near the renovated Gene Leahy Mall and another near the new Crossroads development at 72nd Street and Dodge.
He also wants to branch out to Lincoln and eventually have franchises elsewhere – in fact, a few days after he interviewed for this story, he was on his way to Miami for business meetings and exploring potential locations.
Barney, of the Carver Center, said he thinks expansion plans are sound, even though Burns is Carver’s youngest customer to date.
“It’s getting a lot of attention from all over the country,” Barney said. “People are already calling him. He has knowledge of the profit margins and the number of customers he has every day. He makes it happen.”
Burns is unsure about college – he’s been called up by the Creighton University entrepreneurship program but hasn’t made a decision on anything because he’s been so focused on his work.
He notes that Kroc only attended the university for a year.