Reopening Betty Rae’s Ice Cream could prove as risky for Alec Rodgers’ waistline as his wallet, the 23-year-old employee-turned-owner jokingly suggested — smiling as he looked across the River Market shop with a mix of nostalgia and youthful exuberance.
His eyes lit up as he recalled the rich memory of discovering his own favorite flavor: goat cheese, apricot and candied walnuts.
“Throw butter pecan on it, and it’s like I’m not even here on this planet anymore,” said Rodgers, who announced in February his purchase and relaunch of the twin Betty Rae’s parlors after the popular neighborhood ice cream shops closed in 2020.
“It’s a killer combo. The first week I started working here, I wasn’t a huge fan of ice cream — and I didn’t even like goat cheese. And then I took a sample of it, and I was like ‘Oh, my god, this is disgustingly good.’ So I took a pint home and ate the entire thing within 20 minutes,” he continued. “I knew I’d have to watch my intake from the shop because it could be dangerous moving forward.”
Betty Rae’s River Market location plans to reopen 11 a.m. Monday with Rodgers behind the counter once again — this time as the leader of a team of former employees who’ve pledged to bring the community staple back to its pre-COVID glory, he said.
The ice cream shop’s Waldo store is expected to welcome customers as early as March 29, and its big teal ice cream truck will also return to the streets this spring.
Both locations are set to offer the same menu — with returning favorites like candied burnt ends ice cream featuring Joe’s KC BBQ sauce — as well as more efficient behind-the-scenes processes and a staff that feels empowered to make the business their own, Rodgers said.
The team — also led by Kirby Clause, kitchen manager, and Ori Solomon, truck and front of house manager — already is about a week ahead of schedule on prepping for the reopenings, he said Thursday.
“I’m the owner, but I really am thinking of myself as more of a steward and facilitator of what comes next,” he said. “I just had the passion to go for it and do this — provide a place for former employees to come back, have a steady income and enjoy what they were doing again.”
Click here to follow Betty Rae’s on Instagram.
Conversations with Betty Rae’s former owners — David Friesen and Mary Nguyen, who had closed the shop off and on throughout the pandemic — began in January with the purchase rapidly following, Rodgers said.
“There was never a thought of, ‘Do I want to do this?’ I was totally down. Anything I could do to make this happen,” he said. “But if you had told me in December that any of this would be happening, I still would have … never believed it.”
“It feels surreal, but I’m confident because of the team that’s coming back,” Rodgers continued. “Everybody is strong in their skills; they know what they’re doing. Betty Rae’s has been here for a while and they love the shop just as much as the people who come in here for ice cream. I have a lot of peace and comfort in that.”
Ordering off life’s secret menu
Before Rodgers’ first taste of Betty Rae’s in 2018, he was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City just exploring what he wanted to get out of his college career, he said.
He’d already made the difficult decision to transfer from the University of Missouri in Columbia to UMKC, completed youth-based missional work in the United Kingdom, and tried his hand at professional internships and jobs with the likes of Kansas City healthtech icon Cerner and one of the metro’s top venture capital-backed startups, PopBookings.
“I struggled a lot with what I wanted to do next,” Rodgers said. “I stepped back and was like, ‘I’m not having any fun right now. I’m working 60 to 70 hours a week, plus school, plus activities. I’m going to graduate and realize I did not enjoy college.’”
A well-timed post on social media provided an unexpected answer.
“I saw on Instagram a photo of the wallpaper at Betty Rae’s that they posted right at the inception of the store,” Rodgers recalled, his eyes immediately darting to the wall covering that still decorates the River Market location. “I opened up the image and I was like, ‘Gosh, whoever put up that wallpaper, I want to work for them.’ So the next day, I put in an application because they were hiring for this shop.”
“I started within about a month, and I was like ‘I could literally work here for the rest of my life.’”
He shared the same sentiment with professors at UMKC’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, who were eager to help him with a post-graduation career boost, he said.
“It was a little sarcastic at the time — I knew I needed actual income with my finance degree,” Rodger said. “And, of course, I was stuck in that thinking of ‘I have to do what I set out to do with my degree.’”
Graduating in May 2020, he soon started a job at H&R Block, which provided a valued opportunity to take a path that aligned with his long-term goals — but not necessarily his passion, he said.
“If these experiences have taught me anything, it’s that even your best plans can just fly out the window,” Rodgers said, describing his decision to swap an established career route for a big pivot with Betty Rae’s.
A taste of startup life
Rodgers is a big believer in cause and effect, he said, describing the lasting impact of his involvement with UMKC’s Enactus team and how it helped shape his decision to make the leap into entrepreneurship himself.
“Enactus allows you to start projects and affect lives immediately, and that’s powerful,” he said of the university’s competitive entrepreneurial development program. “The experience made it possible for me to conceive that I really could take charge in this situation and change people’s lives doing it at this age.”
Click here to read about Rodgers’ involvement with the award-winning UMKC Enactus team.
“Everybody has told me do it — and do it now,” Rodgers continued. “Not only because of my age and ability to take risks (no family at home depending on me), but because it’s an interesting time to start something, when you can learn how to be agile and really run something like an ice cream shop as a startup.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provides equal parts concern and opportunity for Betty Rae’s, he added.
“How can we innovate to adjust for the times that we’re in?” Rodgers asked, noting challenges go beyond just limited seating and customer capacity-type issues. “Yes we need to be lean, but how can we achieve that without cutting back on the quality of Betty Rae’s?”
Maintaining what’s special about the shop is critical, he added, noting that intangible mix of product, people and place are what made him fall in love with Betty Rae’s — coming into the store off the clock as an employee to help make waffle batter in the back or do dishes for the workers in front.
Just because he wanted to be there.
“Betty Rae’s feels like home — just like Kansas City feels like home,” Rodgers said. “You know, it’s hard to find a place where people are always smiling. So it’s great to come in here, look across the counter and see a smiling face.”
Having purchased the two shops with his own funds, plus those of an initial investor and a Small Business Administration loan, the new owner acknowledged the risk in betting on Betty Rae’s — and his emotional tie to it — amid ongoing economic and pandemic uncertainty.
“I’ve always been ambitious, and I have high standards for myself,” Rodgers said. “I think that weight actually drives me to do better because I know my success isn’t just riding on the success of Betty Rae’s — Betty Rae’s success is relying on me.”