As Colleen Cruze Bhatti, an agriculture science major at the University of Tennessee, approached graduation in 2011, she knew she wanted to return to Cruze Farm and work in the family dairy business. The only part she was unsure about was what she could bring back to the farm to improve and expand its business. The answer came in the form of a tasty frozen treat: Cruze Farm Girl ice cream.
“Cruze Farm Girl all started as a way to come back to the farm and bring a business to it and revitalize it with a new image,” said Bhatti. “My parents made ice cream when I was a little girl. There used to be a permanent farmer’s market in the area where they’d sell it, but once the market ended, they stopped. So we already had the equipment, and I decided ice cream was what I was going to bring back to the farm.”
Once she had the idea, she set about making it a reality. She began developing flavors, working on a marketing strategy, and looking to secure funding to get her product off the ground. That’s where the Undergraduate Business Plan Competition (UBPC) came into the picture.
“The competition was really good for me. At that point, I was still trying to figure out my angle, my name, and my marketing plan. The competition forced me to put my idea in writing and think through all those aspects. Once I had it down on paper, it made it that much more real, and I started to get passionate about bringing it to life,” Bhatti said.
The judges quickly bought into her enthusiasm, and the fact that her product was delicious didn’t hurt either! Bhatti was awarded $5,000 as the first place finisher in the lifestyle category. She used that money to order her pint containers – 10,000 to be exact.
After winning the competition Cruze Farm Girl started to take shape, and Bhatti decided she needed an assistant, so like any good entrepreneur, she turned to Google.
“It was right after the tsunami in Japan, so I googled ‘Japanese agriculture program,’ and I read about a program that places interns in farms around the country. I immediately emailed the director, and she replied, saying they had actually been looking for dairy farms because they didn’t have enough to place everyone,” Bhatti said.
About a month later, Ayaka Nishijima came to live with them. She was on the farm for a little over a year, and between the two of them, they were able to get Cruze Farm Girl off the ground. They launched marketing efforts, built up a social media presence and refined recipes.
“Ayaka is who came up with the Salty Caramel recipe, which was our bestseller for a while,” Bhatti said. “She originally thought she wanted a vegetable farm, but she loved it here so much that she actually started working at a dairy farm when she went back, and now she’s making ice cream in Japan.”
Today, Cruze Farm Girl ice cream is sold locally at Three Rivers Market, Just Ripe, area Earth Fare locations and several other local stores. In addition, they also have a food truck that operates from May to November at the Market Square Farmer’s Market. There they sell ice cream and shakes as well as all natural hot dogs and burgers.
And while the $5,000 she won in the Undergraduate Business Plan Competition was a huge help in getting her to this point, Bhatti was quick to point out that the money wasn’t the only benefit of winning the competition.
“Finishing first in the competition really gave my dad confidence in me and my desire to return to the farm and expand upon what he’d already built,” she said.
That confidence has turned out to be well placed, as since then, Bhatti has brought more to the farm than just ice cream – her marketing skills are paying dividends for the entire operation.
“When I graduated from UT, my parents had an established business, but it needed to grow. They couldn’t do it because they were already so busy running the farm,” Bhatti said. “They had extra milk they were selling really cheap, and it was just going to another distributer. I began using social media to announce when and where milk was being delivered, and now people keep up with it and go buy it the day of. There’s virtually no waste anymore.”
Bhatti is also in the process of launching an online farm store that will sell the Cruze Farm Girl trademark head scarfs as well as t-shirts and buttermilk soaps. Additionally, she has plans to operate an ice cream truck in Knoxville during the summer months, and in the near future, Cruze Farm products will be available in the Nashville area, so their business is continuing to grow.
As the Cruze Farm Girl brand continues to expand, it’s important to remember it was set in motion by an undergraduate student. UBPC was a stepping-stone for Bhatti and Farm Girl ice cream, and while her story is certainly unique, many other student-developed companies have found success as well.
Any student with a business idea is encouraged to compete in UBPC. The competition is open to UT undergraduates from any field of study. First, second and third prizes of $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000, respectively, are awarded in two business categories, growth and lifestyle. The application deadline is 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27. For more information, visit tiny.utk.edu/UBPC.