Sweet success

Alumna’s D.C.-based ice cream brand expands to a retail location in Richmond

For nearly five years, Ruby Scoops has been dishing up locally sourced, small-batch ice cream at farmers’ markets and events as well as to online sugar shoppers in the Washington, D.C., area. 

“Our priority is to create happy and sweet memories,” says Ruby Scoops founder Rabia Kamara (B.S.’10/B), who found her love for baking in a Mrs. Fields recipe book in the fourth grade. “I love cooking, I love feeding people and I love seeing what that does.”

Richmonders will soon get to experience Kamara’s sweet treats as the brand makes plans to open its first brick-and-mortar shop in the city’s Northside. “We are excited to be a part of the city and to be able to share the ice cream we make with the community,” she says. 

Tell us about Ruby Scoops.

We create small-batch ice creams, sorbets, vegan desserts and baked goods, and when we open our new shop in Richmond, Virginia’s Northside, we will be doing even more baked goods and vegan and vegetarian options. We try to cater to as many different dietary lifestyles as we can. We are also hoping to do some cured meats in house, bread baking, sandwiches, salads and some other things, so we can apply for a liquor license and sell boozy milkshakes. What Ruby Scoops will look like as a storefront is part ice cream, part soda shop, part cafe and hopefully 100% a neighborhood gathering spot. We want to encourage the community to spend time with us, and make connections in the community.

How did you get into the ice cream-making business? 

I fell in love with baking in the fourth grade when my mom got me a Mrs. Fields recipe book, but I am a first-generation American, and education, school and having a career path that makes sense to African parents is not cooking. When I came to VCU, I really connected with my love for food, and learned what I really liked about food. Up until then, I had really only eaten the food my parents served. After graduation, I planned to go to law school but one day in August 2010, I woke up and realized I’m about to spend the rest of my life getting up every day for work so I should be doing what I like to do. That’s how I landed in culinary school. 

I was a sous chef, I was a pastry chef and I loved food, but fell out of love working for people who I didn’t feel appreciated or respected me as an individual. I don’t want to necessarily say they didn’t respect me as an artist, but it felt like they were trying to change things about my food, or diminish who I was as a person because it’s difficult being a Black woman in any industry, but it’s very difficult to be a Black woman in the culinary industry. I kept falling out of love in working for people and in love with making ice cream. I learned how to make it in culinary school, and every chance I got I would make small amounts for competitions. At my first pastry job, they told me they buy most of their ice cream in bulk but they needed me to make a flavor of the week and a sorbet of the week. It was the first job I had any of my own freedom or creativity. There are so many different things you can do with ice cream, and it’s such a blank slate. I liked it so much that they finally said they were going to stop buying vanilla ice cream and have me make it. I started making ice cream for that location, then a sister location, then pints for our flagship restaurant’s marketplace. I would spend hours in the basement of this restaurant making ice cream. I was making four to five flavors a week. When that restaurant closed, I was given the opportunity to be pastry chef for the newest restaurant opening in the group. My family and I actually went in for dinner one night, and I watched as my desserts hit the tables all throughout the restaurant. I saw a table with two little girls and their parents splitting a bowl of vanilla ice cream. When one daughter turned around, the sister ate her ice cream. Cut the fussing between them, it took me back to my childhood, and that sibling rivalry, wanting different types of ice cream, different popsicle flavors, and I just decided in that moment that I wanted to make ice cream for a living and be a part of memories through it.

How did VCU prepare you for this journey?

That’s the funny thing. Even as a business major, I didn’t think about owning a business. In retrospect, I would have maybe considered staying in the School of Business, but focusing on entrepreneurship. But in that same regard, being at VCU, taking multiple business classes, putting myself out there, getting jobs, feeling comfortable to become a part of the neighborhood I was living in, and confiding in my fellow classmates, professor, and people who spent a lot of time in the restaurants where I worked about what I wanted to do helped me understand what my passion was. My time in Richmond defined part of who I am when it comes to food. This is where I started cooking for myself on a regular basis and feeding other people. Being here made me more in touch with who I was as a person, and more in touch with who I wanted to be as an adult, and who I am as an adult. I wouldn’t have been able to get that if I didn’t decide to go to Richmond, go to VCU and change my major from mass comm to business. I don’t think Ruby Scoops would be a thing if I hadn’t decided to come to VCU, and that’s a big part of what made me want to come back to Richmond. I’m excited to be back in Richmond as a VCU alumna, as a Black woman, as a person who has lived here before and can see where the city is going.

What advice would you give to business owners who are just starting out? 

Don’t be afraid to start. I had this whole idea in my head that I needed 10 years of restaurant experience and 10 years of management experience before I started my own thing. Not being afraid to do your research is another. I looked up who my competitors were. I feel like in D.C., of course everyone is trying to make money and run a successful business, but very rarely did I feel like I couldn’t reach out to another business and ask about the experiences I was going through. Willing to do the research, see who your competitors are, what you have in common and how you can lean on them for advice is really important to recognize. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help, but at the same time remember to compensate them for their time and experiences. Not that people don’t help you out of the goodness of your heart because they do, but I believe there’s a difference between “let me pick your brain” and “can I take you out to lunch.” Also, don’t be afraid to say no to things. The first two years I said yes to everything because I thought it was the way for us to make more money or get more exposure. Ultimately, I could have spent my time elsewhere that would have helped us much more in the early days. 

Is there one thing about your business journey you wish you could do over again?

I would have asked for help earlier and realized how important delegation is early on. When you’ve been doing something by yourself for 20 years, it’s really hard to trust someone else to bake a cake like you bake a cake. Learning to let go some is really important. For this Richmond store, I’m bringing on a business partner, and I literally couldn’t be happier about it. They are a great individual, a great cook, and I think we have the potential to do something really great together. I have this one baby (Ruby Scoops in D.C.), and want more, but know I can’t do it without help this time around. 

If you didn’t own a business what would you be doing now?

My ultimate universe dream job is to host a cooking show. What I really mean is, I would go around and eat other people’s desserts and then maybe we make something together. Very similar to the Netflix show “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” She basically goes around, learns about foods, historical backgrounds on food, and then makes her own foods. That would be my ultimate dream job, and I keep telling myself I’m only 31, maybe I can make this happen. 

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