Chemical engineer finds happiness, success in a second career making ice cream
For Ajoa Mintah, the road to entrepreneurship started a long way from her eventual destination creating and selling tasty frozen treats.
Mintah is founder and CEO of Four All Ice Cream, which has a factory in Kitchener, Ontario, and a retail “scoop shop” in neighboring Waterloo.
The Ottawa native started her career as a professional chemical engineer in 2001.
Her parents, who came to Canada from Ghana, placed a high value on education.
In high school, Mintah had no idea what she wanted to do for a career. Being good at math and sciences, she decided to study engineering at University of Waterloo. She thought that she could decide later what to do professionally.
During her co-op studies, she worked in manufacturing and production. “It was all valuable experience, but none of it really sparked anything in me.” Her first job was working for a plastic injection moulding firm, developing car interiors, working with Ford engineers. “My job was to take what the design was and make it work.”
It was a “fun but stressful” experience, which she enjoyed because working from concept to finished product allowed her to be creative.
Mintah married her husband while working there. Eventually she decided that they both shouldn’t be working at the same firm in case something happened to that company.
That decision led her to move into consulting, work she also excelled at, and was promoted. Eventually, that firm was bought out by a larger company.
She worked long hours, too hard, leading her husband to ask why she was working so hard. If he had hoped to convince her to slow down, the message didn’t get through. “What I heard was, if I’m going to work this hard, I should own it (a company).”
Realizing that she wasn’t happy in what she was doing, Mintah started her entrepreneurial journey.
Knowing that engineering happiness in her own life would require reflection, she quit her job to think about what she wanted to do. She knew that she loved being creative and making things but wasn’t sure how to turn that into a business.
Focusing on finding her personal passion, she considered what would both bring joy and what she would enjoy learning. Given her love for food, she decided: “I want to make food.”
She sought out mentors in Kitchener-Waterloo who were “doing something neat.” Surveying the food scene in Waterloo Region, she was impressed with the easy access to farms and small craft food firms. Eventually, she decided that she would make ice cream.
The first step was learning how to make ice cream. She enrolled in the ice cream university course at University of Guelph in late 2016. After completing the program, she understood the technical aspects of what she needed to do. Her vision was for making ice cream that would be local, natural, and mindful. For Mintah, making mindful ice cream means understanding ingredients, understanding who her customers are, as well as what they want and need.
As a chemical engineer, her self-described superpower is understanding “what has to be in it, and nothing else.” During the first half of 2017, she found a building to rent, built it out, set up her equipment and got what she thought were the necessary approvals from public health officials. She started making ice cream, but soon came up against a major hurdle. “In October, I found out that everything I had done was illegal.”
Ontario’s dairy industry is highly controlled. Only the province can give approval to a new ice cream manufacturing venture.
Mintah was discouraged and wanted to give up. Her husband encouraged her to persist. She contacted the provincial ministry of agriculture and food to learn what she needed to do in order to make her operation legal.
Understanding the changes that were necessary, she retrofitted her space over what she described as a “six month hiccup.”
Her mother, a retired lawyer who used to work for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, helped her understand the rules.
Mintah’s original plan was to make ice cream three days a week, deliver to businesses on Thursdays and “sell a bit” through a small retail counter on weekends.
Public health officials were dismissive of her chances of success in an out-of-the-way location behind a former shoe factory in central Kitchener. “Good luck,” they told her. “This is a weird location. Nobody’s going to show up.”
The doubters were wrong. “Everybody showed up,” Mintah said. “We were busy from the second we opened our doors to the public.” With no marketing background, she realized that she didn’t know how to do retail and decided to try other locations.
Her next retail effort was a 10-foot by 10-foot space at a building that has space for emerging tech companies. She described that one year venture as a learning opportunity about making business deals “and ensuring that they work for you.”
Next, she got an opportunity to use a space in downtown Kitchener as a summer-only “pop-up” location. That left her feeling more confident about running a retail location, so she began looking for a permanent site. Mintah found a space in the heart of UpTown Waterloo and held her grand opening on March 13, 2020. The store was open for about 10 days “and then we weren’t (due to the COVID pandemic.)”
Four All’s website was built on the Shopify e-commerce platform, with a view “that one day, way in the future, I could sell ice cream online.” That future arrived much quicker than she envisioned. The company needed to open an online store to sell its products to retail stores and gift cards to people who enjoyed her products.
Mintah was thrilled by the number of people who wanted to buy gift cards and support her business, without knowing when they would be able to redeem. Commercial orders also came in at a surprising rate. “Really, I hadn’t figured out how I was going to get it to them (retailers), once they ordered it.”
Initially the company used dry ice, then they got a freezer van. Working as a wholesaler meant that Four All was able to keep operating. Finally in 2022, Four All is able to enjoy a full summer season serving retail customers hungry for its special ice cream products.
The firm has 10 employees year-round, and 31 between May and September. “There’s still a lot more to learn, but I think that’s the path of every entrepreneur,” she said. “You learn every single day.”
The Four All name has several meanings. Given that Mintah’s oldest daughter can’t have dairy, she wanted to develop products that would ensure “there is always going to be a choice for everybody.”
Mintah also thought about developing four distinct categories of flavors, one to suit each of the four members of her family.
Her husband enjoys classic flavors, “nothing weird.” There are dairy-free flavors (sorbet or coconut milk-based) for one of her daughters, and nostalgia or childhood-themed flavors for another daughter.
Finally, there is a foodie category that she created for her own interests. “I do want something (for sale) that maybe you have never heard of before.”
Asked about the weirdest ice creams that she has ever developed, she recalled being asked to make four Oktoberfest-themed products for Kitchener’s Oktoberfest event. “The most sampled flavor, but never bought flavor, was sausage and sauerkraut. Everybody tried it, but nobody bought it.”
Four All typically features 16 types of ice cream in rotation at any given time. The company has sold over 200 flavors since its inception. This summer, the company’s website listed four core flavors “that aren’t going anywhere” – vanilla bean, chocolate milk, salted caramel, and strawberries & cream- plus a dozen “get them while you can” rotating flavors.
Mintah’s favorite flavor, surprisingly, is vanilla. “There are no secrets. There’s nothing to hide behind with vanilla.”
The company has a strong commitment to sustainability. It purchases carbon offsets, and sells half-litre containers in returnable glass jars, with a refundable $1 deposit.
It also has a strong social media presence, with more than 18,000 followers on Instagram. Recognizing the visibility Four All has built, Mintah decided it seemed responsible to “use our voice for good.”
Four All has a donate button on its website, inviting community groups to apply for donations. “My honest feeling is that we are where we are because of the community,” she said. “If we are able to give back, we will give back.”