Leona’s Ice Cream needs a crowdfunded loan after a ‘catastrophic’ freezer failure

Thousands of ice cream sandwiches turned to mush.

Before a freezer malfunction — and after.

Before a freezer malfunction — and after.

Photo by Matt Dayak / Courtesy of Leona's
Rossilynne Culgan

Updated 10:54 a.m. Feb. 23: Leona’s loan campaign is fully funded.

A freezer malfunction forced the staff at Leona’s Ice Cream to dump several thousand melted ice cream sandwiches — their entire spring inventory — into garbage bags.

“Fifteen to 20 garbage bags of ice cream sandwiches — it was heartbreaking,” said Katie Heldstab, who owns Leona’s with her wife and business partner Christa Puskarich. Losses are estimated at $10,000.

With the help of a $25,000 crowd-funded Kiva loan, which launched this morning and will seek support through March 22, they’re now trying to purchase a new freezer and build up their supply again before the warmer months.

Garbage bags of melted Leona's ice cream sandwiches.

A few of the several thousand melted ice cream sandwiches.

Courtesy of Leona's

In a “freak” accident around mid-January, debris trapped in an electric connector blocked a crucial signal. After unblocking the signal (about a $100 fix), the freezer is usable again, and because each sandwich is wrapped so tightly, they melted inside the paper and didn’t make too much of a sticky mess.

“It hit us in January when we’re slow, so having the cash flexibility to be able to buy all new dairy and all new paper and all the packaging and then pay everyone again to do it — this was catastrophic,” Heldstab said. “It put us in a bad spot.”

The 18-by-13-feet freezer kept at a -24-degree temperature at their commercial kitchen in Wilkinsburg was filled with a variety of ice cream sandwiches: Whiskey chocolate (featuring Wigle Whiskey), salted Heath, vanilla, concord grape-peanut butter and spicy chocolate, plus pints of ice cream.

About 300 ice cream sandwiches, lime-black raspberry and persimmon varieties, were stored in a separate freezer and emerged unscathed.

Leona's concord grape on peanut butter cookies.

Leona's concord grape on peanut butter cookies.

Photo by Matt Dayak / Courtesy of Leona's

The loan will allow the team to buy the ingredients to replace the lost supply and purchase an additional freezer, along with sensors to alert them to any future temperature problems. The new freezer will enable Leona’s to increase its inventory. Insurance won’t cover the expenses, she said, because the unit itself wasn’t damaged.

Kiva offers micro-lending for small businesses, and donors get paid back for their investments. Though Leona’s has grown over the years since its launch in 2013, it still wouldn’t be eligible for a traditional loan through a bank, Heldstab said.

“We love the crowdfunded loan because it helps us get the funds that we need but also know we’re paying it back, and that’s important for us especially as a more established business,” she said. “A bank would never loan us any money. We’re just not at that point yet. We’re still too new. We’re still too small.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Leona’s will again supply sweet treats for weddings, office events and parties as well as stop by pop-ups around town. They’ll also continue to sell ice cream sandwiches at a variety of stores throughout Pittsburgh.