Growing up in Harbor Springs, Michigan, population 1,200, Taylor Frye liked nothing better than to head over to Kilwins in nearby Petoskey with his high school chums to feast on their awesome homemade ice cream and chocolates.
He never imagined that one day he would be the proprietor of a Kilwins of his very own. Frye, now age 31, is the owner of Kilwins at 16 Witherspoon St. in Princeton, the latest in about 130 Kilwins franchises around the country. The shop opened for business on September 24.
The Kilwins that Taylor Frye fondly remembers was started by Don and Katie Kilwins in 1947 in Petoskey, Michigan. Petoskey still serves as home base for the company, and it is still family-owned, although it’s no longer owned by the Kilwins.
“It’s changed ownership twice now,” Frye says, “and it’s still a family-owned and operated franchise company. Don and Katie Kilwins started the company and sold it in the 1980s to Wayne Rose and his family, who sold it in the 1990s to the current owners, Don McCarty and his family. I went to high school with all three of their kids.”
After earning a degree in hospitality and tourism management from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Frye let his thoughts drift back to those happy days at Kilwins, and after doing a bit of research he discovered that the company had grown a bit since then.
“I had no idea that Kilwins had become as big as it is,” he says. “When I was in high school we’d go down to Kilwins after track practice or whatever, and I just thought that it was the one store that Don (Kilwins) owned. After I graduated from college I contacted the franchise company and two years after that they reached out to me.”
Frye began working with the company about seven years ago, initially to run a few of their seasonal stores in Michigan (winter is not conducive to the sale of ice cream in Michigan tourist destinations, he noted), then helping the company with franchise-wide special projects like compliance with the Affordable Care Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act.
So how did Taylor Frye transition from Harbor Springs to Princeton? And how did the Kilwins franchise company decide on Princeton as a location?
“The franchise offers a couple of ways for people to work with them,” he says. “They can come to the franchise and propose opening a store in a specific location, a specific town, and then we can judge viability and all the rest, or someone can come to Kilwins and say that they want to put a store in a particular state or geographic area in the United States and then we do the legwork.
“The company is always looking for viable spots to put successful stores,” he continues, “and after working for the company about six years, I got the opportunity to open my own. I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, never been outside of it for the most part, so I asked for a list of spots where a successful store might do well, and the first one that popped up was Princeton.”
So Frye headed east for a look-see. “I spent something like 43 hours in total here, kind of a down and back,” he says. “I spent one entire day, from 6 a.m. to midnight, wandering the streets, popping into shops, talking to people, trying to figure out if I liked the area, decided I liked it, so here I am.”
Frye has found moving from a little town of about 1,200 in northern Michigan, to a university town of around 31,000 to be a bit of a culture shock. “This feels like the big city to me. I arrived here with my dog in February and I’m still adjusting,” he says.
How is Frye introducing Kilwins to Princeton? Although it’s a company that has been around since 1947, it is not a name that’s necessarily top-of-mind when Princetonians crave premium chocolates, ice cream, and other confections.
“I was wondering the same thing myself when I first moved out here and was doing traffic counts while waiting for the store to open,” Frye says. “I was thinking ‘Is this going to be completely new to everybody? Are we going to have a lot of people who’ve heard of us?’
“And I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who’ve heard of us,” he says. “We have stores in Morristown, Westfield, Ridgewood, and Cliffside Park, New Jersey. A lot of folks in this area vacation in Florida in towns where Kilwins stores are popular. Delray, Las Olas (Fort Lauderdale), and Sarasota are three that I hear of the most. Two other locations that seem to be popular are Annapolis, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia.”
Upon entering the shop on Witherspoon the scent of chocolate and the sight of sugary confections of all kinds make a nearly irresistible first impression. “We make our own chocolate from scratch. It’s a premium product. We make almost all of our products by hand, the old-fashioned way, in our facility in Michigan,” Frye notes. “It’s something that’s very important to the owners and the employees, many of whom who have been with Kilwins 20, 30, even 40 years.
“And all of our chocolate — milk, dark, and white — is fair-trade certified,” he says. “That’s very important to our owners, franchisees, and our customers.”
Frye is well aware that Kilwins is not the only place in Princeton to purchase quality chocolates and ice cream, and he actually sees that as a positive.
“Up in northern Michigan there are a lot of tourism-driven towns,” he says, “and it’s not unusual to have five or six ice cream shops in a town a tenth the size of Princeton. Part of the market research was to try everybody’s ice cream, and there’s some good competition in town. Halo Pub, Thomas Sweet, and the Bent Spoon all do an awesome job. We’re just trying to make our own way, and competition is healthy for everybody.
“It’s also important to emphasize that we’re not just an ice cream shop. First and foremost we’re a chocolatier. We’re very proud of how our chocolate tastes and how it’s presented. We offer ice cream and caramel apples and all that good stuff, but we really pride ourselves on being chocolatiers first, and we also offer the other items that complement that.”
Frye notes that many of Kilwins’ offerings are freshly made on-site. “We get chocolate in 10-pound bars from our facility in Michigan, break it up, melt it down, and re-temper it to make our whole nut barks, whole nut clusters, chocolate-dipped Oreos, caramel corns, Nutcracker Sweets (a combination of freshly-popped corn, almonds, pecans, and caramel), peanut brittle, cashew brittle, and caramel apples,” he says. “We’ll have fudge soon, I’m shocked at the number of people who know about our fudge and have been requesting it.”
Potential Kilwins customers will have the opportunity to watch the fudge being made. “It’s very important for our stores to have that kind of theater up front,” Frye says, “so we’ve got the copper kettle, we’ll roll it out on a marble table, hand paddle it, and make it right before your eyes.
“We also offer samples of our whole nut barks and our ice cream,” he says. “Sure, it’s a great selling technique, but it also improves the Kilwins experience. We want people to have a good time here, chat with them, and find out where they’re from and what they like. We’re here to help them make a good decision and be happy about it.”
Despite the preponderance of sugary treats, Frye noted that Kilwins offers sugar-free choices as well. “I have access to about 20 sugar-free items, and the number is growing,” he says. “Due to space constraints I currently offer the top four or five items, and based on customer feedback I can add more. We’ve got everything from taffy, hard candy, caramels, Tuttles (nut clusters enrobed in chocolate), peanut clusters, so there are a lot of sugar-free choices.” He also notes that nutritional information for all Kilwins products is displayed on the website and in his store.
It’s early days yet, but Frye is beginning to notice which products appeal to the sweet teeth of his Princeton clientele. “It’s been a pretty even mix so far,” he says. “We opened right in the middle of caramel apple season, perfect for a cool fall day, so those have been going like crazy. We really hang our hat on our chocolate, so our barks and clusters and caramels and Tuttles are doing really well.
“Ice cream is probably our number-one selling category across the company,” Frye says. “It’s made at our facility in Ohio. It’s our own recipe, and it’s only sold in our stores. We’re really proud of it.” He noted that Kilwins’ Sea Salt Caramel is the number one selling ice cream across the company, followed by Toasted Coconut and Vanilla.
With the holiday season upon us, Frye has a few special things in store for his sweet-seeking customers. “We’ll have peppermint ice cream, peppermint bark (dark chocolate with white chocolate and peppermint flavoring, topped with crushed peppermint candy), molded Santas and Nutcrackers, and a selection of Chanukah-themed items as well,” he says. “We’ll have access to 3.5-pound artisanal Santas, snowmen, and Christmas trees, hand-molded in Michigan and hand-decorated with colored cocoa butter.”
And does Tyler Frye, looking surprisingly fit for a young man who runs a candy store, have a personal Kilwins guilty pleasure?
“The ice cream,” he replies without hesitation. “I can stay away from most of the chocolates, although I get my fair share throughout the day, but the ice cream … We’ve got 28 flavors, and if I get tired of one I can hop to another. Honestly, the ice cream is very hard to stay away from, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m here from early in the morning until late at night, so ice cream has been a staple of my diet for a while.”
Kilwins, 16 Witherspoon Street. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 609-285-5885. kilwins.com/princeton.