OMAHA — When a teenager says his business inspiration is McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, adults tend to pay attention.
After all, how many kids (let alone their elders) even know who that is?
Entrepreneur a’Ron Burns, for one.
Burns, a 17-year-old Omaha Central High School senior, already has his own ice cream store. And it’s not even his first business venture (that had something to do with e-commerce.).
Roll-N-Sweetz has been open for about a month in a strip mall near 59th Street and Ames Avenue. It sells rolled ice cream, created when a cup of a’Ron’s “secret mix” (refrigerated milk and sugar are two ingredients) meets a surface that’s cooled to 21 below zero.
Employees smooth it to a thin layer, mix in things like candy and cookies, then create rolls that are served in cups with a variety of toppings.
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So far, Burns says, he’s pleased with the community’s response.
“It has been crazy ever since we opened,” he said last week.
That success doesn’t surprise Willie Barney, who founded the Carver Legacy Center with his wife, Yolanda, and another couple, Martin and Lynnell Williams. The center, a joint venture with American National Bank, helps Black entrepreneurs realize their dreams.
Barney said a’Ron and his mother, Alexis, came to Carver for help earlier this year when they were running into snags as they renovated the space they leased for the store.
He was immediately inspired by Burns, who calls himself a serial entrepreneur.
“We were really blown away by their business plan and their strategy,” he said. “His brilliance really impresses everybody he speaks with — the homework he’s done, the research he’s done and his experience in entrepreneurship.”
The Carver people were so amazed following their initial talk with the Burnses that they took immediate action.
“After that meeting, we got in our cars and actually walked through the building with him,” Barney said.
The result was a $95,000 investment in the project from the Carver Center for the renovation and equipment Burns needed to open the store.
Burns said he’s been interested in business since he was a young kid. He read everything he could about entrepreneurship, including material about Kroc, who made millions in the fast-food business.
“He’s an influential person,” Burns said. “I watch a movie about his life every night.”
He got the idea for Roll-N-Sweetz from working at a similar store downtown. He targeted North Omaha for his first store because he wanted to support his community, not only with a business unique to the area, but also with the jobs it would create.
He canvassed neighborhood shop proprietors and conducted additional research to gather statistics for his business plan. He learned that 24,000 cars pass by the area every two days and that residents and business owners missed the Dairy Queen that used to be nearby.
And he did it all while faithfully attending classes at Central.
“I had to mature quicker than some of my peers,” he said.
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He’s taking summer school classes at Omaha Burke so he can go to school half-days in the fall and graduate in December, because he has big plans for the business. It already has more than 15 employees, including some adults, though his store manager, Ciara Mercer, is a senior at Omaha North.
She worked with him at the ice cream store downtown, where the owners gave him a lot of responsibility and offered him a chance for promotion before he decided to open his own place.
If they took such a chance on him, he said, it would be a contradiction not to trust her.
Besides, he said, “At first I hired a 26-year-old (as manager), but they didn’t show up.”
In mid-afternoon on a recent weekday, Burns (wearing a nametag that said COO, as in chief operating officer) and Mercer cheerfully greeted all their guests, even the woman who just wanted to use the restroom. They get a fair amount of foot traffic, even though there isn’t yet a sign outside.
“The city is so backed up with sign permits,” Burns explained.
A couple of girls, both 15, came in because one of them learned about the store on social media.
“I saw it on Instagram,” said JayCionna Fisher, who lives in Mesa, Arizona, and is in Omaha visiting her cousin.
She ordered the No. 12, Candy Land: made with rolled-in unicorn snack cake, drizzled with strawberry syrup and served with whipped cream and cotton candy.
Burns said that his mom devised the menu, and that his favorite is the No. 2, Annie’s Brick, made with butter brickle candy, Pepperidge Farm Chessman cookies, caramel topping, whipped cream and chocolate Pocky sticks. She also came up with the name.
Alexis Burns said her son wanted to keep the menu simple, but she prevailed.
“I was like, oh, no. Ice cream is my favorite dessert, and I knew if there were multiple versions (at a shop), I would keep coming back,” she said.
The store is open from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and noon to 2 a.m. on weekends. Burns said late-night traffic is one thing that’s made the opening days so busy.
Alexis quit her job with the Omaha Housing Authority and cashed out money from her 401(k) to help her son achieve his goals when she realized he was serious about the venture. She has an online boutique for women and helps out at Roll-N-Sweetz.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a job.”
Burns has plans for additional Omaha stores, one near the refurbished Gene Leahy Mall and one near the new Crossroads development at 72nd and Dodge streets.
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He also wants to branch out to Lincoln and eventually have franchises elsewhere — in fact, a few days after being interviewed for this story, he was off to Miami for business meetings and to scout out possible locations.
Barney, of the Carver Center, said he thinks the plans for expansion are sound, even though Burns is Carver’s youngest client so far.
“He has a lot of attention from around the country,” Barney said. “People are contacting him already. He has knowledge of profit margins and the number of customers he has to have each day. He’s making it happen.”
Burns is not sure about college — he’s been courted by the entrepreneurship program at Creighton University but hasn’t decided on anything because he has been so laser-focused on his business.
And, he points out, Kroc only went to college for a year.
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