They Screamed For It

Posted on Aug 1, 2011 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo by Sharon Verbeten

In early 2010, when John Van Lanen was downsized after 10 years in the telecommunications industry, he hopped on his Harley and cruised out to Seattle, wind in his hair, unsure of what he would do next.

Not long after that head-clearing ride, Van Lanen’s childhood friend Kris Berg – a 20-year employee of Hansen’s Dairy and Deli in Green Bay – approached him about purchasing the business, which sells the much-craved ice cream, fresh Lamers milk (still sold in glass bottles) and homemade pizza, sub sandwiches and broasted chicken. The well-known longtime Green Bay business, founded more than 60 years ago by dairy owner Howard Hansen, closed a few years ago after the most recent owners declared bankruptcy.

At first, Van Lanen thought Berg’s suggestion was a joke. But armed with his friend’s connections and knowledge of the business – and knowing firsthand how popular the Hansen’s name has always been in Green Bay – Van Lanen took a chance at a new career at age 57.

The Green Bay native now owns two Hansen’s stores/restaurants. The first one on the city’s near west side opened last year and a second shop opened this spring in East De Pere.

“My saving grace is not knowing enough in the restaurant business,” Van Lanen remarks casually. Thankfully, he relies a lot on Berg’s expertise; she now serves as both stores’ general manager.
While his entire family has an entrepreneurial bent (his brother owns the Lighthouse Inn in Two Rivers), Van Lanen apparently didn’t inherit that gene. “I’m not a business man, but I know what I want,” he says.

Most people would have drawn up a business plan and sought start-up capital; Van Lanen did neither. He used his corporate severance money, in addition to personal credit cards, to lease the Hansen’s building, name and equipment, with an option to buy in three years. Van Lanen did get a traditional $10,000 loan after they opened, especially because he opened in late fall, not a traditional time of year for ice cream sales.

“Our ice cream sales have gone up 10 percent since winter,” Van Lanen says. Still, ice cream usually makes up only about 35 percent (in summer) of the company’s sales.

In addition to his work in the telecommunications industry, Van Lanen worked part-time for almost 30 years in food and beverage services for PMI Entertainment Group, which manages events held at Shopko Hall, Resch Center and other local venues. He brought his inventory control experience from that position to Hansen’s, and he also relies on Berg’s seasoned knowledge of Hansen’s customers and their tastes.

“You have to hire people who know what they’re doing,” says Van Lanen, who co-owns the business with his wife, Nancy.

The company employs 40 part-time employees at both stores.

Mission accomplished?

Although interested parties have inquired about opening another Hansen’s location, Van Lanen notes the business is not a franchise. But that interest does speak to the region’s apparent excitement about having the Hansen’s name – and original recipes – back in town. Van Lanen says he had a customer drive down from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for Hansen’s opening day.

“The nicest surprise is the number of people who walk in and say, ‘We’re glad you’re open,’” says Van Lanen.

And even the mayor has stopped in as well. “Hansen’s Dairy and Deli is a great addition to our west side,” says Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt. “My kids make fun of me all the time for getting a plain vanilla ice cream, but it truly is my favorite.”

Even though Van Lanen hasn’t taken a day off in more than a year, he believes he made the right career move.

“If you get into a business and it’s a job, get out of it.”

After only a year in business, Van Lanen is hesitant to judge his progress, but he hopes to have four stores up and running in the area in a few years.

“My main mission is just to make people happy and feed them good food,” he adds.