The walls of PJ Cools Ice Cream Shoppe are decked with pop culture memorabilia and vintage signs in brightly painted frames. Taped-up coloring-book pages bearing the store mascot, an upside-down ice cream cone, fill the space beneath the counter and wrap up around the central staircase. That owners Joe and Paula Mancini are parents, accustomed to saving children’s work, is evident: Each November when the shop closes, they take down the accumulated pages and store them in binders so that young customers returning in the spring can flip through and find their previous creations.
The three-year-old ice cream store isn’t the couple’s first foray into business together; the husband-and-wife team has operated an eBay store selling Christmas products for the past decade. PJ Cools has been on their back burner for a long time.
“We’ve always thought about opening up an ice cream shop, for over 20 years,” Joe said, and Paula gently corrected him: she thinks it’s been about 12. After an amicable back and forth, they settled on agreeing that it has been a long time coming.
“Everybody is always happy with ice cream,” Joe said.
When their kids were young, though, they never made the leap. “But we had the name and good ol’ PJ mascot, our little cone guy there; we’ve had that 15 years or more.” PJ, of course, stands for Paula and Joe. The shop offers a full array of cones, shakes, sundaes, and ice cream cakes, including specialty products for people with allergies.
Both Joe and Paula grew up in Western New York, and they raised their family in East Aurora, though they decided to look elsewhere to set up shop. “The market was already kind of saturated there,” Paula said. Nor did they want to take business away from other local ice cream shops, Joe added. The discovery of their present location in Depew was serendipitous: Joe was driving Paula home from work when they spotted the For Lease sign. They turned around and went to peer in the windows, imagining how the space could function, and soon contacted the realtor.
Paula continues to work full time at Ingram Micro, where she has been for about 20 years. Though she is modest about her self-professed lack of artistic training, in addition to designing and decorating the ice cream cakes, she also painted the professional-looking slogan leading up the stairs as well as a crowning mural of the cone. Joe managed a convenience store in the 1980s, then began training other managers before crossing to the wholesale supplier side. He cited his 30 years of experience in customer relations as a significant asset, and said he’s seen what works. “We knew, okay, we’re gonna be as clean as possible, we’re gonna be as friendly as possible,” he said. “We’re like that anyway, so it’s not like it’s a chore. Being friendly isn’t something you have to think about here.”
Their attention to cleanliness dovetails with their goal of welcoming customers with allergies to food that includes dairy, peanuts, or gluten. Servers use new gloves and dedicated ice cream scoops to prevent cross-contamination. Each season they have more customers coming specifically because they know the shop is sensitive to special needs. “We’ve had kids that have never…been able to go into an ice cream shop and have anything,” and they’re proud to be able to give those children that first experience, Joe said.
To get started, the couple reached out to the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College, which helped them create a business plan and prepare their application for a bank loan. The SBDC offered a template with everything the bank would look for—financial statements and projections, floor plans, pictures of products and machinery, logos, a persuasive story—and secured the couple a meeting with a representative from M&T Bank. Their loan came through and brought with it a mix of excitement and awe: now they needed to get to work. It all happened within two months, Paula said. “There was a lot of electrical, plumbing, the floors, the paint, all that had to be done.” Seeing the transformation take place, though, gave them a sense that their plan could work.
The long hours and margins can be challenging, they admitted. “When it’s your business, when you’re doing it for the first time, you don’t realize how many ice cream cones you have to sell to start making some money,” Joe said. “We’ve had growth every year since we opened, but it’s eye-raising exactly how much you have to grow.” Throughout their entire open season—March through November—they’re only closed for a day and a half.
Nevertheless, they find time to come up with new ventures. Lately, they’ve been working remote events, like visiting daycare centers and retirement homes, and they regularly schedule costumed characters to visit the shop. In August, they hosted Carnival Day, partnering with local party businesses like Balloon Brothers (“Spider-man hanging from a lamp post! They were really intricate,” Paula said), Buffalo’s Best Turtles (a posse of Ninja Turtles), Royal Receptions, and Fun Buffalo, which turned up with a snow cone machine powered by a human hamster wheel. Local businesses order cakes from them, and Ingram Micro has a milkshake day at the end of each month. “We’re always trying to outdo ourselves,” Joe summarized.
He admitted that they’d like to occasionally have a break from their long hours. “Yes, we need to get out a little bit more,” Paula agreed, but circled back to Joe’s talent for projects like Carnival Day. “There were so many different companies that partnered with us to come together at one place and provide a fun time for the kids and the adults. I think that’s one of the things that he does so well, finding the right people to get to know and brainstorm…. There’s always something going on in there that he might not even be telling me about.”
They might like to have a second location someday, but for now, they’re focused on getting this one off the ground. Their ambition is to make PJ Cools one of Western New York’s destinations for ice cream. “I think we’re on the right track,” Joe said. “Just gotta keep at it and keep it fresh.”