SOMERS POINT - The Custard Hut could easily fool would-be entrepreneurs into thinking small-business success is simple and straightforward.
The Plum and DeScioli families make it look easy, as if just about anyone willing to work hard could create a business that becomes part of people's lives.
They opened what has become a New Road landmark here 36 years ago, after prior experience in cleaning, tavern and real estate businesses, said Lucy Plum, who with husband Rich owns the business with her brother, Lou DeScioli, and his wife, Monica.
After a period of trial and error, sales of soft serve and homemade hard ice cream went so well that three years later they built and opened a second location in the Ocean View section of Upper Township, she said.
Plum said their business strategy was to have a friendly staff, keep the businesses exceptionally clean, give back to the community and look for improvements every year.
So when Italian water ice proved successful at the Ocean View store, the Egg Harbor Township couples expanded the Somers Point location six years ago to make water ice there as well, she said.
New Custard Hut offerings this year include Strawberry Pound Cake Sundaes and Granny Smith Apple Water Ice.
They join a long list of existing favorites: cappuccino crunch and mint chocolate chip hard ice creams, Candy Shop Sundaes with a choice of candies inside, and Chillys of blended soft ice cream.
"In the fall, we do a pumpkin flavor that's very popular," Plum said.
The stores also, of course, serve all the standards - milkshakes, classic sundaes, banana splits and soft yogurt.
The Custard Hut has developed a reputation for supporting the community over the years.
Each spring, the stores hold an Foundation Day in which the profits from the day are donated to local education foundations. Lou DeScioli has said between $1,500 and $1,800 is typically raised.
The business also sponsors local sports teams and donates to various community groups.
Plum, 59, said there are a lot of regular customers who always buy their favorite things, year after year.
Last week, Lauren King, of Little Egg Harbor Township, introduced friend Jenni Stifter, of Rockville, Md., to the Custard Hut.
King, 21, said she has come for ice cream every year for the past 12 years. She usually gets vanilla custard, but sometimes has a sundae "just to mix it up."
Stifter, 20, offered an assessment any business owner would love to hear from a first-time customer: "This is the best custard I've ever had."
Plum said customers such as King and the store's staff "become like family."
For example, Cheryl Wrigley, of Egg Harbor Township, has been with Custard Hut for 19 years, Plum said.
"Most of the time our staff starts as sophomores in high school, and then continue working into college," she said. "Some come back part-time later when they have children. We're one, big, happy family. They get to know you and know what to expect."
And that's how a small business reaches the ultimate goal of becoming a tradition, with customers returning on a regular basis to repeat their pleasant past experiences.
That has made the annual reopening of the Somers Point store in February (after a couple of months closed for bookkeeping and vacations) a harbinger of spring.
So here's the plan for entrepreneurs: Just open the right business in a great location at a perfect time, work hard at improving products and service, develop ties from staff to customer to community, and keep it up for at least a couple of decades.
And one more thing: Enjoy it all like you were born for it.
"It's very successful and very satisfying," Plum said. "It's truly a blessing to enjoy what you do in life."
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