For alumna Colleen Cruze Bhatti, a combination of timing, connections, and hard work brought her to the next step in her growing dairy business, Cruze Farm Girl. This summer, Bhatti opened her first storefront, the Cruze Farm Milk Bar, in downtown Knoxville.
She credits UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for supporting her entrepreneurial dreams.
“The opportunity to open a storefront came up, and the timing was right,” Bhatti says. “It’s been interesting to see how many people we have been able to reach.”
In this case, “interesting” means twenty thousand scoops of farm-fresh ice cream sold during the shop’s first three weeks.
The Union Avenue shop mixes the old-fashioned charm of an ice cream parlor with modern flavors like lavender honey ice cream as well as the chili dog, a hot dog topped with chili, cheese, mustard, and onions. The top-selling ice cream, in flavors like birthday cake and cookies ’n’ cream, is churned overnight at Cruze Farm. New flavors rotate daily.
“We’re selling everything we can produce right now,” says Bhatti. “We’re in a good spot.” She attributes the success to time spent scooping and selling ice cream, hot dogs, and biscuits from the Milk Bar food truck at the Market Square Farmer’s Market in Knoxville.
“We’ve spent the last five years building connections with people at the market,” she says. “People want to know where their food comes from, and I think they enjoy talking to the person who prepares the food they’re eating.”
This connection between the business and its customers is key for Bhatti. While she now employs twenty full- and part-time “farm girls” who work in the shop and on the dairy farm, customers regularly find Bhatti at the shop scooping ice cream, greeting customers, and caring for the business she has worked hard to build.
That hard work began while Bhatti was an agriculture science major at UT. She dreamed of expanding her parents’ dairy business and pushed that plan forward when she entered the Graves Undergraduate Business Competition hosted by the Anderson Center. She was awarded the $5,000 first prize in the lifestyle business category for her plan to bring ice cream to Cruze Farm.
“Winning the competition gave my dad confidence in me to keep the dairy business going,” she says. “I think when he saw that the Anderson Center had confidence in me, it gave him confidence too. After that, he was ready for me to move forward.”
The $5,000 prize bought pint containers, and Bhatti spent the summer churning ice cream to fill them.
“I worked so hard the first summer after graduation. I was still proving myself,” says Bhatti. She expanded Cruze Farm’s accounts, selling and delivering milk in Chattanooga and, eventually, Nashville. By the end of that summer, Cruze Farm was bottling all of its own milk. Today, it is the only dairy farm in Knoxville with its own cows and milk plant.
Those real-life lessons of hard work and perseverance are something she strives to share with future entrepreneurs at UT through the Anderson Center.
“We make mistakes, wipe away tears, and try again,” Bhatti says. “Building a business can be emotional. UT has been a great help to me. Talking to students really brings it full circle.”
Part of that circle is Jennifer Edwards, a sophomore majoring in accounting in UT’s Haslam College of Business. Edwards puts her accounting education to work each evening when she plans the quantities and flavors to churn for sale the following day at the shop.
“Jennifer loves to indulge her creative side by inventing new flavors. Her business side always figures out the best plan to execute her fantasy flavors in an efficient way,” Bhatti says proudly.
While the pop-up shop will stay open only through September 4, Bhatti’s plans for her business are anything but limited. She’s utilizing her location to build relationships with her summer neighbors, including a hot dog collaboration with award-winning chef Joseph Lenn from the soon-to-open restaurant J.C. Holdway and an ice cream story time with Union Avenue Books.
She also is planning for the future—one she hopes includes another storefront. While she is not ruling out a year-round shop, she says the summer pop-up shop has been a great fit for Cruze Farm Girl.
In the fall, Bhatti plans to bring back more flavored milks, including chai milk, and to continue serving ice cream from the Milk Bar truck at the Market Square Farmers Market.
The Milk Bar is at 513 Union Avenue and is open 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00–10:00 p.m. Saturday, and noon–7:00 p.m. Sunday.