Dariush Haghighi, owner of The Watermark saw there was a market for locally produced clear block ice in Leeds. So he met it, he tells Hamish Smith.
1/ So Dariush, you've created a firm that produces ice - Cool Cats Ice Co - tell us about how it came about...
The ice company is a developing project that has grown from an obsession with having affordable ice in our own bar that has grown very quickly out of hand into a separate business. Most of the bars we know locally order from Scotland with high delivery costs attached. All this weighs down on the cost of the drink.
Currently I am sharing a space in Wolfe Bros Gin Distillery whilst I get momentum with orders. The ice is produced locally, which I collect and slice using a variety of torture devices. When we move to our own production unit this will be made on site ourselves.
2/ What's the plan - how many bars do you hope to supply?
The aim of the project is to raise the ice game for as many bars and restaurants in Leeds as possible, whilst keeping it affordable. Then when we have a decent grip on service and delivery of product for Leeds we will venture out to nearby cities in Yorkshire. However it's a slow and steady journey and not one we intend to rush through. Currently we are supplying seven bars with a couple more being confirmed this week. World domination of ice supply is our humble six-month plan.
We have a lot to learn in this field so slow and steady is the mantra. We want to learn fast while slowly increasing our output. Leeds' bar industry has a very strong community and as a result the support has been immense from the first mention of our start up.
3/ What are the set-up costs and skills required?
The set up costs are definitely a hurdle. I was lucky enough to be given help with a location to cut the ice, so that solves the initial monthly rent costs. The equipment is where it picks up into more than a side project...
One of the main distributors for industrial ice cutting equipment is in Ukraine. Getting the best prices and support involves buying direct from the factory, which is what we did. At the most basic level you will need a freezer, ice block cutter and a bandsaw. If you can deadlift 150kg+ then you are potentially fine, otherwise like the rest of us you will need an electric hoist and a till cart to transport the ice around the room.
This, before import taxes, is about €7k. Then there is the block ice machine itself which is another €4k, freezer van for distribution and staff costs etc. Once we are fully set with our unit, van and able to increase supply we have budgeted to have spent nearly £20k to complete the set up. Skill wise, I had none. Just patience to learn the skill set and grasp a decent understanding of the equipment being used.
4/ How long does carving ice take and what are the challenges?
A new challenge presents itself every week at the moment, but it is a positive thing and all part of the development process. The main challenges whilst cutting ice are time and temperature. Skipping over the challenge of keeping all your fingers, which is more a non-negotiable than a challenge.
Once the block is out of the freezer the challenge is cutting it into slabs and keeping it between the temperature of -10c to -12c. Anything below this will crack when moved to cutting. The block in its initial phase is too big for the freezers we have currently so cutting it down quickly and safely to store is the first game we are playing. Slippery, wet heavy ice is not our friend. The smaller the ice becomes, the quicker it melts. So, each stage needs to be completed diligently to avoid melting. At the minute the whole process from block - slabs - individual cubes takes roughly six hours. This only takes so long because our orders vary in size and we need to adjust the machines.
This is also currently being completed by myself alone, which slows everything down slightly. I am happy to take my time when I am handling slippery ice and sharp blades. We detailed a video on our instagram page @cool_cats_ice_co, which details the process from block to cube. It is wildly satisfying watching cubes spit out the other end of a bandsaw apparently.
5/ Do you think this is a model that could work in other cities, with bartenders/bars being hubs of ice production?
There is definitely a lot of time and money involved in setting up and learning the process but there is definitely scope for bars/operators to come together to share the load. Why not? I set this up as a new hobby but also because there was a clear demand for affordable clear ice in Leeds. It would be amazing if clear block ice could be the new standard across the city, but until now, it was difficult to warrant the price tag affecting our GPs.
What is actually happening now is bars/restaurants with no previous interest in clear ice are now reaching out to us as it is finally a realistic affordable option. So going door to door before setting up, as I did, is definitely priority on the agenda before registering yourself online as a UK distributor and contacting a customs broker.