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Kohl’s Frozen Custard: A Thread Capital Rapid Recovery Success Story

Matt Smith knew he was in for a challenge when he bought a popular Wrightsville Beach frozen custard shop—and that was before the hurricane.

Smith, an affable 26-year-old originally from Raleigh, owns Kohl’s Frozen Custard, a beachside store with craveable flavors such as Death by Chocolate and Cookies & Cream. Kohl’s is a Wrightsville Beach institution, popular among families who have stopped in for a cold treat since the location opened in the late 1990s. When the previous owner was looking to retire, he found a buyer in Smith, who had worked at Kohl’s in his early 20s before moving on to other restaurant industry jobs.

“I wanted to work for myself,” he says. “I realized that I had a knack for it and that this is more or less what I was meant to do.”

 

 

With the assistance of UNC-Wilmington’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, Smith, a UNCW graduate, was able to buy the business and assume ownership on July 1, 2018.

“We hit the ground running in the busiest time of the year,” he says. “And ten weeks later, the hurricane happened. I had to navigate owning it for two months and then I had to navigate a natural disaster.”

Hurricane Florence battered Wrightsville Beach. Smith and his fiancée Tania Varela were forced to evacuate, along with thousands of their neighbors, and didn’t know the fate of their business for more than a week. Finally, after days of agonizing wait, they came back on the island to survey the damage. “My whole portion of the building was ruined from a rip in the roof that allowed water to pour in,” Smith says. On top of that, the storm effectively ended the tourist season for the calendar year and beyond.

“I was expecting an offseason,” he says. “I just wasn’t expecting a seven-month offseason.”

As Smith began the cleanup, his advisor Gloria Monroe from UNCW let Smith know about Thread Capital’s Rapid Recovery loan program designed to support small businesses dealing with disaster recovery. “It really floated me through this whole process,” he says of the recovery loan, “and allowed me to have a backflow of capital to navigate this first few months after this storm.”

 

 

Smith and Varela did most of the demolition work themselves, choosing to leverage the storm as a chance to kick-start a planned renovation to modernize the space. “We were really given an opportunity to re-do the entire store.” They painted, added new flooring, and updated the fixtures.

By the spring of 2019, Smith was still finishing the repairs—and was anxious to open his doors for the impending tourist season. “We’re just ready to be open,” he says. But that anticipation isn’t just for himself. Smith was eager to hire his seasonal employees, many of whom are UNCW students, and to once again be a part of his customers’ family traditions. He’s even contemplating opening a second location in a few years.

“I have a huge sense of pride now, being a business owner,” he says, “especially a location that has been there over 20 years. The storm didn’t destroy our business.”

Editor’s note: Kohl’s Frozen Custard reopened for business after the post-hurricane renovations on April 22, 2019.

For more information about Thread Capital’s Disaster Recovery Programs, reach out to the team directly by email: connect@threadcap.org.