Milking life for all it's worth Connie Brown steps out of the business world into an ice cream parlor hoping to find a better family balance By Lorien Menhennett
Frank Pinc / Chicago Parent The desire to spend quality time with Keegan, 2, led Connies and Matt Brown to open an ice cream parlor in Forest Park
It's Thursday, a little after 6 p.m. "Mama, mama!" a young voice cries, the words reaching out like the little boy's pudgy arms. Connie Brown looks up from packing a scoop of pink bubble gum ice cream into a sprinkle-covered sugar cone. She smiles. Into the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor comes Connie's husband, Matt, carrying their 2-year-old son, Keegan.
It's family time.
It's common these days for parents to juggle their jobs to spend more time with their families. Some parents cut back their hours; a few choose to have one parent stay at home-not Connie and Matt Brown.
When this Forest Park couple decided they had to make family time a priority, Connie quit her marketing job but not to stay home full time. She quit so that she and Matt, who also has a full-time job, could open an ice cream parlor.
Their hope was to be able to spend more time with their son.
Sound crazy? Maybe. The Browns had never owned a business, much less an ice cream parlor. All they had was a vision that started a little more than a year ago. That, and a toddler.
Starting a new business during a shaky economy while raising a toddler might sound like a loopy plan. Some people, especially parents, might question the Browns' logic if their goal was to spend more-not less-time with their son.
But Connie feels that it works. Through prioritizing, simplifying and intricate timing, the Browns believe they've found a way to invest time, money and energy into their business, while keeping a focus on their family.
Matt, still carrying Keegan, walks up to the counter to order. "Strawberry?" he asks Keegan. "Yeah," the blond-haired boy replies, squirming with excitement. "Balderdash?" Matt asks. "No," Keegan says, laughing. He knows this is a joke. "Squiggle?" Matt asks again. "No," comes Keegan's reply. "Worm ice cream?" asks Matt. "No!" Keegan shouts.
Connie hands Matt a rainbow sprinkle-covered sugar cone and a small glass dish filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream, for Keegan, and another dish for Matt. Matt and Keegan sit down at a table, Keegan in a booster chair.
In between customers, Connie watches her husband and son from behind the counter, laughing. She considers herself lucky. In spite of her hectic schedule, she believes opening the ice cream parlor will allow her to watch more of Keegan's growing up moments.
Work with-not against-family Connie admits that her job can be tiring and stressful. There are days she wishes she could spend a whole weekend lazing around the house. But for the chance to watch Matt and Keegan laugh as her son smears ice cream all over his lips-while she's on the job-it's worth it. She works as many as 90 hours a week but feels her schedule lets both parents spend more quality time with Keegan, though sometimes at the expense of spending time with each other.
Monday, Thursday and Friday, Connie works from 6 to 11 p.m. Monday morning she does payroll and paperwork. Tuesday and Wednesday, she works from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. They split the weekend shifts.
With Connie working all day Monday through Wednesday, Keegan spends three days a week at daycare. In terms of hours, Connie doesn't have a whole lot more time with Keegan. But she says it's not so much about the amount of time as the quality of the time. "It's different time," she says. Before, it was "rigamorale"-get Keegan to daycare, pick him up, eat dinner, put him to bed. Now, Connie has all day Thursday and Friday with with Keegan.
Matt, too, says he spends more time with Keegan these days, especially when Connie is at the store. He picks Keegan up from daycare on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They often stop at the Madison Commons construction site or the dog park before heading over to the Brown Cow for a pre-dinner snack. Then Matt and Connie, along with Keegan, head home for dinner together. The other weekdays, though, it's a quick dinner, a hug and kiss for Keegan, and off to work for Connie.
"You learn to prioritize," she adds. "Giving my son a bath is probably more important than dusting the lampshades. The house tends to go by the wayside. But it's not like we do a lot of entertaining now, so it's OK. You just make it work."
And it will be a harder to make it work in December, when Connie and Matt have their second. "It should make things interesting," she says. But she has 12 employees and will take December off. The store will close for winter, Dec. 23 to Feb. 1, leaving Connie at least a couple of months with her newborn before returning to work.
Founding the cow Owning an ice cream shop wasn't always Connie's plan.
"A year ago, if someone had told me I'd own an ice cream parlor in Forest Park, I would've said they were crazy," Connie says with a laugh.
A year ago, Connie was working four 12-hour days a week as a marketing consultant with Keegan in daycare four days week. She felt she wasn't there to see much of Keegan's growing up. Meanwhile, the corporate world was tightening its belt, leaving her little room for advancement. "If I'm going to put him in daycare, I want to do it for a job I enjoy," Connie told herself. "Otherwise, I'd rather be home with him." She knew it was time to get out. But to do what?
Connie had always loved ice cream-she frequented several local parlors while pregnant with Keegan. But there was nowhere in Forest Park for families to go. She and Matt decided Forest Park needed an ice cream parlor. The couple kicked around the idea of starting one themselves, but not seriously until last summer.
On Aug. 31, 2003, the Browns celebrated Connie's birthday. It was a normal birthday celebration until Connie opened her gifts. Matt's brother gave her a white apron with "Connie" emblazoned on it, alongside a scoop of pink ice cream sitting in a cone. Her grandma gave her a picture with cows on it-a reference to a "brown cow," the traditional name for a root beer float. And, incidentally, Connie and Matt's last name.
The message? "Shut up and do it," Connie remembers with a laugh. Two months later, the Browns signed a lease for 7314 W. Madison St. in Forest Park.
That's when reality hit: In a few short months after long days of renovating, Connie and Matt would have an ice cream parlor-and a 2-year-old.
The Browns hoped family and work would be compatible. After all, they were doing this for Keegan. "We had to keep that in mind on days when we had to pawn him off on grandma and grandpa," says Connie.
Balancing child rearing and store renovating was hard. But their family, Connie says, made it possible.
A new store, a new life After spending months renovating, searching for the best ice cream, buying equipment and developing a menu, the Brown Cow opened in March. At first, it was mayhem. "I just hope and pray a routine falls into place, because there isn't one now," Connie remembers telling herself in the beginning.
With a little experience under their belts, Connie and Matt are slowly developing a routine. That's not to say everything goes according to schedule. But even when things go wrong, the Browns seem to smile, even laugh about it.
"People are always in a good mood when they get ice cream," Matt says a few minutes after he walks in the back door, home from work just in time to help Connie whip up homemade pizza before she goes to work.
"I miss being able to go out and pick up and leave, but for now, you just kinda make due," he says, sprinkling oregano over the sauce.
Matt puts the pizza in the oven. The cheese sizzles and crackles as it cooks. Keegan runs over to Connie when he sees her put on her shoes. "Bye-bye?" he asks, thinking she's taking him somewhere. "No bye-bye," Connie says, picking him up and giving him a kiss. "Mommy's going to work."
Connie, Matt and Keegan sit down to eat. "More, more, more!" Keegan chants as Connie cuts the pizza, a little overcooked but still edible, into bite-sized pieces. Connie glances up at the wall clock-she has to hurry and leave if she wants to get to work in time to start her Thursday evening shift.
Rushing off to work after a quick dinner is a bit jarring, Connie admits. But work has its rewards too.
Even facing several hours of scooping, blending, pouring and dishwashing Connie finds herself with a smile on her face. She likes talking with her customers. She likes seeing the look on someone's face when they dip into one of the Brown Cow's specialties: Baa's Fudge Fantasy, named for Matt's grandmother; Ellie's Turtle Temptation, in honor of Connie's grandmother; or Keegan's cup of worms, named for you-know-who. Down to the names of the store's specials, Connie and Matt want the Brown Cow to be about family.
"This thing would not be possible without them," Connie said. "Whether it's watching Keegan or kicking us in the rear end to [open the store]. This whole thing is a tribute to our family."
Lorien Menhennett is a writer and the editor of the Forest Park Review, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.