Food & DrinkFood Features

Urban Sweets Co. Adapts After South End Closure

Kristen Stewart returns to mobile events and pop-ups despite obstacles

Kristen Stewart holds a cup of ice cream that reads "Congrats, grad" toward the camera in a kitchen while wearing an Urban Sweets t-shirt
Kristen Stewart, owner of Urban Sweets Co., serving at a private event. (Photo courtesy of Urban Sweets)

For many businesses, shuttering the doors to a storefront, especially a flagship location that had only been open for a single year, spells the end of things. But Kristen Stewart isn’t most people and Urban Sweets Co. isn’t most businesses.

Stewarts’ ice cream company, known for its Charlotte-based flavors like Belmont Banana Pudding, Plaza Midwood Peanut Butter and SouthPark Strawberry Cheesecake, began as a mobile operation from its launch.

So in November 2023, when Stewart was faced with the reality that she could not justify renewing the lease at her brick-and-mortar shop just a year after signing it, she knew she could return to her roots: a mobile pop-up business.

“It was just kind of like a natural pivot, and it’s also where we were deriving the majority of our income,” Stewart told Queen City Nerve. “The store really wasn’t doing well, but the events that we were doing [with the mobile cart] paid the bills, especially in the summertime.”

Now with the warm months approaching once again, Stewart is slipping back into her comfort zone, serving customers at a mix of private, social and business events ranging from pop-ups to farmers markets while trying to launch an ice cream subscription service that she hopes will bring Urban Sweets to the next level.

“There were a lot of great things about having a shop, and one of the great things about having the shop is, because it was so expensive, it made us really hungry,” Stewart said. “That hunger drove us to be creative, drove us to be ambitious in who we tried to attract and so we’re using those skills learned to go into this season.”

Challenges faced

Of course, no one takes closing their storefront lightly. Though she was confident in her ability to pivot, Stewart did go through a flurry of emotions when last year’s closure became imminent.

“I was very angry,” she said. “I was very sad. In some moments, I felt like I had failed. I was disappointed. But I decided at the end of [2023] that I was going to release those feelings, the negative ones, because they began to dominate everything about me and it was stifling.”

She worried about how those who helped her obtain her dream of a brick-and-mortar business, from the investors to the regular customers, would take the news of her closing. She felt as though she had failed them.

What she’s learned since the closing, however, is that her support system has been strong from the start and remains intact.

“They were all cheering me on [then] and they’ve continued to support, in a lot of instances, even though it’s just been a few months,” she said.

From inside the since-closed Urban Sweets shop. (Photo courtesy of Urban Sweets)

According to Stewart, complications with operating the shop started early. There were a number of unforeseen requirements that the business had to meet in order just to open its doors.

Located at 222 West Boulevard under The Winston apartment complex, Stewart didn’t realize that the location did not have a grease trap, which captures grease before it can pass back into the city’s water system and is mandatory for any food-service establishment in nearly any municipality.

Read More: Bulldog Taproom & Social Club Opens New Location at Winston

That was just one example of the multiple projects that needed to be completed in the shop.

Stewart spent tens of thousands of dollars on upgrades and renovations before she could open, leaving her with no money to operate. She wasn’t able to bounce back from that, as the shop never operated at a profit throughout the year it was open.

Though the business often appeared busy, it wasn’t enough to meet Stewart’s overhead, she said. Located in a busy part of town where Wilmore meets South End, Stewart thought parking wouldn’t be an issue for customers, anticipating lots of foot traffic. That wasn’t the case.

As it turned out, many of her most loyal customers were coming to see her from Northlake, Plaza Midwood and other areas where she had built a name as a mobile vendor, but the lack of parking eventually drew them away.

“I jokingly say, ‘I don’t know if we didn’t have enough revenue or we didn’t have enough customers, but either way, we had to close,’” Stewart said.

Making things harder, the shop opened in November, a less-than-ideal time for an ice cream shop.

There was one bright spot in Stewart’s short-lived shop experience that came when Cory Wilkins, a local food influencer who highlights Black-owned businesses such as Urban Sweets, stopped by the shop and highlighted Stewart’s popular ice cream options.

Selections from Urban Sweets Co. (Photo courtesy of Urban Sweets)

“He talked about us, and we literally had hundreds and hundreds of people come to our shop,” Stewart said. “We had lines down the sidewalk, like all the things that any business wants.”

The sharp rise in sales was short-lived, however.

“[Wilkins] had indicated to us that it would last about three weeks and sure enough, it lasted about three weeks,” Stewart recalled. “But that was a mighty good three weeks, and we’re forever grateful to him and to all the people who came.”

With a perfect storm of obstacles tainting her first year in the shop, Stewart said the entire venture felt doomed. She hoped the landlord could work with her as she attempted to bounce back from the rough opening, but they weren’t helpful.

“The landlords definitely encouraged me to close,” she said. “The odd thing about commercial real estate, sometimes landlords will decide that it’s better to have a space empty than to have a tenant that is either behind or can only partially pay.”

While other businesses such as Coterie Concept, Beard Papa’s and Bulldog Taproom have opened along the same strip over the past year, the space that Stewart once occupied still sits empty.

“If somebody asked me, ‘On a scale of one to 10, how successful was your entry into brick and mortar?’ I probably would give it about a three,” Stewart said.

But she didn’t fall victim to brain freeze. Stewart already knew how to make the best of her bad situation.

Future dreams and ideas

Stewart has been a small business owner for 17 years, so she’s no stranger to the ups and downs of operating a business.

She originally owned and operated Three Little Birds, a specialty print shop, but the pandemic led to burnout, and Stewart decided she wanted to operate a business that was more fun.

She hit her stride with Urban Sweets Co., through which she serves ice cream, milkshakes, popsicles, sundaes, ice cream sandwiches and a variety of mini cakes, macarons, and seasonal pastries.

tiered small cake from urban sweets
A sweet treat from Urban Sweets Co. (Courtesy of Urban Sweets)

“It’s ice cream so it’s so fun,” she said. “The customers are always nice. It’s something I’m really passionate about because, through ice cream, I can reach so many people.”

Shutting down the South End shop never meant putting the lid on Urban Sweets. In fact, Stewart insisted that was never an option because of all the people she reaches in various ways through her business.

“We want to be able to provide people their first jobs,” she said. “An ice cream shop is a great place to work. We pay a great wage, the work isn’t that hard, and people tip really well.”

While the physical location was operating, Stewart also made her shop a haven for folks battling with poverty or economic instability.

“A lot of times shop owners are hesitant about having people like that in their shop, but in my shop, they were always welcomed,” she said.

When necessary, she charged whatever customers could pay.

“I felt like that provided them some dignity because they were a customer versus someone looking for a handout,” she said. “They were welcome to stay as long as they wanted and welcome to come and have a seat whenever they wanted.”

In its current form, the mobile business handles a slew of different event types, ready to handle anywhere from eight people to 800, though Stewart did say they have the capacity to handle more.

“We have a scalable model, so if somebody needs us to feed a few thousand, we can do that too,” she said, laughingly adding, “We would actually love them to contact us immediately.”

Stewart said she operates multiple carts set up with multiple configurations; she can serve small pastries, cotton candy, popcorn, and s’mores in addition to the ice cream.

Her next goal is to get her subscription model off the ground. The Pint Pick Up subscription offers four pints per month, all different flavors, to be taken home or given as gifts.

At the time we spoke, Stewart said there hadn’t been any subscribers yet, though she plans to push it more during the warmer months.

“It’s one of my biggest disappointments, because I think it’s a brilliant idea,” she said, though she has a theory for why it hasn’t picked up yet.

delicious ice cream in Charlotte, NC
Construction Crunch — coffee ice cream with almonds and chocolate-covered toffee. (Courtesy of Urban Sweets Co.)

“One of my friends who’s a psychologist explained it to me and said people typically buy ice cream impulsively because it’s sweet. It’s on that list of things you probably shouldn’t enjoy and so to subscribe and to have that indulgent schedule kind of goes against what a lot of people believe.

“But I’m like, ‘Just order the ice cream, you’ll thank me later!’” she continued. “Just because you order it doesn’t mean you have to eat it right away, and life deserves some indulgences regularly. If the worst thing in life you’re indulging in is ice cream, you’ll be okay.”

While she waits for people to wise up to the idea of an ice cream subscription, Stewart will continue to broach new ideas for her mobile business. On March 9, she’s hosting a “Stuff Your Stanley” event at Atherton Farmers Market, capitalizing on the latest travel cup trend by inviting customers to stuff their 32- to 40-ounce Stanley cups, or any other cup of the same size, for $12.50 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

She’ll continue hosting similar events throughout the year, urging customers to stay tuned to her Instagram page @urbansweetsco for whatever she may have in the pipeline.

In the meantime, Stewart hasn’t given up on the idea of occupying another storefront. She said she will give herself a year to decide what to do next in that regard.

As for whether or not she’s hit her sweet spot as a business owner, she said she doesn’t believe she has.

“I’m such a big dreamer and I don’t know that I’ll ever hit my sweet spot, if truth really be told,” she said. “I just have such huge growth goals. So I don’t know — ask me that in five years.”

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