Mark Orenstein & Julie Orenstein are the names behind Mark & Julie's Homemade Ice Cream at 476 Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange.
I spoke to Mark, one half of the husband-and-wife team that has made the store a success since 1994.
Mark, a native of Verona, was laid off from his job in New York City in 1991. He and Julie were looking to start their own business. They considered buying a franchise, but decided against it. "You can't really make much money in a franchise," he said.
"A family friend who owns an ice cream shop down the Shore taught me the ice cream business," Mark said. Then he and Julie set out to open a store in the area. Seeing a need for an ice cream store in West Orange, they found a space available in the small strip mall along Pleasant Valley Way, just off the corner of Eagle Rock Avenue. "The location was perfect," Mark said. "Right in West Orange, close to Verona, Roseland and Montclair."
Mark reports that the store is doing well, but, like every other industry, has been hit hard by the tough economy and increasing competition from the invasion of franchised brands of ice cream and cakes into big stores like ShopRite. "It's not the same down the Shore," Mark said, speaking of his friend's shop. "People tend to shop more at local shops and the bigger stores don't carry the franchised brands, like they do up here."
Mark also said that since February of this year alone, prices for supplies (especially milk) have risen almost 13 percent.
Despite the stiff competition, Mark & Julie's has done well. They sell frozen yogurt, soft serve, cakes, ices and traditional ice cream and all of their ice cream is made in their store.
I asked Mark about how the partnership works. He said that since starting the business 17 years ago, he and Julie gravitated toward their strengths. "I run the store," he said, "and Julie handles all the finances and bookkeeping. She also deals with vendors and handles promotion."
I told Mark that as a West Orange resident, I see a steady stream of advertisements and offers for Mark & Julie's Homemade Ice Cream, in mailers and in local magazines. We talked about advertising and the new wave of deal sites.
"I've been approached by LivingSocial and Groupon." Mark said, "And five years ago, I could have done offers, but now I can't. My profit margin doesn't allow for it."
The Orensteins may not be participating in the group-buy trend, but they do keep a close eye on trends in their industry.
Last year, while vacationing in Ft. Lauderdale, the couple passed a frozen yogurt store. "Julie doubled back to look inside. Then she called me back and I said, 'No, please, I'm not trying another yogurt,'" Mark said. But a tasting wasn't what Julie had in mind. "Julie showed me that the whole store was set up as self-serve. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to try it just because it looked like fun to build my own. I don't even like yogurt."
Will the self-serve option be coming to Mark & Julie's? "We're considering it," Mark told me. "If we do it, we will add it as an option for customers, not to replace the service counter."
The Orensteins don't follow just any ice cream trend. "The mix-ins-on-a-slab trend is over." Mark said. "I never liked the idea because it's not safe for people who have allergies."
It's perfect weather for treating yourself to some homemade ice cream (if you really need a reason.) So stop by Mark & Julie's Homemade Ice Cream and support another one of West Orange's home-grown businesses.