Sweet tooth satisfaction: Rollies rolls into downtown Russellville
After a successful start in Florence, Rollies co-owner Ronny Juan said he knew just where he wanted to open his second location: his hometown, Russellville.
Juan and business partner Abigail Ray met at the University of Alabama as college students. They were friends first but soon began dating, and Juan said they encountered the rolled ice cream phenomenon when they would go on trips together. He said they thought the concept was “nice and unique, and it would be a fun experience to bring to this area. This is where I grew up, and it’s been the same for a good minute.” Juan had his first taste of the unique treat when he was in his teens, and from that moment, the idea of opening his own shop one day had lingered in the back of his mind.
A 2014 Russellville High School graduate, 24-year-old Juan is not a complete newcomer to small business ownership. As a child he spent many hours working with his parents in their locally-owned grocery store, Los Dos Hermanos. Wanting to go a different direction, Juan found that opening his own ice cream shop had captured his imagination.
He decided to launch his first location in Florence, leaning on the larger population in the Shoals to get a strong start. Florence Rollies opened its doors in July 2019, just a few months after he began seriously looking at the logistics in January 2019.
“I was kind of scared,” Juan admitted, as plenty of uncertainty surrounded his foray into the restaurant industry – but Rollies was immediately a “huge hit.” “Once we opened, it was jam-packed – so many people. It was long days. It was kind of exciting because we brought this here, something fun that everyone can enjoy.”
A twinge of fear continued even in the face of success, though, as Juan wondered what he had gotten himself into. He didn’t want to be in business ownership alone.
Ray was working in Atlanta at that time, but she was open to the idea of going into business with Juan; the two had continued dating since 2017. The timing was ideal: She had become burned out in her career as an exercise physiologist, and although a few other doors had opened, the Rollies door was the one she opted to walk through.
“I decided it would be a fun venture to go into,” Ray said. She used some of her savings to buy in, and the couple’s relationship added a business partnership layer. A 2013 Huntsville High School grad, Ray said moving to the Shoals from Atlanta was a big change but felt like coming home.
With the “two heads are better than one” proverb officially in play, and their success undeniable, Juan and Ray began considering a second location. Although Juan had long hoped to one day open a shop in Russellville, it was the clamor of fans that helped seal the deal.
“There was a poll one of the employees had posted on Facebook, like ‘If we opened a second location, what do you guys think? Russellville, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals?’ and Russellville won by a landslide,” Ray said. That overwhelming support didn’t spur them immediately to action – but it didn’t take long.
Ray said in their free time the couple enjoys browsing real estate, always on the look out for a new opportunity. One day Juan was touring downtown Russellville with his brother, as the family was making plans to remodel and expand Los Dos Hermanos. Russellville Mayor David Grissom was showing them a few different possibilities when “somehow the topic came up about Rollies because Mayor Grissom has been there a few times. He helped us out through this whole process,” Juan said. Grissom encouraged the pair to pull the trigger on their second location.
When Juan officially proposed the Russellville shop, Ray said she was a little hesitant at first. “Not being from here, I hadn’t come to Russellville much, so I wasn’t really sure – I haven’t been in the community. I wasn’t sure what the response would be from the community,” she said. “But everyone has been really nice out here – so helpful and so sweet. Everybody has just been very supportive.
“We just wanted to bring something that everyone could enjoy – the whole family – that would be a good, fun thing to do,” Ray added. Juan agreed, noting, “There’s not much dessert or fun things to do here.”
So they signed a lease on the restaurant space in February – and then the pandemic hit. Tentative plans to open the Russellville Rollies in May had to be tabled, and for months they were barely able to keep the doors open at Florence Rollies, with many of their employees forced to quit because Ray and Juan couldn’t give them enough hours. The couple remembers long empty days at the Florence shop, operations reduced to counter service only, with the Russellville shop on an indefinite hold.
Despite the delay, Ray and Juan soldiered through and finally made their second location a reality in August, complete with mask requirements, signs encouraging social distancing and strict health and hygiene standards behind the counter. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce helped the new business celebrate its grand opening.
“It is always an exciting day to have a ribbon cutting for a new business,” said Chamber executive director Cassie Medley. She noted a record week for the Chamber, “welcoming three businesses to the same block of downtown Russellville – Russellville Florist & Gifts, Rollies and Hair Studio 722. With each new business addition, downtown is beginning to steadily transform.
“The opening of Rollies brings excitement of a storefront along with serving unique products,” Medley added. “Their opening was perfectly timed with the summer heat, school starting and Alabama Restaurant Week Aug. 14-23. I foresee a very busy future for Rollies with after-school business paired with local restaurants, shopping and visiting the salon. Rollies definitely offers a treat of eating ‘rolled ice cream’ but also of watching your creation being made.”
When it gets down to brass tacks, Juan handles the majority of the financial side of the business, with his degree in accounting. He also handles the company’s graphic design and even rolls up his sleeves to roll up some ice cream. Ray’s focuses include more of the “people side” of the business – from advertising and customer service to dealing with vendors. Although they each have their areas of focus, “we both do everything,” Ray said. “The things I lack, he is overwhelmingly good at … We complement each other pretty well. It took a little while to get into the flow of things, but it’s very easy now to work together.”
There’s a policy Ray and Juan hold to, and to which they also expect their employees to adhere: work is work, and home is home. They are intentional about keeping their personal relationship separate from their business partnership. Although recognizing that boundary was a challenge in the beginning, the two said it has become a crucial part of their business management strategy.
“There’s a little bit of a learning curve to it, but now I think we’re pretty good,” Ray said. Juan agreed, adding, “We’re learning more as we go along.”
According to different online sources, the average age of business owners and entrepreneurs in America is between 42-50. That makes Juan and Ray, at 24 and 25, part of the smaller percentage of successful millennial business owners.
“So many people work so hard at their 9-to-5, and they save and save and save, and then when they’re in the 30s, 40s, 50s, they open their dream job,” Ray said. Their philosophy, on the other hand, was – why wait? “We get to do what we want to do every day. It’s definitely a blessing.”
Ray and Juan pride themselves on their fresh-never-frozen ingredients, and they said they try to accommodate allergies as much as possible, including gluten- and dairy-free as well as vegan offerings. In addition to rolled ice cream – with favorite preset flavors like Strawberry Shawty and Caramel Pecan, as well as a “build your own” option with a wide array of mix-in and topping options – Rollies also offers authentic Taiwanese-style boba tea and other tea drinks.
“I am East Asian by heritage, so that’s close to my heart,” said Ray, whose mother is Korean. “Living in Atlanta, I’ve had a lot of boba, and I do feel like we sell a good product. I’m very proud of our product.”
Russellville Rollies is open from noon to 8 p.m. daily except Tuesday. Ray and Juan said they appreciate everyone’s patience as they have gotten established amid the “new normal” of the continuing pandemic, and they are very excited to bring something new to the Russellville community.