January 29, 2020

The Wonka of Wilkinsburg

From the corner of Leona’s kitchen, an entire orchestra of people and machines working in tandem to mix, bake, scoop, and assemble ice cream sandwiches is visible

From the corner of Leona’s kitchen, an entire orchestra of people and machines working in tandem to mix, bake, scoop, and assemble ice cream sandwiches is visible. Someone dumps buckets of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs into the ginormous mixer, which keeps a steady beat as it tumbles cookie dough. Beside it, a machine cuts perfect drops of dough onto a stack of trays, which is swallowed by a huge oven. Sweetness wafts through the air as the cookies cool on a table while other staff members whip up the ice cream. The ice cream spinner fills the room with a high whir.  

bowls of ingredients in Leona's kitchen
Before Leona’s had a machine to measure cookie dough, production staff manually scooped batter for every cookie. Photograph by Molly Mitchell, Entrepreneurs Forever.

This well-orchestrated operation enabled Leona’s to churn out 154,000 ice cream sandwiches in 2019 and sell more than 120 flavors to date. Leona’s prides itself on combining its homemade, 100% real dairy and 100% lactose free ice cream and fresh-baked cookies into unusual combinations, such as black sesame ice cream on salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies; cinnamon on oatmeal lace; and key lime on graham. All ingredients come from quality vendors in Pennsylvania, including their dairy and baking ingredients. In the summer, Leona’s relies on seasonal fruit and herbs from its garden on Penn Avenue for ice cream flavors like black raspberry ripple, lavender, and blueberry lemon.   

Even on chilly mornings, Leona’s kitchen stays toasty from their industrial oven. Photograph by Molly Mitchell, Entrepreneurs Forever

Leona’s has grown into an ice cream empire, with ice cream sandwiches and pints now in 70+ stores in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Co-founders Katie Heldstab and Christa Puskarich began their business in 2013, after they received an ice cream maker as a wedding gift and Katie had the chance to make ice cream that her lactose intolerant stomach could handle. At the time, lactose free options were rare, and Katie filled the need for quality lactose free ice cream so anyone could enjoy a Leona’s ice cream sandwich.   

Katie and Christa have reached some huge milestones as business owners, such as purchasing the building in Wilkinsburg where they produce their ice cream, cookie dough, and package their products. They’ve also navigated a nightmarish equipment malfunction that resulted in 5,000 melted ice cream sandwiches – which still didn’t stop them from making their weekly deliveries around Pittsburgh. In recent years, Leona’s gained an in-house bookkeeper, a delivery truck, and new machinery that pre-measures the amount of cookie dough needed for sandwiches. In some of their bigger partnerships, they’ve also teamed up with Giant Eagle and MovieScoops Cinemas.  

Every month, Katie walks down the block from Leona’s production facility to the community coworking space where her Entrepreneurs Forever group meets. She joined her group in 2014, when Leona’s products were sold in fifteen stores in the Pittsburgh region and continuing to expand.  

“I didn’t know how to handle that beast,” Katie says.  

But in her Entrepreneurs Forever meetings, Katie received advice from like-minded business owners and learned strategies that she was able to use to expand Leona’s capacity to deliver products to more stores and manage contracts confidently.  

“I don’t have a lot of time to work on my business, so I use the meetings to do that. If no one else is talking about a challenge in their business, I’ll raise my hand and talk about my issue. But I’ve found that no matter what it is–cash flow, hiring, staff–the conversation still helps other people and might even be a relevant issue for them as well.”

Katie Heldstab, co-founder of Leona’s
hand wrapping ice cream sandwiches
Leona’s detail-oriented and swift staff assemble and package their ice cream sandwiches for weekly deliveries. Photograph by Molly Mitchell, Entrepreneurs Forever

Entrepreneur: Katie Heldstab

Business:  Leona’s

Website: www.leonaspgh.com

Social: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook

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