TAMPA, Florida — Eric Taylor seemed to have his life figured out: College (check), start his career as an engineer (check), get a good job with good pay at a good company (check, check and check.)
Then his cousin and childhood friend Antonio McBroom reached out from his college job at a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in North Carolina — and with that, launched the beginnings of a historic ice cream team.
Today Taylor, 38, McBroom, 35, and partner Phillip Scotton, 31, own 10 Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops with 125 employees across six states. That includes the first Black-owned franchises in Florida, recently opening in Clearwater Beach and at the new Midtown Tampa development with Mayor Jane Castor in attendance. Adding those stores made their business, Primo Partners, Ben & Jerry’s largest franchise operator in the country.
The partners are franchisees in a global ice cream company known for its causes — racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change and more — as much as its whimsically-named flavors like Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby.
Taylor, who will soon move from his home in North Carolina to live in Midtown Tampa, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about how it all happened — and about his partnership’s goal of creating opportunity for people of color with efforts including mentorship and diverse hiring.
Q: So tell me about your history with your now-business partner Antonio McBroom, who got you into this.
A: We actually grew up together. We went to the same recreation program in elementary and middle school but really became close in high school. I was a senior, he was a freshman. We played baseball and football.
I went to North Carolina State to study to be an engineer. He went to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
His first job in college was working in a local Ben & Jerry’s shop. They told him he could have a free milkshake every day, and he was sold. He started as a scooper and was a manager by his senior year.
I had moved to Boston to start my career as an engineer at Raytheon. I was a couple years in and Antonio reached out to me and said “Hey, I’ve got an opportunity to buy the Ben & Jerry’s I’ve been working at.” I jumped at the opportunity. We were 21 and 24 years of age back in 2008. That was our entry into Ben & Jerry’s.
Fourteen years later, (we have) 10 stores in six different states.
Q: What a leap from being an engineer. Was that scary?
A: I had a normal 9-to-5. I knew what every day was going to look like. It was extremely scary. A very scary leap.
That security blanket that engineering provided me, I thought it was really something I could retire on. I was making a pretty good living. And I was going into this land of the unknown. I didn’t operate well in the gray area, being an engineer.
(McBroom) can churn out 40 ideas before breakfast. Then I’m saying, “yeah, but what’s realistic?” We’ve always had that natural balance. I bring the practicality to it, he brings the ideas to it. It’s worked well.
Our level of closeness, and our ability to create something larger than what I was doing — to create generational wealth for the people who work for us, a bigger impact — it was one of the things that made me take that leap. I felt like I could have a greater impact working this entrepreneurial space.
Q: Where does the name Primo Partners come from?
A: Primo kind of means top notch, but it also means cousins. Antonio and I are actually related, we’re cousins, both with large extended families.
Q: What have been some of the goals?
A: We want to be a 30-plus Ben & Jerry’s (shops) operation.
One of our strategies is creating ownership opportunities for people of color. We believe very strongly in it. We all come from very humble beginnings, and we want to continue to create those opportunities for ownership.
Q: Besides your cousin’s history with the company, was there anything about the Ben & Jerry’s brand that appealed to you?
A: A lot of companies have mission statements on the wall but they don’t really resonate with you. I felt the company really stands behind all the parts of its mission statements (especially on the issue of racial equity.)
Q: How did you end up in the Tampa Bay market?
A: We acquired a shop in Melbourne in 2017. After we finished our grand opening there, we decided to drive out to Tampa. We landed at International Plaza and we were like, “Man, this is excellent, we could definitely see ourselves here.” We knew Tampa specifically had some magic to it.
We started doing some research (and) we were able to identify the Midtown development as well as a shop on Clearwater Beach.
Once we saw Midtown we knew it was the type of element we could thrive in. Midtown has this special energy. It’s been the perfect fit for us.
Q: You’ll soon be moving to Tampa. What do you think of the Tampa Bay area so far?
A: I’m a warm weather guy, so I don’t need to see the leaves change.
I love it. There’s so much to do. You have the water, the beaches, great culture, nightlife. Me and my business partners are all foodies, so we love Tampa.
We’ve been embraced by the community.
Q: Primo Partners was recently the first Black-owned company in Ben & Jerry’s history to win its Big O award for operational excellence. What was that like?
A: It was a great opportunity for us. It was just, like, the culmination of so many years of hard work.
Q: What’s next?
A: Growth. We add a couple additional stores in 2023. In the next three years, we see ourselves in that 15 to17 store territory.
We want to grow our leaders. Our people are our No. 1 asset. We owe it to our team to look at how not only to grow our business but to grow our team as well. We have professional consultants come in to work with our team so they can grow and develop.
Q: Of the 10 franchises so far, do you have a favorite?
A: I think that first one is always attached to your heartstrings. Just thinking about where we were in life when we purchased that store in Chapel Hill — being so young, making that decision that impacted the trajectory of (your) life.
Q: Are you an ice cream guy, and if so, what’s your flavor?
A: Milk & Cookies. I try not to eat too much dessert, but the Milk & Cookies gets me every time.