Leading Ladies: Amy Simmons of Amy’s Ice Creams puts customer service first

Sarah Montgomery

Walking into an Amy’s Ice Creams is an experience. In each location, an old photo booth sits in the corner, and numerous cow figurines line the brightly colored walls. Employees, or “scoops,” effortlessly toss ice cream and toppings into the air, catching the finished product in cups and collecting tips from an audience of customers. Austinites have become familiar with Amy’s, but the eclectic business did not originate on a farm in the South or on the streets of Austin. Rather, it started when Amy Simmons, a premed student from Michigan, fell in love with ice cream.

While studying premed at Tufts University in Boston, Simmons, the CEO and founder of Amy’s Ice Creams, started working at an ice cream shop called Steve’s Ice Cream to help pay for college expenses. She quickly learned that the business of ice cream was much more than a simple treat. 

“I can’t explain what ice cream is,” Simmons said. “It’s not a food. It’s just this opportunity to take part in great moments of humanity.”

It was superb customer service that compelled one customer to write Simmons a note. The customer’s husband had recently been diagnosed with cancer and, upon returning from the hospital, the woman and her stepsons, made a stop at their local ice cream shop to try and escape the stress. 

“The employee engaged them, there was a dialogue that started, and they ended up having a really good time,” Simmons said, wiping forming tears from her eyes. “They had just come from the hospital, and it was horrible for everybody, and that moment in the ice cream shop just changed
their relationship.” 

These types of moments and human interactions, Simmons said, are a part of what drove her to open her own ice cream shop with a small, community-driven business model.  

After finishing college in Boston, she moved to Austin because of the similarities it had to her home city of Ann Arbor, Mich., and its ideal climate for selling ice cream.  

In 1984, she wrote a check for her first location on Guadalupe. She has since opened 14 other locations. 

While Simmons’ emphasis on positive customer service dictates how the business is run, the decoration of the stores and creation of ice cream flavors are decided on and carried out by her staff.

“My skill is really creating an environment where people can contribute,” Simmons said.  “I believe humility is one of the most important qualities of excellence because humility is that you’re constantly learning that other people can do it better than you.”

After running the business for six years, Simmons decided to attend graduate school at McCombs, both to catch up with the business world and to network. She said that the critical thinking she learned at UT was vital to her success.

One of the classes Simmons cites as being crucial in developing her critical thinking skills was a negotiations class taught by management and accounting senior lecturer Gary Cadenhead.

“She was not hesitant to express her opinions, and her opinions were good,” Cadenhead said. “The experience she had was invaluable. She could speak knowledgeably about the real life situations she faced.”

Simmons’ greatest inspiration and mentor throughout her life has been her mother, whom Simmons said is highly academic and intelligent but keeps her family her top priority.

“None of my peers’ moms worked, and my mom felt a lot of guilt,” Simmons said. “But I felt pride. I was so proud of her and I was so happy she raised us for independence.”

Simmons, a mother of three, tried to use this philosophy of independence and work ethic when raising her own children. Her oldest daughter, Emma Bleker, is now a psychology and English freshman at the Honors College of George Mason University.

“My mom has always been this incredibly inspirational woman for me by her ability to juggle family and work and do it well,” Bleker said. “Not a lot of people know how to function on their own out of high school, and the tools she gave helped me live independently without being terrified.”

Simmons said she worked to break the barrier between work and home. She wanted to have a fluid relationship between running Amy’s and parenting. 

“I have a lot of male shareholders, and this one would call and say, ‘Now that you’re having kids, who is going to run the company?’” Simmons said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to run the company.’ So I really dug my heels in and said I could do it all.”

When offered money to sell Amy’s, Simmons refused and said she would take nothing for it. She said she plans to keep Amy’s a community-driven business and does not consider expansion a goal.

“It’s a vehicle, not an end,” Simmons said. “It’s a vehicle to impact people’s lives.”