Screamin Brothers: The Dreamer and the CEO
Two very young entrepreneurs hope to change the world with their frozen coconut-milk desserts
by Tim Querengesser
Here’s a riddle: Is a business that works to make more money so its proprietors can do good focused on profits or philanthropy? For an answer, consider a small farm south of Lethbridge, with its fenced grazing field for cattle now vacant except for dried patties. It’s here that J.R. and Dawson Wikkerink, the founding partners of one of Alberta’s fastest growing non-dairy “ice cream” companies, Screamin Brothers, have built business success that has changed their family’s lives. To talk about their business, they took a day off from their day jobs – as honour students in grades 7 and 8 at Gilbert Paterson Middle School – on a warm afternoon last June.
Photograph Shaun Robinson
“I started it in 2010, after the earthquake in Haiti,” J.R., 14, says of Screamin Brothers. He’s joined on the back deck by Dawson, 12, and his parents and investors, Wayne Wikkerink, 51, and Anne Wikkerink, 45, who are also heads of Screamin Brothers’ shipping, packaging and general labour departments. Nearby are his two adopted brothers, Joseph, 6, and David, 4. They may be small, but they are nonetheless the catalysts for the business’s rather unbelievable story.
Back in 2010, that earthquake in Haiti claimed a quarter of a million lives. Joseph and David were born there, but while Joseph had already come to the Wikkerink household, David was still in Haiti. The disaster and David’s exposure to it – he was forced to live in a tent, and came down with cholera – had a profound effect on J.R.’s psyche. Suddenly his hobby business idea, to sell coconut-milk based “ice cream” (which he’d made that way only so Dawson, who’s lactose intolerant, could eat some), took on a new purpose. “Joseph had just come home from Haiti and David was still there, so I wanted to do something to help his orphanage,” J.R. says. “There was 40 kids there. You could see the devastation that had happened – it was very moving – and you couldn’t do anything about it.”
- Four-year-old David Wikkerink provided the inspiration for it all
- J.R., with Wayne still working
- Joseph offers the narrator a frozen treat
- Family portrait
- Dawson explains the production process
- The Lego room that started it all
- Wayne and Dawson walk supplies to one of their delivery trucks
But J.R. did do something – he donated his profits. And this wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knows him, or who knows how he and Dawson solve problems together. For instance, when they were nine and eight, respectively, the pair wanted an expensive Lego set, which Anne told them they could have as long as they paid for it themselves. With seed money from their grandma in Victoria, J.R. dreamed up a plan to buy chickens and purebred cattle, and then Dawson figured out how to turn a profit – by calving the pregnant cows and selling the new, larger herd, as well as the chickens, for more than they’d spent. The Lego was bought and an odd but successful business partnership was built: J.R., the big-sky, philanthropic dreamer, and Dawson, the small-details CEO. Fittingly, after the earthquake, and after David was successfully adopted, and after Screamin Brothers continued to grow, J.R. realized he could scale up his philanthropy to – as he says all the time – “help more kids,” by donating five per cent of net profits to charities. In order to make his brother’s dream more powerful, Dawson found ways to make the business more profitable.
“It’s the same pattern, right?” says Anne, beaming, as she and Wayne reflect on what their sons have achieved. “J.R. is like, ‘Dawson, you take care of the money part – this is what I love to do, and it’s not money.’ You look at Dawson and he’ll tell you the margins on every raw ingredient, on every label and lid. He’s just as passionate, but he doesn’t show it. He’ll go up to J.R. and say he gets it all, he wants to help kids, but in order to do it, you have to make money. J.R. will come up with this flavour and Dawson will say, ‘Well, what are the costs?’ ”
Dawson’s transition lenses lighten as he steps into the small shed that houses the Screamin Brothers’ walk-in freezer, during a tour of the production line. “This is where the actual storage takes place,” he says, as Joseph and David plunk around, politely, asking repeatedly to eat the “ice cream.”
“This really got cleaned out,” says J.R., looking inside, where Wayne, now wearing a vest, is working feverishly loading and packing boxes.
“Most of it’s now in the freezer truck,” Dawson says. “After it’s in here and, like, we get orders, our dad goes on distribution, so it goes onto the freezer truck over there and after that, pretty much it’s on to store shelves.”
Though they’re young, J.R. and Dawson are nonetheless capably running a very real and growing processed food business. Wayne says the business is currently doing monthly sales of between $15,000 and $20,000, with profits around $15,000 annually. The business is also facing growing pains. In a nearby processing station, in what used to be the house’s garage, a new mixing machine that can process up to 600 litres of finished product per day (far more than their old, unloved mixing machine) has cost a lot of money. It has also caused delays as they learn to use it, slowing production of their 11 flavours of bars and tubbed frozen desserts.
They’re now playing catch-up on deliveries. Those deliveries are made using the single refrigerated trailer that Wayne pulls behind his diesel pickup to retailers throughout Alberta and B.C. And they have increased markedly since early 2013, when J.R. approached Save-On-Foods and Wayne sealed the deal by visiting the store’s purchasing manager at its headquarters in B.C. (J.R. was in school), earning Screamin Brothers access into all of the company’s stores in Alberta. The still-growing demand mirrors what J.R. and Dawson first saw at the farmers’ market, where they sold out every time they brought their frozen desserts, made with local ingredients and sold in plastic wrap, and heard comments about how needed such a product was. Wayne attributes the demand to a growing segment of the population that, like him, as well as Dawson and Anne, are looking for traditional-tasting foods that are free of certain allergens, like nuts, gluten or dairy.
The change all of this has created is obvious on the farm. What used to be a beef and poultry operation has become a coconut-milk frozen treat plant, and Wayne and Anne confirm that their still-existing farming pursuits have fallen into the background. In fact, Wayne says that this year, despite the business still being a startup in his eyes, it will account for the majority of their household income.
But is it, well, strange to have your own business be one that your preteen son started? “If you said to us five years ago we’d be making organic ice cream out of coconut milk in southern Alberta with our kids … yeah right,” he says. “But whether the idea comes from a longtime businessman or a kid that’s thinking outside the box, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got a purpose beyond making money, the business flourishes.”
For the kids, the biggest changes have been to their schedules. “Rather than just doing nothing all day after school we come home and we actually work with the business, make product, packaging,” says J.R. “I like the work-a-lot part,” Wayne says, chuckling. “Don’t forget the Lego, and the video games and the trampoline,” Anne says, ribbing on the boys. “Our schedule definitely changed. Can I say that?” Dawson says. “I definitely don’t want to [stop going to] school because I really enjoy school, but it’d be nice to keep expanding.”
As if the thoughts – expansion and increased profits – have been placed in his head by Dawson, J.R. adds to them his guiding dream. “If we can help all the kids in the world, that would be the biggest goal for this company.”