How Northern Kentucky’s shaved ice pilgrimage brings economic impact

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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For Kona Ice customers, the recognizable trucks are a staple of little league games, school functions and community festivals. For their franchisees, the Kona Konvention is just as beloved.

The four-day event, held last weekend, attracts Kona Ice franchise owners from across the United States and Canada into Northern Kentucky, setting the stage for one of the largest annual conventions in the region.

Overall, nearly 1,200 franchisees and employees make the trek to Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington every year. After a one-year hiatus in 2021 due to COVID-19, the convention came back strong in 2022.

This year, the convention was wild west themed and cost approximately $1 million worth of investment, founder and CEO Tony Lamb told LINK nky. Kona Ice holds their convention in February before the warm weather increases the nationwide demand for shaved ice.

The Wild Wild Kona Convention sign. Photo by Kenton Hornbeck | LINK nky

“This is so necessary for franchisees because Kona business is a little solemn,” Lamb said. “If you’re by yourself and you’re just getting started, it’s just you and a truck and maybe your wife or maybe your husband’s helping out a little bit. But it’s kind of solemn sometimes. When you get an opportunity to come in here and rub elbows with 1,200 other people that are doing what you’re doing, it is so comforting.”

Not only is the convention beneficial to Kona Ice franchisees and employees, but the influx of people also benefits the Northern Kentucky economy. The convention provides an economic boost to hotels and restaurants during the cold weather months, which could also be seen as a “slow season” for area tourism.

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“Kona leaves behind a big economic impact at the regional hotels, convention centers, CVG, bars, restaurants and shops of almost $1 million,” said meetNKY CEO Julie Kirkpatrick.

Before he was the CEO of a food franchise, Lamb sold vacuum cleaners. It was actually Lamb’s children who provided the inspiration for Kona Ice, with the help of an unprompted visit from an ice cream truck.

“I moved to a subdivision and an ice cream truck came around the corner,” Lamb said. “My kids, who had never been around an ice cream truck, instinctively just go running to the front of the house, front yard. I was really kind of perplexed and wondered, ‘How do they even know?'”

According to Lamb, the van was in pretty rough shape. This sparked a conversation between him and his wife on what type of impact the truck could have if it was nicer and staffed by someone wearing a uniform shirt.

That experience birthed the idea of Kona Ice, which was officially founded in June of 2007 in Boone County. Lamb wanted the company to be accepted by kids but respected by parents. Lamb drove the to different events and festivals in Northern Kentucky, building his company’s brand in the region. The company is a 95% event-based business, said Lamb.

“They adopted us, they loved us and if they wouldn’t have done it, I could never have had the courage or the tenacity to break it nationwide,” Lamb said. “If it didn’t work right in Northern Kentucky, it wouldn’t have worked across the nation.”

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Lamb and Kona Ice have reciprocated their appreciation for Northern Kentucky through fundraising for charities. Lamb told LINK that Kona Ice has given back over $135 million to schools, youth sports organizations and charities. In total, the company is involved with over 30,000 schools nationwide.

“We get really excited about our philanthropic involvement,” Lamb said. “As a matter of fact, when I’m interviewing people to be a franchisee, I want to hear that they’re not here to make as much money as humanly possible, but that you want to take our brand and make the place that you live a better.”

Today, the company is one of the largest mobile food franchises in the United States. Their 30,000-square-foot, $3.5 million headquarters in Florence firmly cements the operations in Northern Kentucky. The company has over 1,400 trucks on the road, from Maine to Alaska to Florida.

Last year, the company celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, a huge milestone for a local company that reinvigorated the ice cream truck concept.

“There’s always been ice cream trucks. There’s always been food trucks and things like that,” Lamb said. “But to have a shaved ice business that’s on this scale, and to be part of it, you do sort of feel like a pioneer. There’s really no one doing what we’re doing.”

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