Dylan Lemay’s website proudly proclaims he’s the “largest ice-cream focused digital creator in the world.” What does that mean, exactly? Stand by for details.
In the meantime, ponder the numbers Lemay is pulling in these days on his social media platforms: 11 million followers on TikTok, 3 million on YouTube, and another 317,000 on Instagram.
Which is why it’s difficult to comprehend that when Lemay got his first job at age 15, dishing ice cream at the Cold Stone Creamery in Taylor, his hometown, it was an unmitigated disaster on the very first day.
“I wasn’t a quick learner, and I was just really overwhelmed and nervous,” Lemay recalls. “I was afraid to disappoint people and let them down, and that was all kind of running through my head. I just didn’t want to mess up — and in the process of not wanting to mess up, I was messing everything up and overthinking and coming off as really annoying.”
He says he was especially bothersome when he asked questions about what seemed to be the most obvious tasks. “Like when they told me to wash the dishes and change the water, and I asked how to do that, they said take out the plug in the sink — and I asked, Where’s the plug?” Lemay says, sheepishly.
At that point, he was a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Taylor — and a kid who loved to play hockey. “I had skates on from pretty much the time I was able to walk all the way until my freshman year of high school,” he says. “That was the last year I played. It just seemed like it was time to grow up and get a job, so that’s what I did.”
When Lemay’s fledgling career blew up at that Cold Stone Creamery branch in Taylor, he didn’t even think about putting his skates back on and continuing his hockey career. “I went to the Cold Stone in the city next to us, in Allen Park,” he says blithely, “and got a job there.”
That gig worked out and he kept the job right up until the time came for him to attend college. “I grew up in a Christian household and we were taught that you have to go to college, so I thought if this is what I’m told to believe, let’s go to a Christian school and learn more about it,” he recalls. “I went to Baptist Bible College, a really small school in Springfield, Mo. I enjoyed it. It was a fun time. I learned a lot.”
Best of all, there was a Cold Stone Creamery branch in Springfield, and Lemay worked at the store throughout college. He was eventually joined by his sister, Destiny, at both college and the Cold Stone Creamery location. “She’s two years younger than me, so we went to school together for two years — her first two and my last two,” Lemay says.
By the time Lemay graduated, he was the manager of the Cold Stone Creamery store. When the time came to hire an assistant, the choice was obvious. “Destiny had grown as an employee and started taking ownership, so she earned her position and it only made sense for her to be my assistant manager,” he says.
Soon after making that decision, Lemay experienced what he calls his “tripod moment.”
“It was January or February of 2020, pre-pandemic, and I ordered a tripod for my iPhone. As I was pulling it out of the box, Destiny asked, What’s that for? And I told her I was going to become famous on TikTok. I was completely joking. I just was bored, and I needed something to do, like a new hobby, because I didn’t know what to do with my free time.”
There was soon plenty of free time to kill, of course, because everyone was staying home as the world seemed to shut down because of the pandemic.
“About a month after I got the tripod I was talking to some friends,” Lemay says, chortling, “and they were telling me they didn’t know how to cook and they were going to die because the pandemic was happening and all of the restaurants were closed.”
Lemay grabbed his tripod and went to work.
“I jokingly made a few cooking tutorial videos,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how to record them so I could use both my hands. So I took the tripod and I tucked it down into my shirt, and showed how to make hash browns and eggs. I accidentally dropped like half my hash browns onto the stove, and they were burning. It was just a mess of a goofy video and I sent it to these friends as a joke, not thinking anything of it. But that idea stuck in my head.”
Shortly afterward, Lemay had another idea for a video. “I made a gender reveal cake for one of my friends, and this was the first time I really put effort into making a video to post on TikTok,” he says.
The result was stunning. “It got 300,000 views, and so I was mind-blown,” he says. “I thought it was the coolest thing, and I was like, OK, I think I get this. I understand what I need to do.”
What he needed to do turned out to be filming a slew of additional videos while he was actually working at Cold Stone Creamery, simply going through the steps he takes during a regular shift. The response the videos generated was encouraging enough for Lemay to keep producing them.
“There was the Saturday where I had this idea,” he says. “I thought it was probably really dumb, but I was going to do it anyway. I didn’t care. I thought it was fun. So, I made this video, like it’s your first day at Cold Stone, and I talked to the viewers and I was training them, scooping out the ice cream and wearing the tripod on my neck, putting all the stuff onto the stone and mixing it up.”
He posted the video and continued work as usual.
“By the end of my shift, I had 7 million views,” Lemay says, still incredulous. “I was mind-blown. I thought it was a dumb idea, but people loved it because they’d never seen anything like it before, and they were comparing it to watching somebody play a video game. So then I made a video of your second day, your third day, all the way up to the 14th day.”
Less than two months after the video of Lemay’s gender reveal cake pulled in those first 300,000 views on TikTok, he hit 1 million followers on that platform. His career as an entrepreneur clearly seemed to be well on its way. It was virtually assured on a day Lemay will never forget.
“August 18th, 2020,” he says. “That’s when TikTok’s Creator Fund started. This was a giant chunk of money they set aside and it would be split up between the creators who had the videos with the most views. Once I got my first check from that, I realized I could make a living doing it.”
At first, Lemay thought about using the money to become a Cold Stone Creamery franchisee. “But I realized I was thinking way too small,” he says. “Instead, I wanted to start my own ice cream shop. Through the pandemic, I think one thing that’s really been lacking is just good, authentic customer experiences where you feel engaged and cared about, and somebody actually enjoys their job and getting to serve you.”
That’s how he came up with the idea for his own ice cream store, called CATCH’N Ice Cream. “We’ve all seen a bartender making a cocktail and throwing stuff around and making a fun show for you,” Lemay says. “Same thing when you go to Benihana, and the chefs have fun grilling in front of you.”
Late last year, Lemay began looking for investors to help him transform his idea into a reality. The money people clearly bought the pitch; Lemay raised $1.5 million and is scheduled to open his inaugural CATCH’N Ice Cream franchise in New York City this summer. So, what will make his place any different from the usual experience of buying a cone or a milkshake?
“As soon as you walk in, you’ll see people throwing ice cream around,” he says with a laugh. “Like Benihana with ice cream. And that might be a little overwhelming, but it’s just going to be a fun show. The goal is for you to see some fun tricks, engage in conversation, and have some fun. I’ve had 10 years of serving ice cream, so I’ve really been able to practice and refine how to make a good customer experience, and (I know) how much that can impact your day.”
Lemay, at 25, is understandably still processing his success, and how quickly it all happened.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed all the time, trying to take it all in,” he says. “My dream for a long time was just to continue to work with ice cream. Not even two years ago, I was just a manager of an ice cream shop. Now I’m opening my own shop in New York City. But that’s just the beauty of the internet these days. It can change your life quickly. I’m constantly trying to take that all in and digest it, and figure out what to do with all that information — because it’s crazy, and it happened very fast.”
Not too fast, though, for the still remarkably humble Lemay to remember how and where he got his start in the business, a scant 10 years ago. And that only reinforces his commitment to give back however he can.
“I travel to a lot of independently owned mom-and-pop type ice cream places, and I help make videos that advertise for them,” he says. “They don’t have a marketing budget or a team making all kinds of content. I’ve made friendships and I make videos with them, and just try to help support these small, local ice cream shops. I’m currently working on something big with my brand, to hopefully help do that.
“There’s enough room for all of us,” he continues, “because in the ice cream world, it’s not a competition. It doesn’t matter how big the ice cream shop or the brand that we’re creating grows; I’ll always look for ways to be there and help all these people who helped me out from the start.”