BYU brothers build ice cream shop from the ground up

Brandon and Blake Barkdull, founders of Penguin Brothers, pose with the Penguin Brothers food truck. The brothers have had entrepreneurial skills in their blood since birth, according to their mother Leslie Barkdull. The ice cream sandwich shop’s name comes from the Barkdull brothers’ penguin-like volleyball moves in high school. (Brandon Barkdull)

BYU advertising alum Brandon Barkdull and his brother Blake, a BYU neuroscience student, have managed to scoop up success as co-founders of a Provo ice cream sandwich shop called Penguin Brothers.

The Barkdull brothers grew up sandwiched between an older and a younger brother in California. They would often make their famous cookie sandwich dessert from home.

Their mother, Leslie Barkdull, said their entrepreneurial instincts and strengths started from a young age.

“Blake was always trying to find adventure even as early as 2 years old. He thought it would be great to break two dozen eggs in my armoire to make his own breakfast and paint my new furniture orange with supposedly a washable orange marker,” Leslie said. “Brandon was always constructing things using LEGOs, paper or any materials he found around the house. I got a 3D model of our house made out of paper as a gift for my birthday from him once.”

As the Barkdull brothers got older, Brandon was always looking for ways to make money. In 5th grade, he had his mother purchase various items from a wholesale gift store. He then proceeded to sell them door to door and at sporting events until he eventually earned over $2,000, according to Leslie. 

“Blake, on the other hand, was always coming up with solutions to make the jobs he had more proficient and fun. He spent many summers on his knees painting curbs red in commercial business parking lots until he realized that sitting on his skateboard helped him paint quicker,” Leslie said.

The brothers were very close growing up. Leslie recounted specific times in kindergarten and high school when they were protective and aware of one another. These traits have continued within their business.

“’Are you actually brothers, or is it just a catchy name?’ is the most common question we get, hands down. Yes, we are and yes, it works very well,” Brandon said. “It’s a common misconception that doing business with family isn’t a good idea. Doing business with anyone is hard, and family is no exception but, if you can make it work, there are some amazing benefits.” 

The business started when Brandon decided to buy an old food truck that was being used to sell chocolate-covered frozen bananas. He called Bake, who was still in high school at the time, and proposed the idea of starting a business together, according to Leslie.

“We wanted to go straight to a storefront, but couldn’t afford it and found a truck instead. That turned out to be the best decision for us at the time because we had so much to learn,” Brandon said. “The truck model is more forgiving because you don’t need to be open every day, and it’s more focused on high-volume, short-duration events.”

While working on the food truck, the brothers learned speed was key in the food truck world and it forced them to change their approach.

“We had to figure out how we could serve a quality product in a short amount of time, which led us into the catering business,” Brandon said. “We found our niche in catering and it propelled the business forward, giving us enough money to invest in a storefront and grow the catering even more.”

After buying the truck, the Barkdull brothers went straight to the drawing board to establish their brand. Their brand name was inspired by their volleyball careers in high school.

“The name was a nickname or inside joke. We both played volleyball in high school and would dive and slide quite a bit on our stomachs like a penguin, hence the ‘Penguin Brothers,'” Blake said.

The effort and time both Blake and Brandon spent building their brand is what they attribute to their success.

“Creating a brand isn’t just about selling products, but having fun and bringing people together has helped us grow to be more than just good ice cream and cookies,” Brandon said.

As Brandon took on the marketing and finance, Blake took on operations and product, all while being full-time students. The brothers said balancing work life, assignments and tests was difficult at first. 

“The solution was to be present. When you were in class, you had to be in class and when you were in the business, you were in the business. It didn’t solve all of our problems, but it helped a lot,” Blake said.

Now, with a vibrant pink storefront tucked behind the dry cleaners on Canyon Road and Bulldog, a pink food truck parked near one entrance, the Barkdull brothers’ dream has become a reality.

“Brandon put his entrepreneurial skills to the test, and Blake brought forth his business skills and creativity. Eventually, they found a building with lots of personalities and made it their first storefront,” Leslie said. “If you go there you will understand their personalities. The decor is mostly Blake’s on a very limited budget, and the layout and a relief of Han Solo is Brandon.”

With big dreams for the future, the Penguin Brothers plan on opening more stores in Utah and Arizona and an internship program to give students the opportunity to run their own business for a summer.

“We are planning on five stores in Utah and one or two in Arizona,” Blake said. “We also want to create an entrepreneurship internship program. We want other students to have that same experience by taking control of Penguin Brothers locations to learn about hiring, inventory management, small and large-scale marketing tactics, employee management and more.”

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