‘Treating’ Frontline Hospital Workers
Maryland Smith Alum Gives Ice Cream to Doctors, Nurses
Mike Weber ’14 didn’t have gloves or masks to help his wife and her colleagues treating COVID-19 patients at a Philadelphia hospital. What he could offer was even cooler: ice cream.
Weber and Vedant Saboo, co-founders of the fruit-based ice cream company Frutero, soon dropped off 1,000 servings of their treats in two weeks to staffs at seven area hospitals, and have since launched an online order business to expand their ability to donate more. For each ice cream a customer ordered online, the co-founders pledged to donate one to hospital staff.
The effort has grown so fast that Weber and Saboo bought oversized freezers so they could store the ice cream at home, and package and ship online orders themselves, while also making deliveries to hospitals.
“Mike called and I said we’d love ice cream—I don’t know anybody who would turn down ice cream,” said Jessie Reich, a nursing executive at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who has worked with Weber to distribute multiple donations to hospital staff.
“The donations we’ve received from the community, from Mike included, have been so appreciated. The food and the donations themselves are really wonderful, but it’s just the feeling of support from the community that has really made a difference to our staff,” she said.
Weber plans to keep it going until the pandemic ends, not the only unexpected turn in his career. He never pictured himself in the ice cream business at all. He double-majored in finance and biology at the University of Maryland, then worked as a consultant for Deloitte for four years. After he took a job at a technology startup in the craft beer industry, the entrepreneurial bug bit.
“I worked closely with the founders, and I thought their story was just amazing,” Weber said. “I really wanted to have an exciting journey for myself.”
In fall 2018, Weber entered the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, determined to launch his own startup. On the first day of class, Weber serendipitously found himself seated next to Saboo, who had come from India with the same goal. They teamed up and began meeting daily to brainstorm business ideas. Then, that December, Weber took a class trip to India, where Saboo insisted he try the phenomenally popular fruit-based ice cream. The ice cream was so good, Weber and Saboo thought it just might be the startup idea they had been searching for.
“Initially we thought this would be a niche Indian product, but these fruits are super common in all tropical regions—India, Southeast Asia, Latin America,” said Weber, who grew up in Connecticut, unfamiliar with some of the fruits he now features in his ice creams. “There are so many people from those regions in the U.S. who just can’t get these fruits. We’re really able to serve those customers and a need that no one has been able to serve for them. And we want to bring these flavors to the U.S.”
They developed their ice cream using recipes from Saboo’s mother and testing them with their classmates. They source the fruits for their flavors—mango, guava, coconut, passionfruit and guanabana—from farmers in Columbia and Thailand and vowed to be transparent about all of their ingredients.
Weber and Saboo spent the summer of 2019 with a goal just to get a product to market. They worked out a barter agreement with a local Philadelphia company that makes pints of ice cream, trading his consulting services from skills he learned at Maryland Smith for small-batch production of Frutero ice cream. Recently, they moved production to a large manufacturer in Baltimore. And Bassett’s, one of the country’s oldest ice cream companies, now distributes Frutero to nearly 500 retailers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
This summer, Weber and his wife will move to Miami, where she’ll start an ophthalmology residency and he’ll expand Frutero’s business in the South. Saboo will move to New York to continue to grow the business in the Northeast.
“What’s really been solidified in my mind is the importance of having a connection to the community that we serve,” said Weber. “What I’ve seen through COVID is that we really are all in this together.”