Opinion Columns & Blogs

Doc Burnstein’s owner is one ‘cool’ guy

greg Steinberg
Scholarship day 2007 at Doc Bernstein's ice cream
courtesy photo
Bill Morem 10-15-09
greg Steinberg Scholarship day 2007 at Doc Bernstein's ice cream courtesy photo Bill Morem 10-15-09

Cut Greg Steinberger — whose alter ego is Doc Burnstein of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in the Village of Arroyo Grande — and he bleeds philanthropy.

A self-effacing man who prefers to play down his generous nature, he donates thousands of dollars a year in scholarships to local schools and his college-bound employees. He also sponsors Children’s Book Readings every Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. at his West Branch Street parlor and, since opening Doc’s in 2003, has donated almost 10,000 free pint coupons for blood drives he organizes every two months for United Blood Services.

(On this last note, donors take note: United Blood Services vans will be parked across the street from Doc’s 114 W. Branch St. shop Oct. 26, from 1 to 6 p.m. “Give a pint, get a pint.”)

A tall man with the lanky build of a cross-country runner, the 46-year-old Steinberger grew up in a small Wisconsin town south of Green Bay, where his father built farm buildings. His childhood imbued him with a love of ice cream (it was Wisconsin, after all), a sense of what a small town’s community values can accomplish and an abiding desire to escape the Upper Midwest’s harsh winters.

“So I joined the Navy,” he explains with a grin, “because they’re almost always stationed in warm places like Florida, California and Hawaii.”

Although his eyesight wasn’t keen enough to fly jets, he did the next best thing and became a naval navigator assigned to tracking submarines.

Upon discharge from the service, he took night MBA classes at UC Berkeley and then entered the corporate world as a human resources specialist. He lasted in that capacity for eight years before wanting to apply all of the aspects of his business education. That decision led him to Arroyo Grande.

“I came here to start a small business,” he explains, “saw Burnardo’z and then found out that the third owner was about ready to close his doors.”

To his good fortune, he found Chuck Burns, a former schoolteacher who had opened the Village’s Burnardo’z Ice Cream Plant in 1976. Burns mentored Steinberger in the ways of all things ice cream, and the two combined their names to form the Doc Burnstein appellation.

Steinberger also took dairy science classes at Cal Poly to further his knowledge of ice cream production.

“I tell my employees, ‘Know the science; enjoy the art.’ ”

Educating his employees, who are mostly high school students working their first part-time jobs, is just part of his strategy in producing on-site, award-winning ice cream and running a successful business.

“One of our responsibilities is to send these young people out in the world better trained than when they came to us,” he says.

Toward that end, he offers a training program for employees — from how to clean the floor, to how to interact with the public, to the company’s mission and values.

“Our mission isn’t to give our customers ice cream,” he explains. “It’s to give them a memorable experience, to make them feel good, to make them feel better.”

As he talks about his customers who come in “remembering memories or creating new ones for young ones as the train goes around,” his eyes slightly tear up. It isn’t surprising to learn that his favorite movie is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His sincerity in what he does and believes is unmistakable.

He’s opening a second Doc Burnstein’s in Santa Maria’s Town Center Mall next month with plans to expand outside the county; has an e-mail fan club that numbers 1,700 and a Facebook fan club with another 700 devotees. But his boldest vision is selling stock in his company to the public. He calls it a “community corporation concept.”

He currently has four stakeholders: customers, employees, community and shareholders. Each of those stakeholders has a representative on his current board of directors.

Under his community corporation concept, he would sell 50 percent ownership to community investors to grow the business, and he would keep 43 percent. Key employees currently own 7 percent.

Steinberger envisions that half of the company’s annual profits would go to nontraditional stakeholders that would include community and school causes, as well as employee scholarships, bonuses and awards. The other half would go to the investors.

The concept of selling shares to community investors has a template in the Green Bay Packers, a team that’s owned by the citizens of Green Bay.

In the case of Steinberger’s plan, success of the business begets success for investors and puts more nonprofit money back into the community for causes that strengthen the community’s fabric.

“I see it as a business model somewhere between nonprofit and profit,” he says. “When you support the community, the community supports you; what benefits the business benefits all the stakeholders.”

It could be an archetype as sweet and intriguing as Doc Burnstein’s signature flavor, Merlot Raspberry Truffle. Stay tuned.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.