Pure Imagination: Museum of Ice Cream’s Maryellis Bunn
By Kerry Diamond
Anyone with a cupcake and a dream these days is called the next Willy Wonka, but Maryellis Bunn might be the real heir apparent of Roald Dahl’s most enduring character. The 26-year-old wrote her own (golden) ticket when she created a 21st Century version of the Wonka factory––the Museum of Ice Cream.
As the museum’s co-founder and creative director, Bunn is responsible for the biggest phenomenon to hit the food world since the Cronut. The Museum of Ice Cream has delighted more than a million visitors and brought in millions of dollars in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue. (How much exactly? The company won’t say.) If you’ve spent even a second on Instagram in the last two years, you have seen the museum’s punchy pastel installations: its Gummy Bear Room, Floating Cherries, Banana Swing, and now infamous Sprinkle Pool––all perfect for maximum fun, and maximum social media. “I'm super passionate about bringing people together,” said Bunn, a native Californian and self-described sugar addict who grew up watching the Food Network with her mom. “I want to create experiences.”
The museum debuted to sold-out crowds in Manhattan in summer 2016. The space was put together in 18 days of working around the clock, said Bunn, and self-financed by her and her business partner, Manish Vora. Bunn built the website, designed the installations, and prayed people would be interested. They were; so many people wanted tickets, the site crashed. Bunn was all in. “I worked the doors in the morning and cleaned the floors at night, and did the touch-ups in between,” she said.
Buoyed by their success, the MOIC team brought the project to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and back to Manhattan. Each stop quickly sold out, drawing the likes of Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry, and pretty much every lifestyle influencer worthy of her blue check.
In June, MOIC launched an adorable clothing line for kids in collaboration with Target, and last month, the national retailer became the first outlet for the museum's equally cute seven-flavor ice cream collection. Bunn called Target the perfect partner because of a shared focus on “inclusivity, accessibility, and design.” “The synergy was right there,” she said. Want to try Sprinkle Pool, Piñata, Cherrylicious, Vanillionaire, Nana Banana, Chocolate Crush, or Churro Churro before spending $4.99 on a pint? You can get a free sample from the pink MOIC Tasting Truck making stops in Target parking lots across the country.
The museum has featured unicorns in various forms––a carousel unicorn, soft serve made from unicorn milk––yet it’s their creative director who’s the real unicorn. She is both artistic- and business-minded; obsessed with both the big picture and the tiniest detail; well versed in corporate marketing jargon; and passionate about her customers and her company culture. Her obsession with guest experience is Danny Meyer-esque. (She’s never met Meyer––the powerhouse restaurateur and Shake Shake founder famous for his hospitality manifesto Setting The Table––but she would like to.)
So how did Bunn come to create such a frenzy around a frozen treat? Believe it or not, the idea first crystallized around… her loneliness. “I moved to New York City around when I was 16,” she said. “My way of existence was really none. So I was like, How do I start to build community? How do I start to figure out this behemoth of a city?” She had come to New York for college (first New York University, then Parsons) and couldn’t help but notice how many people happily stood in line for ice cream, even when it was cold outside. She wound up learning the city by visiting scoop shops in all five boroughs.
She graduated and got a “regular job” with a desk in a cubicle, but that feeling of big city isolation remained. “I would be like, I am in New York, there are so many people here, yet I still feel very much alone. So I thought, ‘This can’t just be me. How do I create experiences that can really foster human connections?’”
She thought back to ice cream. It dawned on her that almost everyone, herself included, has positives associations with the product. Her first ice cream memory? She was learning how to ride a bike. “I crashed and was under the spokes and my mom told me, ‘It’s okay. You’re going to get back up and we are going to do this again, and I’m going to take you for ice cream.’” Ice cream, she continued, is an amazing universal medium that transcends race, gender, politics, and religion. In other words, who doesn’t like ice cream?
The two-year Museum of Ice Cream adventure will inform the company’s next chapter. “The future for us is, right now, super clear,” she said. “We have two massive projects we are working on that will come out in 2019.” Each of the MOIC installations were essentially beta tests, she explained. “We have been trying things each time that people don’t see on the surface. We are very much trying to change things operationally, we are trying to change the human experience, and we are trying to change how we actually build things.”
Bunn mentioned that MOIC doesn’t just stand for the Museum of Ice Cream. It’s also the Movement of Imagination and Communication, perhaps a clue to where the brand is headed next. “The whole team thinks anything is possible," she added.
Does Bunn still love ice cream? She nodded. “It’s something that just can’t not make you happy.”
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