ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — Sometimes the best business stories come from humble, even unintentional, beginnings. Look at Facebook, if you need an example. Zach Vraa hopes his start-up follows suit.
The former North Dakota State receiver is gaining attention as an ice cream entrepreneur after a Twin Cities television station featured his budding business in a recent segment. Vraa's business, still a side hustle to his full-time job as a salesman, is called A to Z Creamery. It makes customized, unique flavors in small batches.
And sales are booming.
So how did this one-time recipient of passes from Bison star quarterbacks Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz and Easton Stick potentially become the next Ben & Jerry's? Did he lie awake at night dreaming of becoming an ice cream magnate?
"It all started last February when my mom bought me an ice cream maker for my birthday," Vraa said. "I've always loved ice cream."
Vraa, though, has always had a creative streak and became something of a social media sensation a few years back when he used Instagram to post artistic photos of food and video critiques of doughnuts. It was strictly for fun.
But when he began posting photos of his unique ice cream creations — flavors like "Lucky Charms Cereal Milk" and "Fruity Tooty Croissants and Gooey" — Vraa got requests from followers to buy a pint. He eventually dabbled in selling some, offering 10 pints at a time.
"I would have 100 messages from people and I was asking $12 a pint. I was like, 'OK,'" Vraa said.
Bison football fans know Vraa as a stalwart receiver on NDSU's early national championship teams. He was Minnesota's 2009 Mr. Football as a senior at suburban Rosemount High School and won five championship rings as a Bison, the last against Jacksonville State after the 2015 season.
Since the experimental beginning, the 29-year-old has upped his ice cream game to making 300-400 pints a week after renting space in a commercial kitchen in this Twin Cities suburb. Demand is still far greater than supply.
"Crazy, huh?" Vraa said.
And the flavors — Vraa tries not to repeat — continue to be original and distinctive, all while being made from scratch.
When he made "7 Minutes in Heaven," for example, Vraa made pans of seven-layer bars and mixed them with salted caramel ice cream.
Vraa said other favorites include "Pronto Pup," which was pancake batter ice cream with candy hot dogs and a ketchup and mustard swirl, and "Everything Bagel," which included garlic cream cheese mixed into the ice cream.
"Movie Theater Floor," which is buttered popcorn ice cream with a salted caramel swirl and mystery candy pieces.
"Middle School Lunchbox," made of PB&J Uncrustable ice cream, white chocolate chip covered clusters of pretzels, vanilla wafers and peanuts, and potato chip dust.
The only limit is Vraa's imagination. He says he's drawn often on childhood memories of favorite foods.
"I can take anything and make it into an ice cream flavor," he said. "The challenge and the fun is how can I make an ice cream taste like a food I ate as a kid. There's really nothing you can't make into an ice cream. Ice cream is a science and a math equation. Once I researched that and figured out the equation, it's not too difficult."
His fans only know that his flavors are delicious. KARE 11-TV in the Twin Cities recently did a story on Vraa showing hundreds of customers lined up around the block to pick up a pint of his latest concoction. A to Z Creamery takes online orders only and customers have a 15-minute window to pick up their ice cream outside the kitchen in which Vraa makes it.
It's still a part-time gig. Vraa has a sports management degree from NDSU and is employed full-time as a salesman for a factory automation company. He makes and sells ice cream in his spare time, with help from his wife Alex (who has a finance degree from NDSU) and his mother.
"This is hand-made, hand-packed, premium ice cream at a premium price," Vraa said. "I started out just doing it for fun, but as demand grew I had to grow. ... It's still super fun."
It helps that he sells 300 pints of ice cream in one minute on his website, www.atozcreamery.com. And it might be as fun as winning a national championship.