Super-premium ice-cream stores, once a safe niche, have become almost as easy to find as espresso shops. So Amy Miller needed a new recipe to differentiate Amy's Ice Creams, her seven-store chain in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. To get customers inside, she decided to stage promotions on a regular basis--impromptu musical comedies, costumes and jokes, and frivolous contests. She wasn't just selling ice cream, she was selling an experience. To create that experience, she had to get the right employees and get them to behave the right way. And because their behavior needed to be inventive, unflagging, and self-initiated, they had to know what the right way was without being told.
To find those super-premium people, Amy's Ice Creams gives job applicants a plain white paper bag with instructions to do anything they want with it and bring it back in a week. Those who just jot down a phone number will find that Amy's isn't really for them. But anyone who can make something unusual from a white paper bag tends to be an amusing person who can fit in and promote the product. Applicants have turned bags into a giant cone supporting the earth, board games, works of art, and elaborate parodies ("The Amysburg Address"). One who went on to become a manager handed out $5 gift certificates to customers willing to do their best animal impression. The exercise reminds would-be scoopers that creativity, not just ice cream, is what their boss really puts a premium on, and it helped the company bring in $2.2 million in 1997.