1. Art

I Scream. You Scream. The Meltdown At The Museum Of Ice Cream

Maryellis Bunn, 28, built a business that promised customers happiness, sprinkles and ice cream. The playground-meets-art installation was an instant hit with the Instagram generation. But ex-employees say that a darker reality lives under the gauzy filters.

Amid the complete disruption of brick-and-mortar commerce over the past decade, social media generated a highly-ironic byproduct: the made-for-Instagram retailer. Perhaps none embodied that better than the Museum of Ice Cream, founded by then 24-year-old Maryellis Bunn in 2016. Certainly not a museum, and only marginally about ice cream, the MOIC is essentially a 3-D selfie background, where the likes of Beyonce, Katy Perry and Kevin Hart (and thousands of tweens and teens who try to emulate the A-list) pose atop unicorn statues, take portraits in a rainbow tunnel, and swim in a pool filled with nearly 100 million plastic sprinkles.

As silly and ephemeral as it sounds, the MOIC was also a high-flying business. Last August Elizabeth Street Ventures and Maywic Select Investments, which also backs Peloton, agreed to give the company $40 million in a deal that valued the parent Figure8 at $200 million. The numbers aren’t there—total revenue for the entire four-year life of the company has only hit an estimated $10 million. Instead, those investors were buying into the hype. Limited-time pop-up installations in cities across America fomented sell-outs and waitlists, with Bunn emerging as the “Millennial Walt Disney” (according to New York Magazine), who operated a company with “Willy Wonka flair” (per the New York Times). Forbes named her to its 2018 30 Under 30 list.

This rainbow, however, doesn’t end with a pot of gold — from all indications, the Museum of Ice Cream is melting down. Spending was slashed in January. In March, Bunn temporarily closed the permanent installations in New York and San Francisco, and laid off around 200 workers. This morning, Bunn is holding a town hall to lay out her plan to reopen to the public by the end of this month, pending Phase 3 changes. That’s already a Herculean problem: the pandemic makes the prospect of jumping into a perpetually-trafficked vat of colored plastic about as appealing as licking the restroom faucet. 

But interviews with more than 20 former employees, most of whom worked directly with Bunn in MOIC headquarters, several still at the company right until March’s layoffs, point to a culture problem that cuts across the company. At this paean to everything sweet, they say that Bunn manages by intimidation, verbally accosting employees and publicly berating them for mistakes, while ignoring the expertise of older, more experienced hires. And above all, these employees say, she displays hubris without the talent to back it up. Icarus, with a dollop of whipped cream.

The way Bunn framed it, the MOIC has always centered around the idea of a happy, inclusive community, to “bring people together under a universal love or experience,” she said last year.

For a few years, she appeared to deliver on that vision: Pop-ups in New York, Miami and Los Angeles led to a limited-run installation in San Francisco in 2017 that never closed. This past December, with exquisitely poor timing, Bunn took over a 25,000-square-foot Soho space formerly occupied by H&M for the museum’s flagship location. Let real museums charge 20 bucks to stare at Van Gogh or Matisse — her customers, at least those above the age of 2, would fork over $39 for endless selfies (and, yes, one small scoop of ice cream).

“I always compared it to a creative studio, production company—like Pixar created Toy Story but they could use that creativity to create other things,” says Will McClelland, who led the round for Elizabeth Ventures (and is a college buddy of Manish Vora, the MOIC’s president, and Bunn’s fiance). “The people that created MOIC were creating and can still create other concepts that would resonate in the world of live entertainment.”

Bunn likes to burnish her bona fides as a visionary with a large dose of Horatio Alger. It doesn’t really wash. A member of the Bunn coffee maker and banking family, she lived in Laguna Beach, California, before moving to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design. After working on trend forecasting at Time, Inc., pondering Millennial experiential opportunities, she had the same epiphany that has continuously reinvented the Big Apple: “New York has institutions that have been around forever but there’s nothing new.” Bunn had enough resources to bootstrap MOIC’s first pop-up, with Vora, now 40, a former investment banker and onetime CEO of Lightbox, a different experiential event company, chipping in. They self-funded until last August, naming their company Figure8, based on the symbol for infinity. “The mantra of Museum of Ice Cream is ‘anything is possible,” Bunn told Forbes.

From those early days, Bunn was obsessed with becoming the next Disney (which she named as her only direct competitor in her late 2017 Forbes Under 30 vetting questionnaire). At the outset, she created her own “brand book,” which dictated that everything play off a distinct bubblegum-pink tone (Pantone 1905C). She also idolized Steve Jobs. “We are releasing things in staggars, right?” she told a company meeting last September in a recording obtained by Forbes. “If iPhone 1 was the exact product they put on iPhone 10 do you think Apple would still be around?”

Steve Jobs was a famously obnoxious and detail-oriented boss. People followed him because he delivered the goods, brilliantly, and challenged his employees to be great, brilliantly. Bunn, it seems, fell short on the brilliance. But she fully embraced the obnoxiousness and compulsion which, a score of people who worked for her say, creates a huge management problem.

Bunn insisted that everyone at the company choose ice cream nicknames like “Strawberry” and “Caramel” that they were expected to use instead of their real names. (Yes, emails sent to addresses like “[email protected]” would go to an actual person.) Bunn’s self-chosen moniker was “Scream.”

“I would regularly go on walks to just cry. We had one room that was the ‘crying room’… or we would go into the utility closet if that was taken,” says a former designer in headquarters, referring to interactions with Bunn. Bemoans another ex-employee: “Even though she’s half my age, Maryellis scared the f—k out of me.”

Before the layoffs, Bunn called her weekly company town hall “Scream Sesh,” and they lived up to the name. In one such session last fall ahead of the Soho launch, four employees who were there reported that she yelled at her staff and told them if tickets did not sell out in 24 hours, all of their jobs were on the line. MOIC denied this event occurred.

Individually, employees report even harsher encounters. In anticipation of a Miami pop-up opening in December 2017, for instance, a designer presented Bunn a uniform option with shorts. The designer alleges Bunn responded, “We absolutely cannot have shorts because fat people’s legs are disgusting.” Another time a source says she spotted a plus-sized muralist on the job and reportedly asked, “Why do we pay her to eat?”

Former HQ staffers say “pathetic” was a common piece of feedback, and designers say Bunn would rip up their work in frustration. Many report insulting off-the-cuff remarks, too. ”In one of our one-on-ones she said, ‘I really need to tell HR to hire smarter people. I’m getting dumber in this office,’’’ recalls former vice president of creative operations Francesca Wade.

Through a spokesperson, Bunn denies all these anecdotes, specifically saying she never considered shorts though pictures show employees wearing them. The spokesperson also broadly denied all allegations of bullying, verbal harassment, and poor workplace conditions at MOIC. Forbes requested an interview with Bunn; through a representative, she instead provided a written statement: “We stand for inclusivity, connection and imagination at Figure8 and Museum of Ice Cream… Although we may disagree with many of the statements made by the anonymous sources for this article, we are committed to looking for ways to grow and improve in how we live out our values in the day-to-day.”

In recent months, amid the nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd in May, Bunn flubbed publicly. She erected a bubblegum pink mural in front of the MOIC flagship store in Soho, one ostensibly meant to support Black Lives Matter. Hundreds of Instagram users called the stunt tonedeaf, criticizing the choice to use MOIC’s signature pink instead of black, and for misspelling the name of Ahmaud Arbery, a slain, unarmed Black man.

Bunn’s former employees joined the pile-on, using the meltdown as an opening to air long-held grievances about Bunn’s mistreatment of her staff. “You [would] continually refer to an imaginary ‘poorly performing,’ assistant as ‘Shaniqua,’” Madison Utendahl, MOIC’s former head of content commented in a public Instagram post.

Through a spokesperson, Bunn denied Utendahl’s account. To her Instagram fans, she apologized for the mural, writing in a caption, “I am very sorry and hope you will find it in your heart to accept my sincere apology.”

Former salaried staffers interviewed by Forbes aren’t buying her remorse: “I’ve heard so many performative apologies from her and she never changes,” says one, who notes that ubiquitous NDAs have kept many from speaking out about Bunn’s behavior before now.

For all the criticism from her team at headquarters (she carries a 7% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor, where the average is 69%), the company’s hourly workers—approximately 100 each in San Francisco and New York, in addition to staff for pop-ups—paint an even bleaker picture. Forbes received a letter on June 14 from “Many Melted Scoops,” a pseudonym representing what claimed to be “a united group” of one-fifth of the flagship Museum’s hourly employees. The three-page letter listed 16 specific grievances against Bunn.

Many of these workers, hoping to work their way up to salaried positions, had experience doing other service jobs or physically-demanding theatre work. But those interviewed say conditions were unlike anything they’d witnessed. The workers in New York say this was exacerbated by the museum’s proximity to the Manhattan headquarters, where Bunn’s frequent drop-ins ensured her management style trickled down to the museum managers. Security cameras streamed straight to Bunn’s phone as well as rooms with wall-to-wall screens, where managers would radio employees if they didn’t like their demeanors. The company claims that “Security cameras are installed in areas where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy” and that employees were aware.

Several workers also said they were expected to smile, sing and dance ice cream jingles for eight hours straight — without bathroom breaks. According to these staffers, budget tightening meant there often wasn’t enough staff to cover for anyone during a shift. “I have a chronic stomach condition and I had to explicitly say ‘I’m about to crap myself on the floor’ to get one of my managers to just take over scooping ice cream for me for five minutes,” says a longtime museum employee. “It was humiliating.”

Another hourly employee says that she needed to go to the bathroom to change her tampon, and had to announce over her radio walkie-talkie that she was on her period. She says she was instructed to “hold it.” Four hours later someone relieved her and by that point, she says, she had become nauseous and bled through her pants. She claims she later contracted an infection and that she wasn’t the only one to have a similar experience. She says that two female managers would later suggest that she could change tampons or pads in the hallway, since there were no cameras.

An MOIC spokesperson said there was no report of either of these incidents and that employees can take bathroom breaks at anytime: “Protocols are in place to provide a healthy work environment for everyone.”

Museum employees allege that Bunn’s deputies, Vora and head of production Gabrielle Yacoob, both of whom sit on the board of Figure8, also made frequent appearances to nitpick workers. On one such occasion this past winter, Vora allegedly instructed a worker to head out into 20 degree weather to convince passersby to buy tickets — without a jacket or hat because they weren’t an MOIC-approved shade. The witness claims that Vora said: “That’s what we pay you for.” (MOIC refutes this story, saying that employees expected to go outside are provided with jackets.)

Then there was the point system. Large companies like Walmart, AT&T and Tyson can use such scales to track hourly workers’ attendance, but according to the pink-hued manager rulebook obtained by Forbes, non-salaried employees (the bulk of Bunn’s workforce) receive points, or fractions of points, for everything from untied shoelaces to missing work for being ill—explicitly stating that even if a doctor could provide a note confirming the employee was truly sick could not excuse an absence. Explains Chris Statzer, a former San Francisco and New York front-of-house staffer: “If we were sick, we were still expected to come even if we were handling food. Or else we get strikes, and then three strikes, you’re suspended.” Responds the company: “This is false, per labor law(s), employees have paid sick leave and protocol in place for applicable shift covers.”

Even before the pandemic and despite the millions raised in August, Bunn’s company was showing signs of financial strain. She’d gone over-budget on Soho (the company claims they simply “changed the initial plan”) and with San Francisco upgrades (including building a bar that ultimately failed to get a liquor license), while planning expansions to Las Vegas, and into Asia. And she poured time in resources into another experiential project called Hiatus, which in a brand book obtained by Forbes promised visitors would “traverse time’s waves, encountering a surreal mix of futuristic and nostalgic environments.” Corporate credit cards with zero balances were getting declined in January; austerity measures including a hiring freeze were implemented that same month (MOIC denies they were in financial trouble). The head of finance eventually jumped ship in March. And then came Covid.

In a recent Ad Age podcast, Bunn talked about doing digital ice cream classes with customers while the museums have been closed, as well as peddling $60 at-home experience kits. Good luck with that. The now-ludicrous $200 million valuation was based on the idea that the MOIC could expand into other creative experiences and product lines, towards infinity. An easy and obvious one from 2018: a line of MOIC-branded ice cream pints in Target. “The ice cream sales completely tanked,” says a longtime employee who worked on the Target ice cream partnership. “The ice cream did not sell so that was a huge loss.” MOIC denies that the partnership failed, but Target confirmed that the pints are no longer sold on its shelves. The infinity-minded Museum of Ice Cream, in other words, couldn’t expand into ice cream.

Even if they could, they’d need someone to sell it. “Everyone’s had bad bosses,” says a former employee who will not mourn MOIC if it becomes a casualty of the pandemic. “I’d try to hammer home: something about this place was different. It was everything they stood for and everything they projected was so false. It was this pink, Kombucha-on-tap, millennial shitshow nightmare.”

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