By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
It makes sense that once you’ve established a fitness product business successful enough to find its way into high-end retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, your next logical entrepreneurial step is to buy and operate an ice cream shop.
It does if you’re Kodi Berg, founder of EQUIPT fitness products and, for the past year, co-owner of Ojai Ice Cream, a downtown institution where, as a Nordhoff High School student, she filled many a cone and cup, never imagining she’d one day be running the place.
But for this high energy business owner and product creator — and former model and actress — combining the sweat with the sweet, as it were, makes perfect sense.
“Even though the fitness and ice cream businesses are separate,” she says, “I think there is a similar ethos: Don’t overthink things, just go with it and enjoy it. For working out, just move the body. For ice cream, just savor it.”
And there are many who have savored the sweets offered at Ojai Ice Cream, now in its fifth decade. That includes families who bring their youngsters (as Kodi’s parents once brought her) into the shop to sample an array of homemade flavors, many infused with locally produced ingredients.
Indeed, the “local” aspect of Ojai Ice Cream — and not just the ice cream itself — is what drew Kodi and her husband, film producer Jon Berg (Elf, Wonder Woman, Aquaman), to become store owners in May 2021.
“We love it because of the social and community aspect,” says Kodi. “Ojai is such a tight-knit community where people know and care for each other. One of the most fun parts of being in the store is when someone comes in and says, ‘I remember going camping with you,’ or when former neighbors stop in to say hi.”
“It’s a joyous place to be — the store and the community,” adds Jon, a skilled chef who makes nearly half the store’s ice cream supply himself using a traditional Italian ice cream machine. “The people in Ojai are so down-to-earth and have such a wonderful spirit. In Hollywood, you have a lot of egos, frequent disappointments and maybe the occasional success — and it can be trying. But at the ice cream store, people come and they’re already smiling, already in a good mood, anticipating what they’re going to have. Then they get their cone or cup, you add a few extra sprinkles, and they’re thrilled. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place where there is so much happiness?”
A family operation
Happy is indeed the vibe conveyed at Ojai Ice Cream, and why not? Beyond the array of tempting ice cream and candy is the presence and spirit of a true family enterprise involving three generations — and not by accident.
“Before Jon and I bought the shop,” Kodi says, “we sat down with the kids, right on the floor of the store, and said, ‘If we do this, everyone has a role, everyone participates.’ The kids, of course, were super-excited — I mean, Mom and Dad were going to own an ice cream store, right? What kid wouldn’t love that?”
Which is why, in addition to Kodi at the counter and Jon in back making the ice cream, it’s not uncommon to find 17-year-old Miles, 14-year-old Teddy and 5-year-old Lola in the store on a regular basis, welcoming, serving and thanking happy customers.
“Lola stands with me at the register and is our greeter,” says the proud mom. “She must say hi, look people in the eyes and say thank you for coming. She also has mastered the art of tasting the birthday cake ice cream and loves to ‘organize’ the candy on the shelves.”
Miles and Teddy both “love to scoop,” and Teddy recently started the store’s TikTok account “and had a blast” making videos. A niece also works in the store, while Kodi’s mom Kathi makes the fudge, and “is always here,” says Kodi, “helping with scheduling and ordering supplies.”
More recently, film producer-director-screenwriter Will Gluck (Easy A, Peter Rabbit), his wife Trista Gladden and their two daughters — close friends of the Bergs and fellow lovers of Ojai — became part of the family as full business partners, right down to the scooping.
“We like to keep everyone involved,” says Kodi, “not just working but also helping to decide what candy to sell and what merchandise to create, and contributing to our ultimate goal of making sure everyone who comes in have not only good ice cream but a really fun time.”
“A real joy”
A native of small-town Wyoming, Kodi moved with her family to Ojai when she was 4, which meant a lot of trips over the years to Ojai Ice Cream. As a high schooler, she was one of hundreds of teens who worked in the shop during the three decades that Doug and Donna Rydbeck owned the place.
“Kodi was a real joy, probably one of my top five favorite employees,” smiles now-retired Doug Rydbeck (a.k.a. “Scoop Doug,” as nicknamed by the Berg children). “She had an outgoing personality, a lot of energy and was great with the customers. It didn’t surprise me that she had success in modeling and acting.”
Kodi started modeling in high school, continuing that work while she attended San Diego State University for two years as a communications major. Then she turned to acting, landing parts in feature films, guest appearances on primetime series, and a six-month role as Dr. Maggie Wurth on General Hospital. In 2011, she met future husband Jon, married him in 2015 and found a delightful new role as “bonus mom” to Teddy and Miles. After giving birth to daughter Lola, Kodi launched her fitness product line, EQUIPT, which “took off” in 2019, and is now in Saks, Pottery Barn and, “hopefully soon, at Ojai Valley Inn,” says Kodi.
After establishing a second home in Ojai, the Berg family made regular family trips to Ojai Ice Cream, where they learned Kodi’s former boss planned to sell and retire.
“Kodi’s love for working at the store, the fact that she had a lot of happy memories, and her strong connection to Ojai told me she was a good candidate to take over the shop,” says Rydbeck.
His former employee admits she was “caught by surprise” by the offer. “But the more we looked at it,” she says, smiling, “the more we liked the idea.”
The sale and transition were “very easy,” says Rydbeck, “no problems at all. And they’ve got the shop under control very nicely.”
Maintaining a tradition
Indeed, just over a year after taking over, the Bergs have put their own stamp (or scoop) on Ojai Ice Cream, stressing locally-supplied fresh fruits and flavorings from area farms and orchards, and organic dairy products from Straus Family Creamery in Petaluma and Challenge Dairy in Ventura.
Jon — who comes in at least once a week to make “50 gallons or so” of ice cream — has “redesigned” the shop’s lavender ice cream as “honey lavender,” using organic lavender buds. He also puts (among other ingredients) real black cherries and high-quality chocolate into his other tasty concoctions.
“We’ve tried to up our game,” he says, “and we are working with an L.A. chef to develop more recipes. And we still offer the old faithfuls like rainbow sorbet and bubble gum.”
The former owner isn’t the least bothered by the changes made by the new owners.
“They’re doing their own thing,” says Rydbeck, “bringing on new flavors and combinations, but they’re also keeping traditional flavors, as well as the fudge, the waffle cones and the large scoops that make people ask, ‘Are you sure that’s just a single?’”
What’s most important, he says, is that the Bergs have maintained the tradition of Ojai Ice Cream as a family and community staple.
“For Kodi and her family,” he says, “Ojai Ice Cream is a family deal, and as down-home Ojai people they’ve really taken that to heart.”
Not that the Bergs aren’t looking to expand their reach. Soon, Island Packers (co-owned by Kodi’s dad, Mark Connally) will be carrying Ojai Ice Cream on board its fleet, and Jon — who fondly recalls “the high quality small-batch dairies” and mom-and-pop stores that produced and sold delicious ice cream on the East Coast — envisions someday selling “a variety of regional flavors here, like East Coast or Oregonian ice creams.”
But rest assured: the Bergs will always keep the “Ojai” in Ojai Ice Cream, simply because they love and appreciate their community which continues to support the institution, and then some.
“Recently,” says Kodi, “we had an issue with our point-of-sale system where I just couldn’t get it to work. So I posted a message on social media, and almost immediately I had people responding with help and instructions on what to do. And right away, it seemed, our problem was fixed.”
“It’s those kinds of moments — like seeing a child’s face light up when you put an extra Gummi Bear on her ice cream — that make me so happy to be back in a place that means so much to the community. We’ve been gifted this really unique opportunity to bring unadulterated joy to people’s lives, and that’s a happy tradition we want to maintain.”
Ojai Ice Cream
210 East Ojai Avenue, Ojai.
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.