On warm nights walking along Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, it’s hard to miss the line creeping out of the big glass doors of Cruze Farm Dairy. Inside, employees in red and white gingham dresses and matching headscarves are busy serving up locally made ice cream to customers—some new, some regulars, all there for an experience unmatched in the city.
It’s hard to believe that in an alternate world—one without the vision of owner Colleen Cruze Bhatti (’11) and the opportunity she got through winning a UT business plan competition to build the family business—none of this would have been possible.
“I wanted to keep the farm going,” says Cruze Bhatti, a fifth-generation Cruze and the first woman in the family to lead its dairy business. For years, Cruzes have been bottling their milk and selling it locally in grocery stores, bakeries, and coffee shops throughout Knoxville.
“But milk is a hard business,” Cruze Bhatti says.
Her senior year, while studying agricultural science at UT, Cruze Bhatti was encouraged to compete in the Graves Business Plan Competition, hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business. The first-prize winner would take home $5,000 to put toward their plan.
“I had never written a business plan before,” Cruze Bhatti says. “I didn’t take a single marketing class.”
But she had an idea. As a girl, she had helped her parents sell hand-churned ice cream at a local farmer’s market.
“We had the old ice cream equipment put away but hadn’t used it in a decade,” Cruze Bhatti says. “I’m a dreamer. And I love ice cream. I thought, ‘Why don’t I give this a shot?’”
Cruze Bhatti’s plan for adding ice cream back into the Cruze Farm Dairy product line won first prize. Her dad, Earl Cruze (’73), an Air Force veteran who studied education at UT through the GI Bill, was so impressed he gave her the reins to lead the ice cream business.
For her presentation, Cruze Bhatti had worn what she calls the Cruze Farm Girl costume, which impressed the judges. It was unique. She had come up with the costume to honor her grandmother, who had always worn a dress to milk the cows when Cruze Bhatti was a girl.
“You put it on and you get to be a farm girl,” Cruze Bhatti says.
The Cruze Farm Girl brand—now with nearly 34,000 followers each on Facebook and Instagram—was born. The summer of 2011, Cruze Bhatti hired her friends to sell ice cream at the Market Square Farmer’s Market. Then came the food truck. Within five years, Cruze Bhatti had signed short-term leases on two downtown locations. Now, a decade later, the business runs permanent stores on Gay Street, on Asbury Road in East Knox County, and in Sevierville—the most recent location, which opened in October 2020.
From a handful of friends and family at the start, Cruze Bhatti now has 132 part-time employees, many of them current and former UT students.
“Knoxville is my home,” Cruze Bhatti says. “Cruze Farm couldn’t just be anywhere. This is where we’ve got our roots and our community supporting us. I always tell people, you’re not a failure if you go back home after college. If you have a family business, maybe you can help it do something bigger than it could before. That’s what I did. And now look at where we are.”