What’s up Doc? Part I: History
The first installment in a deep-dive of the Arroyo Grande business
March 16, 2023
Doc Burnstein’s has been an Arroyo Grande hallmark since it first opened its doors in 2003, after transforming from the well-known San Luis Obispo-based ice cream parlor Burnardo’z. Even after opening parlors in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, as well as several other “microlocations” across the state, the Arroyo Grande shop remained the flagship of the community business.
Doc Burnstein’s differed from many other local and national ice cream companies in not just its creative flavors, but also its roots within the five cities community.
Greg Steinberger, the founder of Doc Burnstein’s, described what made the company special from the start.
“Well, [Doc Burnstein’s] had a couple of unique aspects to it. One was that it was registered as a Beneficial Corporation. The idea of a Beneficial Corporation is the purpose of the business is beyond simply making money. It is to also be good for the employees, the community.”
The company was known for its community events and service, whether that be providing elementary school children with free ice cream as a reward for academic achievement, hosting youth sports banquets, providing school fundraiser nights, or the well-established blood drive program.
“We had a giving back pledge where we would give back to the community via a blood drive every month, where blood donors would get a pint of ice cream. In the course of the 17 years I was involved, we gave over 10,000 coupons to blood donors.”
Doc Burnstein’s involvement in community action wasn’t limited locally either. Their fundraisers and campaigns generated international impacts.
“We had fundraisers for Make-A-Wish where we helped raise money for Make-A-Wish and granted 10 Wishes… We did some fundraising and put in drinking wells in Africa for people who didn’t have clean water sources… part of our beneficial Corporation pledge was giving back to the community both locally as well,” Steinberger said.
Doc Burnstein’s has granted many wishes to local children through their partnership with Make-A-Wish, allowing young kids with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses to design ice cream flavors, raise awareness for their conditions, and see dreams come true. In participating years, Doc Burnstein’s raised tens of thousands of dollars for Make-A-Wish, including 2018, where they raised $20,000 and granted four wishes.
In 2017, Doc Burnstein’s raised over $6,000 for Lifewater to build a well in Africa to provide clean water access to thse who previously didn’t have access to the essential resource.
Another important aspect of the company’s model to Steinberger was the treatment of the company’s historically young local employees. Doc Burnstein’s is well-known within the community for hiring and supporting local students’ education with financial support, flexible hours, and a comfortable working environment. Frequent patrons of the Arroyo Grande parlor were often greeted and served by smiling teenagers.
“We did an annual scholarship day where one day of sales in the summer went to employees who were college bound. We started that in 2006, and over 13 years gave away about $63,000 in scholarships to our staff,” Steinberger said.
The scholarship program was open to Doc’s employees who were enrolled in college courses and maintained above a 2.75 GPA. On their annual scholarship day, 100% of profits in each operating location were donated to the employees that met this criterion to help finance their education.
Beyond financial help, Steinberger’s Doc Burnstein’s also provided business education, positive employment experiences, and annual work retreats for employees.
“We taught our staff about the profit and loss statement and how a business runs, and we would have an annual staff enrichment day where we would do some fun activities and some lessons of business. [We] did things like ziplining… or BB gun ranges, just things to make life a little more interesting, but also educational,” Steinberger said.
“I also pride it on being a really good first job,” he added.
“I loved [the business] a lot. The staff was super nice… it was always a good environment,” Capri Carrington (‘25), a recent Doc Burnstein’s employee said, reflecting on her job.
And of course, the ice cream parlor is meant to bring fun into the lives of not just employees, but also every person who steps foot in the business’ doors.
“Ice cream is a treat that unites all ages. However, there is something about a scoop of ice cream as a kid that just can’t be beat. Doc’s was always a great time, because they had such a huge arsenal of flavors to rotate through[and] most visits featured some new flavor,” Jens Wagner said.
Jens Wagner was Doc Burnstien’s first-ever customer when he was in just fifth grade, and shared his fond memories with the ice cream parlor. His favorite flavors, after the ice cream he created, were Root Beer Marble, Mint Fudge Oreo, and S’mores. Wagner is now a chemistry teacher in the Bay Area, but looks back on Doc’s happily and is saddened to learn of its closure.
“Before Doc’s opened… my family and I would frequent [Burnardo’z]. When they closed there was a time period where the village had no ice cream shop, so when news of the opening date was released one of my best friends at the time [Evan Robasciotti] and I decided we would be the first two customers,” Wagner said.
“3 or 4 hours before opening we went down to the village and hung out until we could be first. Our dads had a shared Real Estate Office just a couple buildings down so it was easy to go over to Doc’s.”
Wagner had the honor of creating one of Doc’s well-known unique flavors, a combination that expressed his childhood palate and interests.
“As I was a huge basketball fan, I made the “JDs Slam Dunk Chunk” which was a vanilla base with caramel and chocolate fudge swirls and peanut butter ‘basketballs.’”
When Steinberger invited Wagner back for the fifteenth anniversary of the parlor, Wagner couldn’t refuse, especially given the opportunity to bring a piece of his childhood back into his adult life.
“Greg… invited me to come in, scoop some ice cream, and even get some of my own flavor to take back to kids/teachers at my school up here in the Bay Area,” Wagner said.
Wagner’s involvement went a little beyond scooping ice cream and creating flavors, as Steinberger left him with a symbolic parting gift.
“At the celebration [Steinberger] surprised me with ‘One share of Doc’s’ but I never really followed up with that, so I don’t think I’m technically a part owner anymore,” Wagner said.
Yet another unique aspect of Doc Burnstein’s that Steinberger prided the company on was the fact that it was quite literally a community organization in the sense that Doc’s was based on a shareholder program, with members of the community holding direct stock in the business.
“We did a direct public stock offering in 2013, and again in 2017. [We] had 550 shareholders, some of which were children who owned a single share because [their] grandma and grandpa bought some for all their grandkids,” Steinberger said. “There was a source of pride that we were owned by the community. So, it was a bit of a unique business in its connection to the community and that was from the intention from the start.”
The shareholders, whether a kid owning one share of Doc’s or larger community investors, were a large part of the business. Shareholders typically gathered for annual financial meetings and reports, updates on the business, and to cast votes on the board of directors.
Doc Burnstein’s belonged to the community, in more ways than one.
Up next in this exploration of the esteemed local establishment will be an investigation into recent events surrounding the closure of Doc Burnstein’s in all locations, but Arroyo Grande in particular.