For Paul and Robin Bedford, it was “hook, line and sinker” from their first bite into Pelican’s SnoBalls.
Three years ago, the couple visited friends over spring break in North Carolina and tasted the treat from the shaved ice shop for the first time.
“Having the first SnoBall was not what we expected at all,” Paul Bedford said. “It was so fun, and there were so many flavors that you could mix and match. It was more than just an explosive bite; it was an experience.”
Paul and Robin Bedford opened their Pelican’s franchise in downtown Ocoee in April 2022.
Although the couple is known for being the smiling faces behind the local small business in Ocoee, the Bedfords’ journey to their love for Pelican’s was anything but easy.
It was a means of survival.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of people across the country forever, and the Bedfords were no exception.
Being in entertainment, Paul Bedford had been out of work at Disney for 18 months, with no guarantee he would ever return.
At the time, Robin Bedford was teaching theater at Ocoee Middle School.
The couple remembers visiting Fort Myers Beach about two months after the pandemic hit and running into Pelican’s unexpectedly.
“We were driving down the road and we saw the blue and pink colors that we knew Pelican’s is known for, and we have our children in the back, and I scream, ‘There’s a Pelican’s,’” Robin Bedford said.
Born from a New Orleans tradition of combining smooth, fluffy snow with bold flavors, Pelican’s SnoBalls has been serving more than 100 flavors to its customers for more than 20 years. All of the ice is harvested in the shop as well as the mixing of flavors with the bases coming straight from New Orleans.
In the three days the family stayed in the beach town, they visited Pelican’s five times.
After noticing the placard on the wall of the shop that introduced visitors on how to franchise the business, the couple talked to the owner to learn more.
Although it seemed almost everything was up in the air during the pandemic, Pelican’s SnoBalls was the fastest-growing dessert franchise in the United States.
“We weren’t sure if Paul would ever get his job back at Disney, and we started to think about what would happen and how we would survive financially if he didn’t go back,” Robin Bedford said. “A lot of discernment, a lot of prayer, a lot of thought — it was not something that we looked at lightly. You had to find just the right area for your specific acceptance and success, and that’s something we’ve really found here in Ocoee. I’m blessed beyond belief that things are going so well.”
The pair said the Pelican’s corporation has been amazing in its support — especially the owner of the Lakeland location, who has become not only a business partner but also a friend.
“All of the main admin are really strong Christians, which is another thing we liked when we first came in to learn about the company,” Robin Bedford said. “They also have a system built of who can support us. For example, when the hurricanes came, we had a chat group to make sure everyone was safe and what precautions to take and what needed to be done.”
The Bedfords pride themselves on their entertainment and teaching backgrounds to help inspire the work they do at Pelican’s. Although some franchises are corporate-owned, the couple utilizes a family-friendly business and environment.
“When we very first found this, we knew the product was really awesome and the quality of the ice was very high, but we wanted the opportunity for people to connect again — especially after the pandemic — and it’s already starting to grow into that,” Robin Bedford said. “It wasn’t easy. There’s definitely been learning curves along the way, and we’ve made mistakes. But that’s just part of being a new business owner. This is my happy place. When I come here, my kids tell me, ‘It’s great to see you smile, Mom.’”
The couple credits their strong community connection to their recently developed patio area, previously parking for the front of the old Ocoee Cafe, shared by next door business DG Doughnuts.
“In order for our business to be what we wanted it to be, we knew we needed this gathering place,” Paul Bedford said. “It’s not just grabbing a SnoBall and heading down the street. We have games we’ve set up and a shaded seating area where we want people to gather.”
Many of the children down the street at Ocoee Middle School walk or bike to Pelican’s after school. Local parents have come to know the area as being a safe space, and many know the Bedfords personally.
Robin Bedford can name almost every child that visits the shop. She uses her background in seven years of teaching at SunRidge Elementary School, followed by her experience at Ocoee Middle, to connect with the children.
“Getting down on the carpet, playing with the kids — that connection that you would have to make with the kids to get them to buy in is now some of the qualities that we’re using here to communicate and get connected with the community,” Robin Bedford said. “I have a deal with one of the kids who lives across the street who is struggling in math. If he learns a set of times tables, he earns a gummy.”
During the holidays, Pelican’s hosted six nights of storytelling. Robin Bedford got out her old holiday books and sat in pajamas and bathrobes with the children as they read together.
“It was able to provide another opportunity for the community to kind of get together and enjoy something that was different during the holidays,” Robin Bedford said. “OCPS was closed for two weeks, so I said why not come up with some kind of way that we can still have literacy, storytelling, reading, fun and education?”
Her way of connecting with the kids and trying to continue to encourage them is overflowing not only to the customers but also to the Bedfords’ team members, who also enjoy forming relationships with the local families.
“For many of our team members, it’s their first job or it’s their second job, because they had a poor experience in the retail or fast food industry before,” Robin Bedford said. “It’s hard work here, but I think it’s an awesome and fun place to be. It’s a happy place, where you feel like you’re part of something positive. Every day, people stop by and ask if we’re hiring. We’re using our background with customer service, brand representation and how to train employees to establish a strong family-friendly work environment here.”
The Bedfords’ two children — Madeline, 19, and Katherine, 17 — also are on the team.
“It’s been really fun to make new flavor combinations and meet people in the community,” Katherine Bedford said.
“It has been such a wonderful experience to watch Pelican’s grow over the past few years,” Madeline Bedford said. “It was in the planning phases for two years prior to opening. I love the place it holds in the community and how the business has brought my family closer together.”
Pelican’s has also hosted a multitude of events, including trivia nights, book clubs, scavenger hunts and live music. The venue plans to have spirit nights with donations going back to local schools.
One of the most popular aspects of the small business is its event trailer which can be booked for events.
For Halloween, six families in the cul de sac of a local neighborhood joined to hire the Pelican’s trailer to give SnoBalls to trick-or-treaters. Sysco foods had a holiday celebration that Pelican’s attended and gave out SnoBalls.
“The three priorities of Pelican’s are fluffy ice, bold flavors and customer service,” Paul Bedford said. “What makes us stand out is what we love doing is coming out and talking with people. If they’re slow in the back, we tell the employees to go out and wipe down the tables. You could have washed the tables 10 minutes ago, but go back out and take that opportunity to engage with the customers. We’re empowering these young high school students to help make a difference.”
Paul and Robin Bedford met in 1998 at Disney, where they both served as entertainment production cast members.
Robin Bedford’s first experience with Disney was in her senior year of high school in Indianapolis, when she won a three-day, two-night trip to Disney from her community service hours. She then went on to attend college at Ball State University, where she participated in the college program working for The Mouse in 1988. When the college program adjusted the offerings for additional internships in 1990, she attended and never left.
After receiving an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University, Paul Bedford worked at IBM near New York City while also pursuing his hobby in entertainment by performing in local shows. In 1994, he started to work for Disney as a performer. Paul Bedford was on a temporary assignment as a manager for the Holidays around the World at Epcot when he met production assistant Robin Bedford.
The pair worked closely together on Epcot’s Candlelight Processional for 30 days; six months later they were engaged. In 2000, only six months after, the Bedfords sang in the cast choir to earn park passes for their family to come to town for their wedding celebrations.
A year into marriage, the couple moved to their current home in Gotha. The Bedfords said they love both living near and working in the city of Ocoee.
“I grew up in a small town, so I had a feeling that this kind of area helped support that, because it’s kind of a small subset of the Orlando area,” Robin Bedford said. “I love the community feel it has. I love here on McKey Street that we know all the business owners, and we get together … just that camaraderie that you hold together and help to support one another.”
The Bedfords said they love the block parties and being near City Hall. Their partnership with next-door business DG Doughnuts is the beginning of the transformation of downtown Ocoee.
The couple shared they had no idea Pelican’s slogan of “Taste Happy” would be so impactful in their journey.
“As we opened the business, and we saw people come through, nobody was standing in line in a bad mood,” Paul Bedford said. “They’re coming here because they want that happy, they want that release, they want to see the joy in their kids’ faces when they get a SnoBall. There’s a lot of negative stuff to focus on these days, and we would rather focus on the joy. To be able to provide that means of happiness is such a special moment.”
Paul Bedford said his goal down the road is to see the patio area full with happy people.
“We are not the type of people to sit back and watch to see what happens,” Paul Bedford said. “We will put a plan in place and make it happen. Pelican’s wasn’t the original plan, but now we can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m a very positive person, and I have no other option than to survive in the face of adversity. I refuse to not. This really has been a God thing.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Familiar Faces is an ongoing feature in which we spotlight people you have seen but whose stories you may not know. If you want to nominate someone for a future edition, please email Editor and Publisher Michael Eng, [email protected].