Grace Connor is the 17-year-old founder of Little G Ice Cream Co. and a culinary sensation in Boston.
The high school senior is churning away at a professional kitchen in Boston in between classes — creating a dozen different varieties of her rich ice cream chock full of unique mix-ins she bakes from scratch.
She started the company in April 2015 and is already in two Boston-area Whole Foods as well as six other groceries in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A contract with Amazon Fresh is in the works and she ships products nationwide from her website littlegicecreamco.com. Her products are flying off freezer shelves.
“Her product was unique,” says Brian Levin, a Whole Foods buyer and 21-year veteran of the company. “I have never personally encountered a producer that young, I was astounded when I learned that Grace was the owner. She is one incredible young woman.”
Even more incredible — and what Levin doesn’t yet know — is the story Grace is revealing for the first time to PEOPLE.
The teen founded Little G’s as a form of therapy following life-threatening complications caused by the removal of a tumor on the base of her brain in March 2015. While significantly better, Grace continues to require daily medications to replace the hormones the tumor had prevented her body from producing.
“Creating Little G’s was key to her recovery, something she has to move forward for,” Grace’s mom, Melissa Schneider, tells PEOPLE. “A driving force, like, ‘I will be better.’ ”
Adds Grace, “It’s given me a drive to do something I am proud of, it’s given me new energy.”
By the end of 8th grade, Grace — once a nationally-ranked squash player — had mysteriously lost significant amounts of weight, her hair was falling out and her skin was gray. Even in 9th grade, says Grace, “I had the body of a 10-year-old.”
Doctors thought she was anorexic, as her weight dipped below 80 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame, despite Grace eating meals (and taste-testing the hundreds of iterations of her original cake and cookie recipes).
Classmates, she says, never bullied her. “They thought I was anorexic,” she recalls.
Meanwhile, Melissa, a physician, “was jumping up and down saying something is wrong,” the devoted mom recalls. “It was difficult to diagnose.”
Finally, in 2014, doctors discovered Grace had a tumor on the base of her brain, called a Rathke cleft cyst that pushed on her pituitary gland and affected all of Grace’s hormones. Medication didn’t help.
The teen was “wasting away” due to adrenal failure, Melissa says.
“Grace had a lot of muscle loss. She said, ‘My whole body stopped working.’”
Despite all this, Grace never told anyone at school or her baking clients about her condition.
Five days after Grace’s April 2015 surgery to remove the tumor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, she was clamoring to be discharged to fulfill an order.
“I said, ‘Mom, I am getting out of there, I have a cake to deliver,’ ” says Grace.
She left the hospital at 2 that afternoon, made the cake and delivered it by 6.
“My mom wanted me to rest,” Grace says, “but I hate sitting.”
A few days later, Grace began bleeding heavily from her nose and mouth, requiring a rushed trip to the emergency room and an emergency procedure to stop the bleeding that doctors found had originated from the base of her brain. “If we stayed at home she would have died,” says Melissa.
After a one-night hospital stay, and more complications requiring a visit to her neurosurgeon, Grace was ordered to rest.
As the days on the sofa at home unfolded — she was not able to return to school for six weeks — the restless teen decided to “focus on making ice cream,” a passion she’s had along with baking since early childhood, she says.
She eventually got herself into the well-known CommonWealth Kitchen — a collaborative for start-up food companies — the youngest business owner ever there.
In addition to making all the ice cream, Grace handles all the particulars on the business side, too: hiring an attorney, creating her own packaging and labeling, spending $10,000 on a professional ice cream machine — that she snagged for a significant discount. She pays for everything with the money she saved from her baking business.
Her only help is her father, who serves as a deliveryman, and her mom, who helps out in the kitchen on weekends.
“I was so impressed with her ambition,” says Levin.
Grace, meanwhile, continues to digest all that’s happened since her brain surgery just 18 months ago.
“It’s kinda surreal for me,” she says. “It’s so much hard work and time and years of testing recipes have gone into this. I ask, ‘Did I actually do this?’ You don’t know what you’re jumping into.”
She adds, “And I’m not going to be satisfied until I am next to every Ben and Jerry’s in the world.”