A Sweet Business: Indie Ice Cream

WNYC's Soterios Johnson spoke with the latest crop of indie ice cream truck vendors. Below are extended interviews with the owners of The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, MilkMade and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.

Doug Quint, owner of The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck

Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (Photo by Soterios Johnson)

Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (Photo by Soterios Johnson)

So how do you balance being a bassoonist and being an ice cream man?

Last summer I tried to do both, and it drove me nuts, so this summer, at least for July, it looks like the bassoon is going to be in the box. I was living a complete left brain/right brain experience. It wouldn't be fair to all the people who dig the truck and who are supporting the truck. It wouldn't be fair to not give it my full attention. So, for the summer, I'm an ice cream man. And in October I'll be back on the bassoon, full-time by then. In August I'll be getting back in shape, doing my scales, back into the other world.

And how did you come up with the name Big Gay Ice Cream Truck?

Well, it's back to Facebook. After I took [my friend] Andrea up on her offer to drive a truck, I thought, well, I've got to bring my friends into the loop on this too, and I had no idea what to name the Facebook page I made for it, so I just said Doug and his Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Everyone laughed so hard at the Facebook page that before long our friend Jason had done a logo for us and that was the name of the truck. It just named itself! Sort of a virgin birth, it popped out one day.

I've heard you have something called the Choinkwich, which is not even on the menu, but I've heard it exists.

It exists, although not all that often right now. The Choinkwich. Boy, one of our first things we decided to do when we decided we were going to have all this chocolate ice cream was to add bacon to it somehow. We started to experiment with different ways to add bacon to ice cream. And our schtick is that we do toppings. So, we tried to do bacon as a topping on an ice cream cone, and it was the most disgusting mess. You would lick bacon off and end up with this gob of cold chewy bacon with no taste. It was disgusting. So once I got on the truck and started to make ice cream sandwiches, which I make some with Nutella, I realized that putting a layer of bacon into an ice cream sandwich would work. You'd have to chew the cookie and chew the bacon along with it. So we devised this thing. Bryan tested some ways of caramelizing bacon and we came up with what would later be called the Choinkwich.

The ice cream is not low fat or anything like that?

No, no, no, no…. People have asked us, too. How can you be the the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and not sell non-fat ice cream? I sell t-shirts, that's non-fat. (laughs) You might want one of those.

What do you charge?

Base cones are $3 and I think the most expensive thing we have is $6. It's all circling around $4 or $5. It's cheap enough that everyone can come and have an ice cream cone and that's the way it's going to stay.

This is your second summer…, do you think ice cream is recession-proof?

Yeah, I think one of the reasons it was really popular last summer was that we sort of felt like 'Brigadoon' and people were finding us out of the mist. It was like a scavenger hunt via Twitter to come and find this truck you had only heard of. And at the end you only blew $3 or $4. So it was a cheap fun way for people to get out of the house. I think the price and time were right last summer and also the spirit of the thing was fun. People knew I was in it only to have fun. There was no other reason to do this.

Bryan and I both knew when we named the truck and with what we were doing, dressing up ice cream, that it would either be successful or not, and we honestly were OK with either direction. But our main thing was people were going to laugh at us. And because there are so many grumpy soft-serve people in the city I really wanted people to have fun. I feel if somebody is going to spend their money at my truck, versus any other soft-serve truck, I better damn well treat them like a good customer.

A block away from you there's another soft-serve truck and there is not a person on line or waiting. You've got people five, six, seven deep waiting for your ice cream.

Yeah, it's trippy, but, the product is different; it's topped differently. I'm not making a million dollars off being an ice cream man, so I feel like what I'm earning I'm really earning by trying to run a customer-service based company. If someone is going to come to me and give me a couple of bucks, I'm going to smile at him, I'm not going to be on a Bluetooth headset and -- I'm going to earn my money. There ya go.

Soft-serve should be fun. Ice cream in general, I think should be fun. When I come home at the end of the day, I want to have made 500 ice cream cones and have diesel on me somewhere. That's how I run my show.

Well, then I guess you're in the right business.

Well, it found me I guess. That's for sure!

Diana Hardeman of MilkMade Ice Cream

MilkMade Ice Cream delivery (Photo by Soterios Johnson)

MilkMade Ice Cream delivery (Photo by Soterios Johnson)

How exactly does your delivery service work?

You sign up for three months. It's an ice cream of the month membership. You get a pint of ice cream delivered every month to your door. We send out the flavors a couple weeks before the first of the month and the delivery times as well. And then members just choose which flavor they want and which delivery. And we deliver it.

You're about six months in. How many members do you have now?

We have 150 in Manhattan. And, it's a three-month membership, so it's constantly changing. But every month we have about 50 new people sign up.

Have you ever run a business before?

No. This is the first. It's exciting, it's tough and there's always something. It's funny, I had read a lot about businesses, I went to business school and I majored, undergrad, in business. I was always interested in starting my own and I had always heard about how tough it is and how exciting it is, and how there's always something that goes wrong. And it's so true. Almost every day, there's always something that goes wrong. I'm putting out fires, especially with a very operations-heavy business like this, where we have to go get dry ice from the dry ice people and sometimes they're closed. The ice cream machine doesn't end up working or we can't get the proper kitchen time, but that keeps it exciting.

The first day delivering, Michelle, the other MilkMade, and I set out on foot in the East Village and it just rains the entire night and we're like, 'What are we doing, we're delivering ice cream in the rain? This is ridiculous!' It was December, it was raining and freezing, but we had fun.

How did you get into making and selling ice cream? Did you have a background in food?

No, I just like ice cream. I used to bake a lot, just for myself and friends and I always thought my thing was cookies. And then it turned out to be ice cream. But I didn't have a background. When we decided to do this, we just played around with various recipes to find one that we thought was the best, kind of like a base recipe. And, we just really tried to perfect our recipe and our ice cream making skills initially.

How long did it take for you to perfect it?

All summer last year and then we actually started the ice cream and deliveries in December, so I'd say it was five months of playing around. I had a goal for 2010 to make a flavor a day, and that certainly didn't work out. But, I definitely spend a lot of time just practicing recipes and trying new things out.

You've only been in business for about six months, but would you say ice cream is recession-proof?

There is a lot of interest. I think people want to not only get great ice cream delivered to their door in this unique service, but also want to support local entrepreneurs. We're just trying to have fun and make a living and keep everything locally sourced. So, they're helping us, but we're also helping the local producers from whom we're sourcing.

Do you find it limiting, trying to keep everything locally sourced? Does that limit what you can do, as far as flavors go?

It is rather limiting, but there are so many other options. We always try to make everything locally sourced, but if we do need to source something from outside, we pass it by other criteria, like if it's chocolate, then it has to be fair trade, if it's coffee, well, obviously that's not made here, but maybe it's a company that's local. And there are definitely some things I want to do, like a mango-coconut flavor. Obviously, we don't grow mangos here, so we need to figure out a way to find some sort of sustainably grown, maybe organic fruit from elsewhere.

What about other ice cream vendors?

I love Van Leeuwen's ice cream. It's very creamy and rich. I haven't had anything from the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck yet. I need to. I need to introduce myself to him. One night I was delivering and I passed the Van Leeuwen truck and I couldn't help myself, I had to just get a cup of it. And I showed up at my member's door finishing my ice cream.

And what did they think of that?

They were alright with it. I'm an ice cream lover, you know? What am I gonna do?

You were just doing research.

I can write it all off. Yeah! It's funny, I'm pretty fit, I run, and when I show up customers are like: 'You're the ice cream girl?' I tell them I live in a 6th floor walk-up, I bring all my coolers up and down all the time and then I bike around to do deliveries and walk around.

What do your parents think of this? You went to business school and now your schlepping ice cream around New York City...

I just read an article in The New York Times about other food entrepreneurs and how they spend their time selling something out of a pushcart on the street and how their parents think they're crazy. And sometimes I think my parents think I'm crazy. But I see an opportunity and they support it. So I think they think it's interesting. And they like the ice cream, so that's a good thing. At least I'm doing what I want to do and trying to get out there on my own and do something.

I always wonder what my business school peers think of me, because everyone goes into these big consulting jobs or banking or whatnot, and I'm making ice cream and running around delivering it! It's kind of comical.

Well, that's how Ben & Jerry's did it and Mrs. Fields. Starbucks started small.

You got to start somewhere. Yup!

Ben Van Leeuwen of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream

Ben Van Leeuwen (Photo by Stephen Nessen)

Ben Van Leeuwen (Photo by Stephen Nessen)

How did you get into doing this as a career?

I knew I wanted to work in food. I was obsessed with food. I didn't want to be a chef for some reason. I don't know why, I just think my A.D.D. is too severe for me to focus in the kitchen. How did it happen? Well, I used to drive a Good Humor ice cream truck in college. It was a really lucrative business. I was young, like 18, when I started and the second summer I did it I saved $30,000. And I took a year off college and I went and traveled and spent all of the money. I didn't save any of it. I went to Europe and Asia all by myself for eight months. And there I learned a lot about food, too, especially in southeast Asia.

I thought this is a really good business model. I wasn't really interested in the ice cream we were selling. I really didn't eat it at all. But, about four years later, when I was graduating college, it was sort of like an 'a-ha' moment. I was like, wait, why has no one done gourmet ice cream trucks in New York City? And I just knew from that moment that it would work and that it would be a good idea. So we went for it, and it was a lot work and a lot of hurdles that we had to get over.

When did you start?

I should say I started the company with my wife Laura and my brother Peter Van Leeuwen. We started in June of 2008.

We actually built two trucks, because another truck came up when we were building this one and he sort of cut us a break for doing two. So we started with two trucks. And it was me and my brother Peter and one of my best friends, Dan Suarez, who's now a brewer at Sixpoint. And the three of us ran these two trucks from about 10 a.m. until 1:00 a.m., seven days a week, from April until November. And it was really, really hard work. The reason we didn't hire anyone the first summer is because to get a permit to work on one of these trucks it takes like three months. And we were so busy that we couldn't even hire someone and teach them how to go through this process. So we did it all ourselves the first year. And Laura didn't have her green card yet, so she couldn't get a permit, so she couldn't work on the trucks.

And now you have six trucks?

Now we have five trucks. Three that are just ice cream, two that are ice cream, espresso, coffee and pastries that are out all year, and then one store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that has the ice cream, coffee and pastries.

So you're branching out?

Yeah, we're branching out a bit. We like the store. The store is easy! About 10 times easier than a truck. The trucks are more lucrative, but the store doesn't have a generator, it doesn't have water tanks. It doesn't have an engine. And it's always where it's supposed to be--well, that's the engine thing! Stores are easier.

You pride yourself on being environmentally friendly.

Whenever we can, we try to use sustainable dry goods. Our cups are made out of bagasse, which is sugar cane fiber. Our napkins are the same. And the spoons are really cool. They're made out of corn and talc. And I think it's not only good to not use petroleum products because they're worse for the environment, but I think it's gross. I think it's bad for your health to have your food touching plastic. Like this [he holds up a plastic bottle of water]. These we just started selling, which Laura is very unhappy about. But so many people were asking for it, and I don't know, I guess we're doing it now. I guess people would just buy it somewhere else.

It's kind of hard to get away from that.

It's horrible. And you don't see it in America, because it's so clean. But, like in Bali, where they're not as strict, we would ride motor bikes around Bali and we'd go all over and we'd see these landfills that are in the middle of the jungle. It's mountains of plastic bottles and it's so depressing because those just don't go away.

The economy has not been doing well. How have you guys been doing? Is ice cream recession-proof?

Yes, it is! [He knocks on the table.] Yeah, it's been better than ever.

What do you do when winter rolls around?

Well, the first season we did nothing and we were bored and we had nothing to do. And we had to lay everyone off, which wasn't fun either. It was a lot of students, so they didn't care, but we want to create a company that exists throughout the year. So, we decided to make the next two trucks we build season-proof, so we added hand-made espresso machines from the Netherlands, coffee brewers and Intelligensia coffee. And then we started making our own baked goods in Brooklyn and putting those on the trucks, too. So they have the ice cream, but they also have pastries and coffee, so they can run all year.

What do you charge and how does that compare to your ordinary ice cream truck or ice cream stand?

We charge $3.95 for a small, which is two little scoops or one big scoop. It's actually a good amount of ice cream even though it's called a small, and that includes tax. And then the toppings--I think people think the toppings are expensive, but we hardly make money on those, like the Michel Cluizel hot fudge and the caramel sauce.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I'm 26 years old. I grew up in Connecticut. After I graduated from college, I had this idea [for the ice cream truck] and I first took a job in media buying, because I thought I needed an office job, because that's what people from Connecticut do after college. And the first day--it was a particularly boring job--I was so sad. But I was happy, too, because it was the impetus for the business plan getting done. If I had taken a job that was kind of interesting that I got paid well at, maybe I would have stayed and maybe I wouldn't have done this. And it's cool, because there's never a day where I'm like, 'Uh, I wish I had done something else.' I really love doing this.

So I quit this job after three months. I got a job as a waiter in Brooklyn just to earn money while I write the business plan. And I wrote this business plan and I sent it out to 50 people and I was sure that this was going to be easy. I sent it out to some parents of friends who had a lot of money and I was sure that this was going to be easy -- they'll write me a check for $50,000. But none of the people with a lot of money invested, actually. It was a lot of my friends investing small amounts. And I raised $80,000 from about 10 people and that's how we started.