A little piece of heaven can be found in the golden ice cream trucks around New York city, the five locations throughout the boroughs, or in the frozen section of Whole Foods. The eclectic trio of Van Leeuwen have introduced a small luxury to the streets of New York with their modern take on all natural ice cream.
What made you choose to start your own ice cream company?
So when we first had the idea, we thought we could find an ice cream we could serve from the trucks, so we started sampling ice creams and we would look at the ingredients and be like “Oh why is there corn syrup and guar gum in there?” If we could make ice cream from milk, cream, cane sugar, and egg yolks, “Why can’t we make it in a larger scale and make it available?”.What we learned was that these things definitely make it cheaper and help cut corners, but they are just considered the norm of ice cream making. Once we identified this, we decided we didn’t want to make mass produced ice cream that has a creamy mouth feel that has no butterfat; we wanted to make it just the same way you would make it at home but do it on a larger scale. After that, it was all very simple; we didn’t have to become scientists. We just had to find really good ingredients and put them together.
How did you get your business started?
We started with two trucks. We started building one truck and then a few months into it Ben suggested that we do two trucks. “We only have this summer and New York is big, if we want to make an impact. We should launch two trucks.” So we found the trucks, one we found on Ebay and the other we found through the guy who was helping us retrofit them to be ice cream trucks. We did all the design ourselves. We found the perfect yellow, which was hard to find. We wanted it to be whimsical and sunshiny, but not a sickening yellow. We were going through pattern books and we were finding it really difficult to find the right yellow and then Ben had the idea to do the botanically look. We found an artist that did botanical drawings.
As for the design, we wanted to keep it very simple and easy to replicate, but we were not sure if we were always going to be able to get the same trucks. We wanted simple design elements that we could apply to other vehicles and still say “It’s a Van Leeuwen’s truck”. It’s meant to be timeless and not a flash in the pan design.
Is everything organic from the top to the bottom in regards to the design?
We like to use really nice material for the stores. For the shops use a lot of black walnut, but the ice cream is not organic certified. Many of the ingredients are organic certified and all of them are very natural (all natural is kind of a scary term). You can have a natural vanilla flavor because it was derived from something considered edible but it is not actually what it says it is. For example, if you look at an ice cream that has a natural strawberry flavoring that means it was derived from something considered edible, it means they isolated one of the flavor components of a strawberry and in a laboratory they found it in a peach pit and they created this natural strawberry flavoring from it. To speak to the organic point, not all of our ingredients are certified organic, but they are all exactly what they say they are. Strawberry is Strawberry. Pistachios are Pistachios. There’s no almond paste.
How high is the stress level of running a business in New York?
We were very lucky. I think our timing was quite perfect. We actually launched just when the economy crashed. You would think that would be a nightmare but it actually worked in our favor. Ice cream is something you would consider an affordable luxury. While people were not buying handbags anymore, they still were still happy to spend $4.50 for a cup of ice cream.
You’ve also provided a very comforting space in your shop with your music selection. Is the music selection pre-picked by the owners?
We only play vinyl in all of our stores. We like it because the sound quality is better and enables us to better control what is played. You only buy something on vinyl when you know it’s really good.
As your business grew, when did you decide to start opening stores?
The first store we opened about three and half years ago in Greenpoint. We already had three trucks by the time we did a store. It was a little storefront, just to get our feet wet. It is a part of Manhattan Inn, which is a bar in Greenpoint, by partnering with them it was easier for us. We were trying to sign leases, and landlords were not thinking we were legitimate, just because we hadn’t open stores already. It was good for us to open one little store and then we were able to approach the landlords in Boerum Hills and now the East Village.
What is the big difference between running a store and running a truck?
The stores are a lot simpler because they don’t have so many parts that can breakdown. Once we have a good manager in the stores and a good staff in place, they can take care of themselves. We like to be very involved, but we don’t have to be as involved as with the trucks.
With the trucks you can have a flat tire, generators breaking down, and trucks breaking down on the Williamsburg Bridge at two in the morning. These are things that only we can deal with because we can’t really ask for someone else to deal with that. We can also run more power in the stores because we are not running off generators. We can have drink fridges and pastry cases. It is also nice to have an environment we can invite our guest into so they can enjoy the ice cream and coffee. The trucks are always going to be a grab and go.
How many stores do you plan on having? Do you plan on going international?
Probably not international. Being from Australia, people always ask me if we plan on opening up in Melbourne. It would be really nice and fun for my family and friends yet it wouldn’t be the next logical business move. We thought a lot about opening in California or Florida but what we always come back to is that, logistically, it’s so much easier to expand within New York. We can grow much more in New York before we need to worry about the rest of the country or other cities.
We would like to do our package pints in a lot more markets. We have been in Whole Foods almost since day one. They approached us in our first day of business. I don’t think they realized we were as new as we were. Someone came up to us and said “Oh this looks good. Do you guys have packaged pints in grocery stores?” I laughed and said “We have been in business for an hour.” It turns out she worked for Whole Foods and she got in contact with someone who has gotten behind a lot of products for Whole Foods. He approached us and said “If you guys want to embark on the package design and everything that goes into packaging the ice cream. We will guarantee to put you in this region.” So it was pretty cool to launch into Whole Foods.
Do you have any plans for future flavors?
We moved production from upstate New York to Greenpoint about two and a half years ago. Now we have much more freedom to do different flavors. We don’t have to do such a large production run so we can try out different flavors. If they perform well, we can make them more permanent. If they don’t, we are not left with too much left over product. It’s really exciting! We are worked on a sweet corn ice cream recently which we served at an event called Taste Talks in Williamsburg. It was collaboration with Dan Barber from Blue Hill, which is an amazing restaurant in Westchester. He is a chef who is a huge inspiration to us.
Do you have any special chefs that you employ?
We actually have a restaurant that is completely separate from Van Leeuwen. We opened October of last year, it’s called Selamat Pagi. It’s Indonesian food. The menu is a collection of recipes Ben and I learned in Bali. We work with our chef, Jason Greenberg. He does an amazing job.
Was the restaurant always a goal of yours?
It was a crazy idea in the back of our heads. When we moved the production from upstate to Greenpoint we were left with another storefront. One day we thought, “Maybe we should do an Indonesian restaurant.” We thought we could do it really simply and it wouldn’t take too much of our time. We learned pretty quickly, we had to put a lot of time and energy into it. It’s great! We are really proud of what we are putting out. It is really fun to be putting out something different after five years of doing ice cream and to go to work on another product is pretty inspiring.
Are your ingredients at the restaurant vegan or organic?
My mom and sister are vegan. Which is why we are pretty sensitive to vegans, even though we are an ice cream company. We definitely echo the same principle of quality in the savory kitchen as we always have with Van Leeuwen. It was something we sort of thought what’s missing with South Asian food, was that it was just okay ingredients moshed with a bunch of spices. With Selamat Pagi, we wanted to make sure that it was truly exceptional and stocked with grass-fed meats, sustainable fish, and with the flavor profiles of Bali.
How has your business kept up with the Fro-Yo craze that has been going around?
The Fro-Yo thing was already happening when we launched. When I moved here, Pinkberry was already in play.I think it’s sort of a different market. I think the person who is looking to get frozen yogurt with a ton of toppings, they want something that has no fat, and our ice cream is 22% butterfat. When you come to get Van Leeuwen ice cream, you come to get ice cream. We have low sugar because we think it taste better, but we are definitely not trying to be low fat product. We don’t suggest you eat it everyday even though we do. You are always going to feel good after eating it because it’s real versus frozen yogurt which is much more than putting milk into a frozen yogurt machine.
What are your plans and expectations for the coming year?
We have grown pretty rapidly. We have grown from two trucks to nine locations in five years. This year we are looking to streamline and make sure we are keeping up the quality across the board. Not just with the product but with the stores, service, and training. With the new restaurant we are putting as much energy into that. Right now we are focusing on the wholesale and getting the pints into as many stores as possible. We are not looking to open anymore stores for the time being. We probably would like to do something in the West Village next or Uptown.
What are your future events?
We’ve got The Taste of Williamsburg in Greenpoint. We are going to be participating with Van Leeuwen and Selamat Pagi. TasteTalks which is one of the ones we are doing with Dan Barber. We do a lot of things over the summer with trucks such as weddings. We are doing a collaboration with Helmut Lang in which we are doing a special flavor for them.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Early on when we were trying to find where we can produce the ice cream with our recipes, we had push in regards on how that it is made. We really had to fight to make the ice cream the way we wanted too. Once we put our foot down, they accepted it. We started Van Leeuwen with 80,000 dollars which consisted on small loans from our friends and a line of credit. We worked day and night and re-invested back into the company. It was really cool when we were able to move the production down to Greenpoint and get back to the basics that we started with truly making the ice cream from scratch ourselves. It is also not super easy vending in the city (New York) in terms of parking restrictions and sometimes brick and mortar stores will get in our face about being near them.