Last night Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Co- Founder Laura O’Neill spoke at the Australian American Association Spotlight Series at the Wythe Hotel. Laura told the Van Leeuwen Story from those early ice cream making days to the opening of their Indonesian restaurant Selamat Pagi late last year. Her speech is below.
" Hi everyone, my name is Laura O’Neill, I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia and have been living in NYC for the past 6 years.
I moved to New York in May of 2007 to be with my then Boyfriend Ben, who I had met in London in 2006 while visiting my brother. I had been working in event production in Melbourne for about 3 years, and was keen for a change, so when Ben suggested that I move to NYC, I thought “why not?”. I’d never even visited NYC before I moved here and was certainly a little nervous, but knew I could always come home if it didn’t work out.
A few months before I moved here Ben called me and said “I have and idea! I think we should start our own ice cream truck business when you get here.” Ben and his brother Pete had driven a Good Humor ice cream truck for a few summers during college. They’d sell ice creams on sticks and found it to very lucrative but pretty uninspiring given the product they were serving. He went on to tell me that there were certainly a lot ice cream trucks in NYC, but none that were serving anything particularly special. The idea sounded little crazy to me, but given I had no solid work plans upon arrival; I was excited by the prospect of a totally new venture. I was really burnt out on the events industry and secretly had no plans to re-enter it in NYC.
Van Leeuwen is made up of myself, ben Van Leeuwen and his Brother Pete. None of us have formal culinary training, but are all food obsessed and definitely keen home cooks.
The idea was pretty simple; lets serve delicious, real, scooped ice cream out of really beautiful trucks. But of course we had a lot to learn in order to bring this idea to fruition and we were going to need money too. Ben and I sat down one afternoon and began to nut out a pretty scrappy document that later with the help of his sister who works in finance, would become our business plan. We outlined America’s obsession with ice cream, the void in the city for something truly great, our ideals of quality and ideas for design and marketing. We even noted that as an affordable luxury and a comfort food, that ice cream is recession proof. By the time we launched, we got to prove that point.
The ice cream truck isn’t a new idea, but the classic American ice cream truck needed reenergizing.
For us the truck model was perfect, it eliminated many overheads and hurdles we might have faced as a start-up in a brick and mortar. It was a flexible model with plenty of room for trial and error.
Once our business plan was complete we began sending it out to all the rich people we knew, family, friends, college professors and so on. We aimed to raise to 100K that would cover retro fitting the trucks and the first production run. Interestingly enough the wealthy folks we knew weren’t the ones that got of board, most of our investments came in form of a few thousand dollars from friends. They were the ones who got excited and believed in our idea. We ended up raising around 70K and then took out a line of credit for a further 25k. The beauty of the idea was that we could adapt it to start with what we had; ben, Pete and me were also planning of working full time.
While raising money we were simultaneously learning how to make ice cream, the Greenpoint apartment the 3 of us shared was our test kitchen. We would make ice cream and invite friends over to try it and give us feedback. Early in our research we began to discover that almost all ice creams had what are known as stabilizers. These can be natural or artificial and help the ice cream have a creamy mouth feel without actually being high in egg yolks or butterfat. We don’t believe they belong in ice cream. The ice cream we were making on our stovetop was rich, creamy and delicious without the inclusion of any gums or fillers. The more we researched the more we learned that while these stabilizers did cut costs, most people were using them just because it had become the norm in commercial ice cream making. We didn’t want to use them. We wanted our ice cream to be simply fresh milk, heavy cream, egg yolks and cane sugar. And not too much sugar.
We wanted the flavor ingredients to match the quality of our base, so we searched high and low to find small producers that shared our ideals. And we found them. We found pistachios that grow near the slopes of Mount Etna in Bronte Sicily, that are only harvested once every two years so the trees can save up their energy and burst in the fruit the following year. The nuts are the best we’ve tried and certified by The Slow Food Institute of Italy. We found an awesome family run Chocolatier in France called Michel Cluizel. They source beans from 5 plantations around the world and make fine chocolate without the use of soy Lecithin and without processing the beans with alkaline. We found perfect tart, red currants in the Hudson Valley and a pastry chef in Vancouver who was making an oak barrel aged vanilla extract.
Our goal and our point of difference were becoming clear. We were making simple ice cream that celebrated ingredients perfected by nature, not science. We were NOT reinventing the wheel, just perfecting the classics.
The next challenge was how we were going to make enough ice cream to sell. We couldn’t legally do it at home and we couldn’t afford to set up our own facility. We ended up finding a dairy in Upstate NY (about 6 hours from Brooklyn), that was making quite of few different brands. We went to them with our recipe and said how can we go about making this on a large scale and getting down to NYC to sell? They took one look at our recipe and said “well firstly you going to need stabilizers, milk powder etc” “but WHY? we said”, we’ve been making these recipes at home and they are amazing. They didn’t really have an answer, except that that’s just what everyone else was doing. So we worked with them adapting the recipes for their equipment, using no stabilizers and the results were awesome. For the next two and half years our ice creams were made upstate using OUR recipes, local dairy and the special flavors we would source and have shipped in.
The next piece of the puzzle was fitting out the trucks and figuring out our design. We wanted the trucks to have a classic look that wouldn’t get tired. We found our first 1988 Chevrolet Step Van on eBay. These trucks have a really cool look and we wanted to add just a few simple design features. We weren’t sure if we’d always be working with the same trucks so we wanted the design features to be easily applicable to different models while still keeping the Van Leeuwen look. Through pounding the pavement and asking other mobile vendors, we found a guy called Patrick who worked out of a yard in Astoria retrofitting trucks. Patrick’s was a pretty bare bones operation, no contracts, no emails, and no design. He’s basically just cut holes where you needed them and figure out how to fit all the equipment inside. The first thing we’d decided on was nice big windows on all sides, these would make the trucks not only nicer to look at, but be much nicer to work in. We added shiny chrome bumpers and grills and after flipping through many pantone color books, we finally found our yellow paint color in 1970’s GM car color book. For our menus we commissioned a young artist we found on Freelancersunion.org to do botanical illustrations of all our flavor ingredients. We wanted to the logo to have an elegant/vintage feel (think Coca-Cola) and found a graphic designer out in CA who created the file for us.
We were lucky that between the 3 of us, we ticked many of the skill boxes it took to get started. Ben had majored in Business, Pete was super technical and good with all things logistics and I had some experience in PR, marketing and design. We actually never hired anyone to help us with design or PR. We didn’t know it all, but we happy to work hard and learn what we could along the way.
By spring of 2008 we were ready to roll out the first 2 trucks affectionately named The Eagle and the Bobcat. While waiting for our permit to clear in NYC we ran the trucks out in CT for a month, where Ben and Pete had grown up. This turned out be to be a really great way to iron out the kinks before hitting the streets of NYC on June 21st 2008.
The first summer it was just we 3, our friend Dan and two girls (Kristin and Sophie) we hired to help scoop on the weekends. We’d have the trucks out from 10am-1am some days. It was pretty grueling but we were getting an awesome response and were happy and proud seeing our idea coming to life.
By the end of the first summer, we had added a third truck, The Rattlesnake, and were ready for a nice long winter break.
For the next generation of trucks we wanted to add something that would allow us to trade year round, so we introduced coffee and pastries. We didn’t want these to seem like an afterthought. Everything had to meet the Van Leeuwen standards we had set for ourselves, every detail counted. We got beautiful Mirage Veloce espresso machines from the Netherlands, started making our own pastries using many of the same ingredients we use in the ice cream and trained our baristas on what I call “Melbourne style coffee”. The coffee business was not as booming as the ice cream in summer, but it was enough to keep us afloat and keep some of our team members employed over the winter months
In February 2010 we opened our first brick-and-mortar, a tiny storefront in Greenpoint Brooklyn. The Trucks certainly have their challenges so we were excited to open a storefront that couldn’t breakdown or get a flat tire. It was always fun to create a space to invite our customers in to.
The following year we built our 6th truck, The Turtle, after being awarded a permit to vend at Central Parks Tavern on the Green, we also opened two more stores, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn and The East Village.
One of the challenges of making the ice cream upstate was that we were very limited in terms of being able to make special flavors. The minimum runs were quite large and the equipment was minimal. No way of roasting bananas, swirling caramel etc. This was one area of the business that we really wanted to bring back to basics, so in 2011 with our little empire bustling away, we decided to move our production back down to Brooklyn and build our own little ice cream kitchen.
We found an old polish restaurant in Greenpoint Brooklyn that could easily become home to our ice cream production, the bakery and the very first real Van Leeuwen office! A very attractive idea after having worked from our couches for 4 years!
The new ice cream kitchen makes 100% of our ice cream, including our packaged pints that we sell to Whole Foods and a bunch of other stores in NY, NJ and CT. We make special flavors each week and have an amazing team lead by our head of production Jane Nguyen. Finally having an office also meant it was time to bring in 4th in charge. Kristin Vita, who was the very first person we ever hired back in 2007 to work weekends, had always said if we ever grew big enough she’d love to quit her day job and come on fulltime in an office role. Kristin is now also our head of wholesale.
Now this is the part where it maybe sounds like we’ve lost our minds. The ice cream factory in greenpoint left us we a vacant store front, that we weren’t quite sure what to do with. The Van Leeuwen greenpoint store is just a few blocks away, so we didn’t want to do another Van Leeuwen. Over the years Ben and I had visited Bali several times while in Australia and had become obsessed with the food, a cuisine with very little representation in NYC. We would often cook Balinese food at home and once taught a class at Greenpoint’s rooftop farm. At our 2011 staff party we served a feast of Balinese food and the team went wild for it. With this minimal research in mind, we deiced to open an Indonesian restaurant in the vacant storefront. Selamat Pagi (good morning) opened in October last year. We had zero restaurant experience but have hit the ground running and have an awesome kitchen and FOH team that we are learning very quickly from. The menu is made up of dishes that Ben and I learned in Bali, coupled with the creative genius of our Chef Jason Greenberg. With grass fed meats, organic poultry, sustainable seafood and farmers market produce. Selamat Pagi echoes the same dedication to ingredients and quality as Van leeuwen always has.
The future: After what been some pretty rapid growth, we agreed that for the past 12 months we would focus on streamlining the operation so far and not open anymore trucks or stores. We are working hard to increase our distribution of the pints and are also keen to open up in L.A in the not too distant future. A few weeks ago we sold our first book to the Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Cook Book is due out Spring 2015.
Thank you so much for having me and I look forward to the Q & A up next. I have also brought ice cream for you all to try!”