Gourmet Ice Cream Trucks Cater to Grownups

Friday, July 02, 2010

The ice cream truck we all knew as children has grown up.

Using high-quality ingredients, a few local entrepreneurs are scooping out sophisticated flavors that have become hits with New York foodies. And their lines are growing, even in the economic slump.

At one truck in SoHo, it’s not uncommon to hear a customer ask, “Can I get a scoop of Earl Grey?”

The truck is run by Ben Van Leeuwen, who started Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream two years ago. Van Leeuwen actually has five trucks, including the one parked on Greene Street off Prince.

“We make traditional French-style ice cream in upstate New York and we sell it off our ice cream trucks in New York City,” he explains. “And we very meticulously source all of our flavoring ingredients from small to medium-sized producers from all over the world.”

And he means that literally.

“Our pistachios we use come from Bronte, Sicily. And Sicilian pistachios are unequivocally considered the best in the world. They're very grassy tasting. Oh, and the cinnamon! Most of what is sold as cinnamon in America isn't actually true cinnamon, it's cassia,” he says. “Ceylon cinnamon has a much more floral taste, slightly less spicy. And it's actually a little better for you too.”

Lauren, who’s come for the Earl Grey, says she visits the truck every day. “It's really good. I'm obsessed with it. I don't know,” she says, trying to explain why. “It's not as sweet as regular ice cream. I used to get the strawberry, now I get the Earl Grey. The Earl Grey tastes the best!”

What’s his most popular flavor? “Plain old vanilla,” says Van Leeuwen. “And then Earl Grey tea, chocolate and pistachio are all kind of tied for second. But the sundae is the best! We use these cherries that are picked in France when they're perfectly ripe. And within six hours, they're macerated and soaked in kirsch.”

That’s a cherry brandy. Van Leeuwen claims his business model is the opposite of that used by some companies.

“It seems like a lot of companies as they grow--a lot of food companies--they get worse, which is to me the most depressing thing ever,” he says. “Like, when you're making more money, you can spend more money and use better ingredients. And that's exactly what we're doing, which is cool.”

A little further uptown from Van Leeuwen's yellow truck in SoHo there's another moveable feast of sweets. It’s just off Union Square with a slightly different vibe. Here, the customers aren’t asking for Earl Grey or pistachio.

“Can I get the Salty Pimp, please,” shouts a woman, laughing at the name. “I’m with my mother in law!”

“Ladies, ladies,” says Doug Quint, the proprietor of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Quint serves high quality soft-serve, with a culinary and often campy twist. Like his truck, the looks are deceiving.

“On the surface it looks like a regular New York City ice cream truck that you find on every corner here and we do serve all the same stuff,” he says. “But in addition to that, we do a lot of high-end toppings for our ice cream.”

“It's a matter of how we're dressing it up,” he says. “So, we've got a couple of signature cones, like the Bea Arthur, which is dulce de leche with crushed Nilla wafers all over the cone. And I do some other stuff like grind up wasabi peas and roll ice cream in that. And ginger syrup, curry powder, fresh cut coconut that we toast. All sorts of things like that. Whatever our whim is of the day and whatever people request.”

Stu Goldhagen, who works in the area, has become a regular customer.

“I'm seeing the Gobbler,” he says, of today’s order. “My God, we're talking vanilla sundae with pumpkin butter--I love pumpkin--graham cracker -- I love graham cracker -- graham cracker crumbles with whipped cream. Come on, it's unbelievable, man!”

Quint wasn’t working in the food industry when he planned the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. “You know, I'm a professional bassoon player,” he says. “And one day I logged on to Facebook and my friend Andrea's status message said, ‘If you want to drive an ice cream truck, get in touch with me.’ She's a flutist and she's been driving an ice cream truck for a couple of summers. And I turned to my boyfriend Brian and I said, ‘I think that has to be the weirdest thing I've ever heard. I should probably respond.’ He said, ‘Yeah, absolutely. You should be an ice cream man!’ And that was it. That was the decision right there. Just logging on to Facebook, seeing a weird opportunity for a summer job and acting impulsively, I'm proud to say.”

It seems that a lot people come for the ice cream, but they also come for the interaction with Quint.

“Well, I got to tell ya, I really have fun doing this,” he acknowledges. “These people that come up are a blast and I'm selling ice cream to them and the whole thing from top to bottom makes me laugh constantly all day long. It's just too weird! How did I go from playing the bassoon full-time to standing around in this vibrating monstrosity of a truck and slinging ice cream to the people of New York? It's all so trippy that someday I expect to wake up and see vials laying around--I'm sober man! I'm totally sober!”

And there are plenty of odd moments, like when the woman who ordered a Salty Pimp ice cream asks for “cherry dip like daddy.”

“I don't know what all that means,” says Quint, laughing.

If a truck bringing tasty treats to your neighborhood just isn't close enough, a start-up based in the East Village has got you covered. This is New York, after all.

Diana Hardeman, one of the founders of MilkMade Ice Cream, delivers her frozen goods right to your door. She has an ice cream of the month club with her business partner Michelle Truong. “We create two flavors every month using locally sourced ingredients and all seasonal ingredients,” she says. “And we ride around on our bikes and deliver it to our members' front doors.”

Hardeman got the idea after she bought an ice cream maker and got creative with her roommate. “We'll make unique flavors and then we'll just bring them to our friends' houses,” she recalls. “And we started kind of serving it to friends and people really liked it. And then we just ended up serving it at a friend's party, and that party ended up being written up in New York magazine. So we had hundreds of people e-mail us saying that they wanted to be member. So we said, OK, I guess we better start this business.”

They started small in the East Village and have since expanded. Hardeman takes me on a journey uptown to see how she travels on the subway with her ice cream. “Today I have a freezer bag that I have a big chunk of dry ice inside, so that keeps the ice cream frozen,” she says. “When I bike, I have a backpack that's insulated and I also keep dry ice in it so it keeps everything cool--even on a warm day like today.

This month’s flavors, she says, are rhubarb and a southern sweet tea, “which is a sweet tea ice cream with a shot of bourbon from a local distillery,” she says. “We've made a salted caramel, a chocolate five-spice. We've done Twist and Stout, which was stout ice cream using Sixpoint Otis oatmeal stout and chocolate shavings and an orange twist. So, we just have fun.

“Everything that I eat, I always think, can this be ice cream? And for the most part, yes.”

Read extended interviews with the founders of MilkMade, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and MilkMade Ice Cream.

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