People We Love: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream

When we spotted their retro pale yellow truck at a Lucky Magazine boutique crawl a few years back, we knew Van Leeuwen Ice Cream was on to something. Not only is their artisan ice cream made from scratch in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with fresh and natural ingredients, but their stylish truck has fashion editors running for the ice cream man. Founded by Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen and Laura O’Neill in 2008, they now have six trucks and three stores around New York and Los Angeles bringing artisan ice cream to the masses. And they’ve got a book deal. With summer around the corner we’ve been craving ice cream, like a lot, so we got the scoop (get it?) on the business of Van Leeuwen and their Bali-inspired flavours from co-founder and owner Laura.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE BUSINESS OF MAKING ICE CREAM? There’s three of us, myself, Ben and Pete. Ben and Pete used to drive an ice cream truck around the neighbourhood. Back when Ben was in college, that was one of his summer jobs and Pete did it as well. So they would drive around the neighbourhood in Connecticut and sell ice creams – ice creams on sticks, so yummy but nothing particularly special.

They made a lot of money doing it – it was a very lucrative summer job. Ben saved enough money to take himself around South East Asia. Fast forward to 2006 when Ben was in his final year of college – he had this idea one day, this realization that there were all these ice cream trucks in New York but none of them were serving particularly special ice cream, in kinda cute but not beautiful trucks. He thought “Why doesn’t anyone scoop good ice creams off trucks?”.

I was still living in Australia then but was planning on moving over here. Ben called me one day and was like, “I think when you get here we should start an ice cream truck business.” I mean none of us have any formal culinary training but we’re definitely all very much food enthusiasts. It kind of grew from this crazy simple idea into writing a business plan and starting to toy around with recipes at home and finding places that would eventually make the ice cream. We came up with the recipes at home but then we needed somewhere we could make it all large-scale. We bought our first two trucks and had them retrofitted into what they are today.

WE LOOOVE THE COLOUR OF YOUR TRUCKS. Thanks! It was hard to find that colour because we could see it in our mind’s eye, this sunshiny-yellow. We’d go through all these Pantone books and we couldn’t quite find the right kind of colour, in regular paint books. But we ended up finding it in this vintage General Motors book. It’s a vintage car colour.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH YOUR SPECIAL FLAVOURS, LIKE THE SWEET STICKY BLACK RICE? Sticky Black Rice, I’m not sure if you know, but we also have a restaurant in Brooklyn, called Selamat Pagi. It’s an Indonesian restaurant. We opened that up about 18 months ago. I’m from Australia and when Ben and I were back visiting my family we would sometimes go to Bali because it’s so close and once you get there it’s really cheap. It’s an amazing place. We really fell in love with that style of cooking and that kind of flavour profile. One of the dishes you see over there is Sticky Black Rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan or vanilla bean. Once we started doing that for the restaurant it was kind of natural that the two departments would merge and we would start creating flavours geared from Selamat with the Leeuwen process.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR BOOK THAT’S COMING OUT. It’s a cookbook with about 60 ice cream recipes. It’s the type of book we wish we had when we were getting started. That’ll hopefully come out in the spring next year. We’re just testing all the recipes right now. It’ll be out with Ecco Press which is part of HarperCollins.

IS THERE A FLAVOUR THAT YOU GUYS LOVE BUT DOESN’T GET A LOT OF LOVE? It’s interesting actually. We have limited space in our freezers, particularly on our trucks, so in order to do special flavours we need to not do some of the other classics. We’ll still run specials but they won’t be available all the time, but the best flavours are cinnamon, hazelnut and palm sugar. We think all three are incredible but people do tend to go with what they know. Vanillia is 100% our best seller.

We have a lot of people who are really devoted to those flavours and are so sad that they can’t get them all the time now. Those flavours deserved more attention than they got, but I’m excited to make room for more special flavours. Recently we’ve been doing a goat’s cheese with berry compote which is incredible. Also, a milk chocolate with salted marcona almonds.