Picture a hot summer afternoon. Neighborhood kids running in slow motion around a New York City block, the corner fire hydrant shooting out an elegant geyser into the air. All of a sudden of “The Entertainer” sounds from a distance, paralyzing every child within earshot with the prospect of the ultimate summer respite – ice cream.
For many of us, ice cream trucks conjure images of a time long gone, a memory of when life was simpler, more innocent. They are these images, I think, Ben Van Leeuwen used when he started his artisanal ice cream business this year. The 24-year former Good Humor Ice Cream truck driver, and recent Skidmore business graduate, wanted to start a business that produced food in a traditional way, where the focus is based on quality rather than efficiency. For him, ice cream was a simple model – one, according to him, that would allow for scalability “without any degradation of quality.”
How is quality defined? Van Leeuwen ice cream only uses fresh milk from grass-fed cows, fresh cream, organic sugar, and egg yolks as its bases. “We believe that this simple practice leads to an extraordinary product,” said Van Leeuwen in a recent interview with the Gothamist. Yet there is more to the ice cream than just simplicity. Flavors range from the classic vanilla and chocolate to Hudson Valley red currant or ginger, with the vanilla for example made from organic bourbon and organic Tahitian vanilla beans. The nuts in the pistachio flavor come from a slow-food farm in Sicily, and all of the toppings are homemade and organic.
Inspired by both the biodynamic and slow food movements, much of Van Leeuwen ice cream ingredients are sourced organically and sustainably. Though, as Gourmet.com put it, the insistence on the finest of ingredients – beit coming from Tahiti or Papua New Guinea or Sicily – doesn’t necessarily mean the company’s carbon footprint is the smallest. However, beyond carbon offsetting both the sourcing process as well as the amount of fuel the trucks burn on a given business day, all of their disposable products are made from 100% renewable sources, and 1% of profits go to protecting mountain gorillas in Congo. The cups and napkins are made of Bagasse, a fiber made from sugar cane husk; and drink cups, spoons, and straws are derived from corn husks – products, according to company’s website, that are not only better for the environment, they are also better for you as they don’t leach dangerous petrochemicals.
As some might view Van Leeuwen ice cream as a greenwash, a clever PR campaign to justify higher prices (nearly $4 for a small scoop) and driving around all day selling sugar and fat-filled desserts, the model is proving as scalable as Van Leeuwen had initially envisioned. People have been lining up in droves, often twittering their friends with ice cream truck sightings as if it were some sort of celebrity. In a short few months, a second ice cream truck has hit the streets, and some of the higher end flavors will soon be featured in Whole Foods and Murray Cheese’s in New York City.