Ben (left), Laura and Pete in their UWS store
Ten years ago, with $60,000 on hand and no factory, Laura O’Neill and Pete and Ben Van Leeuwen decided to operate an ice cream truck in New York City. Instead of using gum stabilizers and fillers, they wanted to make their ice cream with all-natural, pure ingredients. The trio, none of whom have a culinary background, started testing ice cream recipes in the kitchen of their shared Brooklyn apartment. Today, Van Leeuwen has grown into a multimillion-dollar, multi-city dessert empire with numerous trucks and brick-and-mortar stores throughout NYC and Los Angeles.
Van Leeuwen remains known for its rich and delicious vegan flavors, which hit their menu about five years ago. With a formula of raw cashews, extra virgin coconut oil, pure cocoa butter, coconut cream, and organic cane sugar, the ice cream is beloved by vegans and non-vegans. “It’s not just good vegan ice cream–it’s incredible ice cream that happens to be vegan,” Laura told us. Pete, Ben, and Laura recently gave us a tour of one of their new NYC stores, a small pastel-painted shop on the Upper West Side. Ahead, hear from Laura about Van Leeuwen’s humble start in Brooklyn, the decision-making-process behind new flavors, and plans to expand even further.
Can you discuss the origins of the company and how everyone met?
Pete and Ben are brothers and grew up in Connecticut. I met Ben in London in 2006 and moved from Australia to New York in 2007. Pete had been living in Greenpoint for about 10 years already, and Ben was graduating from college when we all moved in together to begin our idea for Van Leeuwen.
The idea for Van Leeuwen Ice Cream came one day when Ben was in Manhattan going on a job interview and found himself standing in front of a Mr. Softee truck thinking, “why doesn’t anyone sell truly awesome ice cream out of trucks?” Pete and Ben had driven Good Humor trucks around Connecticut during college, so they had some experience with mobile vending. In that moment, Ben knew that he had to make this happen. He called Pete and I and told us about the idea and asked us if we wanted to do it with him and Van Leeuwen ice cream was born!
The company published the Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Book in 2015; it features 100 ice cream recipes
When the company was in its early stages, what were some issues you ran into?
We were making pure simple ice cream from scratch using the best possible ingredients and never any gums stabilizers or fillers. In the early days we couldn’t afford to have our own factory, so we had to find somewhere that we could make it using our recipes and our ingredients. When we first presented our recipes to the people at the dairy, they told us we needed to add a laundry list of other ingredients, simply because that was how “everybody made ice cream.”
We stuck to our guns and made our ice cream the way we wanted to, our dedication to quality and purity was our driving force from day one, and as we continue to grow we are unwavering in this commitment. We will always continue to find efficiencies in other areas so that we never have to compromise the quality of our ice cream.
Classic strawberry is a customer favorite
Van Leeuwen recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. What has changed within the company or with the ice cream market in the last decade?
We started Van Leeuwen with $60,000, which is practically nothing to start a food business. For the first five years, we had a very small core team and never even had an office. As we continue to grow so has our team. Although the three of us are still heavily involved in every facet of our business, we have been able to hire some amazing people to be a part of the team.
A hearty scoop of Sicilian Pistachio
How often do the ice cream flavors change and how do you come up with them?
We do four to five new special flavors every month or so. Ben and our director of research and development Ellie spearhead the development of these flavors but often ideas will come from other team members too. We make everything from scratch, including our add-ins, so we can bring virtually any flavor idea to life and also in the most Van Leeuwen way, where deliciousness and quality are always hand-in-hand.
Laura pours some hot fudge on a cup of Cookie Crumble Strawberry Jam
What is it about your vegan flavors that differ from other vegan brands?
We started making vegan ice cream about five years ago, and never wanted it to be an afterthought. If we couldn’t make it as good as our dairy ice cream, then we wouldn’t have done it. Ben developed a formula using raw cashews, extra virgin coconut oil, pure cocoa butter, coconut cream, and organic cane sugar. It’s not just good vegan ice cream — it’s incredible ice cream that happens to be vegan. About half of our menu in the stores is vegan, and it’s loved by vegans and non-vegans alike. Some of our most popular flavors include Vegan Planet Earth, which is an almond flavored ice cream made blue using spirulina, with chunks of matcha tea cake, making it look just like planet earth when scooped into a ball.
Is there a most popular flavor?
One of our most popular flavors is Honeycomb. We start with our sweet cream base then make honeycomb in-house by caramelizing organic brown rice syrup and adding baking soda to make it puff up. Once it’s hardened we smash it into small pieces and fold it through the ice cream. The chunks stay crunchy on the inside and chewy on the outside and create ribbons of caramel throughout.
Can you talk about the design of your stores and packaging? Why the pastel color scheme?
We were fortunate enough to get to work with the world-renowned design firm Pentagram on a redo of our packaging a couple of years ago. The team identified that with so much noise in the ice cream section of the freezer, We would benefit from a less-is-more philosophy. We stripped back our design to feature just our logo and our brand colors. Pentagram did an exceptional job, and the proof is in the pudding (or ice cream in our case!) as our pint sales doubled overnight after we switched out our packaging.
Any more plans to expand?
Big time! We have a couple more stores opening in 2018 and around another 10 in 2019 as well as expanding our wholesale distribution.
- 102-year-old Orwasher’s Bakery is preserving NYC nostalgia while adapting to the times
- Where I Work: The team behind Black Seed Bagels shows off their new Nomad shop
- Where I Work: Go inside SHoP Architects’ aviation-inspired offices in the Woolworth Building
Neighborhoods : Upper West Side