Today, let’s go outside the realm of fashion (you don’t need to work in fashion to make beautiful things!) to talk about a very stylish job, the life of a restaurateur… Oh, and not any type : I’m talking about an ice cream truck.
My interest in the subject came about quite simply: I’m a huge fan of Van Leeuwen ice cream. They’re delicious and they have an Earl Grey flavor (anything Early Grey is enough to create a new obsession for me).
How do you create a brand? How do you decide to go for a truck? How do you define your image, the name, the color, the flavors? How do you work with your ex?
The awesome Laura answered all of our questions…
Oh, and if you don’t have time to read the interview right this second, can we just talk about how cute Laura’s dress is and how it perfectly matches the color of the truck ? Making your outfit work with your environment, now that’s style!
Did you go to university?
No, I didn’t do a classic degree, but I did study at night. I studied events management, and ended up getting exempt from all of my subjects because I was working during the day and learning more from that. I’ve always been really into working.
So what were you doing before you guys started Van Leeuwen with the first truck?
I’m from Australia and I was working in event production so I was organizing pretty large-scale events. I did some restaurant openings for Jamie Oliver and that sort of thing. I was interested in a creative field but I didn’t really love what I was doing.
I met Ben on a holiday in London and we started dating long distance. I moved out here to Brooklyn in May of 2007, and just before that he called me, and said, “I have this idea for ice cream trucks.” He asked me to help when I got here, and I thought, sure, I have all of this experience and I’m not going to have anything to do when I get there because I’m quitting my job. So it kind of just went from there.
How do you think working in event production has helped with your work for Van Leeuwen?
When we were in the very early planning stages of Van Leeuwen, I more or less treated it as I would have one of my events in my past job. I would prepare work in progress documents to help us keep clear all that we had to do. As an event producer I worked across all facets from creative to PR and marketing, budgeting, equipment set up etc, so I think all of that experience was hugely helpful for getting Van Leeuwen up and running.
Why did you guys decide to start with the truck model rather than a brick-and-mortar shop?
The idea was always for ice cream trucks because Ben identified that nobody was serving good ice cream out of trucks. Also the trucks out there were not really that beautiful: they were really noisy and had little windows and people felt they were dirty.
It’s nothing new to sell ice cream out of trucks, but we were making the trucks really beautiful and making the product as good as it could possibly be. Initially we thought we could find a product to sell out of the trucks, but we quickly learned about all this junk that was going into ice cream. We realized we were going to have to make our own ice cream. None of us have a culinary background, but we’re all super into food. My mom is a vegan and my dad’s a really keen home cook so I grew up eating amazing real food.
Was there a reason why you wanted to do an ice cream truck? Where did that idea come from?
Well Ben and Pete drove a Good Humor truck [a classic ice cream truck] around Connecticut when Ben was in college. I think that’s where the first seed was planted. Ben made a lot of money doing that, so he saw that there was something there. There were low overheads and good margins, particularly on the kinds of stuff they were selling back then. They were selling around Greenwich, Connecticut and they were marking up like 5 times.
So how did you fund the trucks in the beginning?
We got some of our friends to invest. A friend of mine who lives in California invested a few thousand dollars, so did some of Ben’s college friends and one of his professors. And then we got a line of credit. We didn’t really have any huge investors.
We thought we needed to raise more than we did, but we just started with what we had. Being the truck model it was easy to start with the money that we had. All of us worked every day and we didn’t have any staff so we just reinvested everything back into the company.
What kind of budget were you guys looking for in the beginning?
We started Van Leeuwen with around $80k, which included our first two trucks and the early production runs of the ice cream.
And now that you guys have the shops and the restaurant, what are the biggest differences between running the truck and having a space?
Well the brick and mortar locations are pretty awesome because they can’t break down. Also, once we get a good manager we feel like they can more or less take care of themselves.
With the trucks it was a little harder to hand that over to the employees. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot can go wrong. They’re old trucks. They have generators running them. You have to find good places to park.
The design of the truck is very unique. What was your concept for them?
One of the key things we did with the trucks was, actually Ben ordered windows for the trucks, and then I saw them and was like why don’t we make them as big as they can possibly be. We wanted them to be light and airy and be very approachable. And to be a nice place to work as well. As you can imagine certain trucks are probably not that ideal to be working in.
So the large windows were a main design feature. And we wanted it to be a color that was sunshiny and creamy but not a sickening yellow, so it took us a long time to find that yellow. We looked through all of these Pantone books and nothing seemed quite right and then we came across a General Motors vintage car color book and I found that one and was like that’s it. It’s perfect.
Then Ben got a local artist to do the botanical drawings of the ingredients. I don’t think people always understand that that’s what it is; we’re actually in the process of redesigning our menu right now. At first people were like are you selling plants? And we’re like “no, we’re selling ice cream.” So we quickly slapped some cones on the trucks as well. We wanted the design to feel timeless and we also weren’t sure whether we’d be able to get the same trucks again so it had to be simple design features that we could apply to any vehicle and be able to recognize it as a Van Leeuwen truck.
Van Leeuwen is Pete and Ben’s last name, buy why did you choose to use it as the name for the business?
The original name was “Churn”, but our lawyers thought it was too similar to another brand name and that we might run in to trouble down the track. Pete and Ben felt weird about using their own name, but I just thought it was perfect. Looks great in our script logo, sounds nice (once you can pronounce it) and is relevant being the last name of two of the founders. I guess it’s funny that as the only non-Van Leeuwen, I was so set on using it.
I can’t imagine driving one of your trucks in New York City–was that something that took time for you to learn?
The guys were pretty good at it because they’d driven trucks before. I was a little nervous to begin with because we drive on the other side of the road in Australia and I used to drive a really small car back in Melbourne. But I think that pretty early on I got thrown in the deep end and got used to it. I just drive it like it’s a normal car.
How does parking work? Your parking locations must be pretty important.
We started with 2 trucks, and there weren’t as many trucks back in 2008 when we launched. Also, the kinds of locations that we wanted were not really the spots that Mister Softee or other trucks wanted to go to.
The truck at Prince and Greene was one of our first locations, and a location like that is so amazing because you can imagine how high the rents would be there. It’s all this amazing foot traffic and tourists.
Do you have a permit for stuff like that?
Yeah, we have a city wide permits, so basically we can park in all five boroughs, except for those places you can’t park, like on Fifth Ave near all of those fancy stores, they don’t let you park there. I think we do the best in lower Manhattan. We used to go to the Upper West Side and that was really good to begin with and then it petered out.
How do you think this thirst for food trucks has influenced the business you’re doing? You guys were pretty early on that wave.
It’s hard to say. We have also expanded from 2 to 6 trucks and then three stores, so there’s a lot of other places where people can get our ice cream. In a way we may have cannibalized our own business. But I think we’re still offering something no one else is and we have a really loyal following.
I think as long as we don’t lose spots because of other trucks. Sometimes areas can get too busy and cops will become annoying and that’s frustrating because we’ve been there for years and all these new trucks are coming. But I think the more the merrier. I just hope with what people save on overheads they’ll put it into their product rather than just opening a truck just to be a part of this fad. And you see it, a lot of trucks will just open and then close because they thought it was this thing that would be so easy and make a ton of money, and actually running trucks is tough. And we’re serving one of the simplest products. We have zero food wastage; if we don’t sell it today we can sell it tomorrow.
What about the emissions from the trucks? How eco-friendly are they?
Our truck engines are actually only running while moving to and from our permanent locations, we don’t roam like some other trucks. The freezers are plate freezers and only plug in at night, so they are running silently and without power doing the day. We have small clean air generators that power our lights, cash registers and fudge pumps. So the trucks are actually very green. We also use bio compostable cups made from Bagasse (sugar cane husks) and corn spoons and drink cups.
Ice cream is a very seasonal thing, so how did that affect the business, especially in the beginning before you had the stores?
Early in the season when we have those rainy days it’s tough because we come out of a long hard winter and we’re ready for the weather, but then it’s raining and we don’t get to put the truck out that day.
But, we do sell coffee as well. We started doing that in year two, and that was great to help keep us a float during the winter and it was something that we felt we could execute as well as the ice cream.
The stores do year round ice cream business as well, and the trucks too. We don’t sell a lot of ice cream off the trucks in the winter, but we do sell some. It’s just important for us to get good spots and be out for very long days selling ice cream for as long as we can during the summer months.
The food business in general seems like a game in patience. Was it frustrating in the beginning? How long do you think it really took before you felt like you had a good hold on the market?
With the ice cream we were very lucky. We were really well received and profitable from day one. That first day in SoHo, we looked out the window and a line formed and it’s kind of been that way ever since.
We launched right in the middle of an economic downpour, actually Ben wrote in our business plan “ice cream is recession proof” and then we got the chance to prove it. Pretty much right as we launched, June of 2008, everything fell apart but people were still happy to be standing. Our scoop was $4, and $4 of a scoop of good ice cream is an affordable luxury, it’s a comfort food so we almost benefited from that.
Also, since we weren’t paying huge rents and things and we worked the trucks ourselves we had a pretty easy start surprisingly. We were living cheaply and operating cheaply so we kept it up.
I know the ingredients are very important, and that can be more expensive, to source things locally. Why was that so important to you, and how has that affected your business?
It’s the most important thing to us. When we were getting started we were looking at all of these ice creams and we were like why is there guar gum in this, why is there carrageenan? We can make this ice cream on our stove at home, which is milk, cream, cane sugar, egg yolks, vanilla bean, and it’s exceptional. Why isn’t anyone serving ice cream like that? It doesn’t need to have this other stuff in it. It’s frozen, it’s completely shelf stable.
We really pushed the boundaries doing that, and even when we found the facility upstate where we used to make our ice cream, they were like “oh you should put milk powder in it” and we were like, “no way, milk powder is not delicious, it doesn’t belong in ice cream”. That is something we would never compromise, the quality. I don’t think we cut corners anywhere, but we will be savvy in other areas so we can have the money to stand on the ingredients.
Also, as we grow larger we have more buying power; we can deal direct with the pistachio people in Sicily, rather than going through a distributor. Dairy costs, it’s nothing we can control. We have raised our prices in the last five years, which is understandable. Some people think we’re expensive, but if we compromised that we might as well close. The product is everything we are. We would never stop using such good ingredients.
People are like “oh would you ever sell the business?” and I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to execute it like we do. It would be really sad to sell the business and have somebody change the product. I mean people can definitely taste the difference. I don’t think they know exactly what it is, but they feel good after they eat it, and it’s not gummy, and it doesn’t sit in your mouth afterwards.
Have you thought about putting stores in other locations outside the city?
We’ve thought about it a lot actually. From day one we’ve thought about California because it’s a year round market. But it just boils down to logistically, it’s kind of a nightmare. One or maybe two of us would have to move out there to set it up.
We’ve been in Whole Foods almost since day one, so I think the way to grow around the country would be distribution of the pints. It would be cool to do trucks, but we have so much going on here.
Especially with your Balinese restaurant, Selamat Pagi, opening here. I’m sure it’s keeping you guys busy.
This is actually our headquarters. This is where we make all of the ice cream, and the restaurant is kind of a side project on that because we had the space, and I love Balinese food.
Where did that come from?
Well I’m from Australia, which is a lot closer to Bali than we are now. Ben and I went there like three times together and became obsessed with the food. One of the times we took a cooking class and learned a lot. Probably 6 of the dishes on the menu are from that class. There are a couple of Indonesian places in the city, but none that are using good ingredients.
We’ve been doing the ice cream for a long time, and although we still love it, it’s exciting to do something different. It’s kind of like a dream to own a restaurant, and to be able to apply the same ideals that we do to the ice cream kitchen to the savory kitchen. It’s been really fun. It’s a lot more work than we anticipated, I think we thought it could be this thing that we have this space and the office is there, but it’s been really hands on.
How have you embraced the restaurateur lifestyle?
Actually, I really love it. None of us are chefs. Jason Greenberg’s our chef and he’s amazing. He really takes care of all the ordering and that kind of thing.
We’re definitely here though, there’s one of us here every night. I realize now that when I leave my house in the morning that I’m not coming back until 1am. It’s hard to fit in anything that’s not work related. I recently started playing guitar, and I need to practice, but if I don’t practice in the morning I know it just doesn’t happen.
But it never really feels like work. Once I’m here I just stay, I love the kind of community element of having a restaurant, especially in a neighborhood like Greenpoint. That was what was really nice about opening the stores; it just felt like a community, like we were a part of something.
And you and Ben are married too right?
We’re married but we’re not together. We broke up like 2 years ago, so I guess it’s even more interesting.
Wow! So how does that work?
I think it’s fine. But I think with family, sometimes it’s good because you can sort of say anything, but sometimes it’s bad because you can say anything. I think with me being the non-Van Leeuwen one, I’m less tolerant. Ben and Pete bicker and I don’t want to know about it. Pete’s always treated me like I’m his little sister or something.
I mean Ben and I are fine, we can be explosive at times but once you’ve been so close with someone, if there’s tension it can be ironed out very quickly. People are like, “oh my god that’s insane, how do you do it?” But we started this thing together and it wouldn’t have happened without me or without him. We’re both so invested in it that there was really no way either of us could walk away from this, or that we would want to, even though when you break up with someone it’s probably the easiest to never see them again.
Well it’s good you’ve been able to maintain that working relationship.
I think everyone can benefit from being a little more professional. Ben & Pete never really had office jobs. Kristin who’s our office manager, who was the first person we ever hired 5 years ago, came from an office job at CBS. Her and I, against the boys balances it out because we have an idea of what it is to be professional and they’re just kind of crazy.
So how many people do you guys have working for you?
We have about 60 plus by the time summer is in full swing. And with the restaurant as well, so it’s grown a lot since the early days when it was me, Ben, Pete, our friend Dan, and then we hired Kristin and Sophie and that was it.
What do you look for when you’re hiring people?
We really like people who are into the product or who are into food. They have to be excited about it. Luckily with ice cream it’s pretty easy to get people excited.
And then we never want to be an angsty hipster place. So customer service: being friendly but sincere is really important to us. And then keeping things super clean. We’re up against the stigmatism of vending trucks being revolting so we really want to break that.
Would you say you have a mentor?
Not really. I feel like I have a lot of food people that I really respect, like Annie Novack from the Rooftop Farm, and we really love what The Mast Brothers do. There’re so many great people in this neighborhood doing awesome things with food. Our very good friend Jordan runs a restaurant called Eat, over in Greenpoint, which has always been so dedicated to being local and the quality.
I wish I had a mentor, I should find one…
With all of those great people, do you feel like you’re part of a bigger community?
Yeah definitely, it’s really cool. I’ve been here 6 years which isn’t very long but I feel like I’m established here and my roots are here in Brooklyn. Not just with Van Leeuwen, but I organize a thing on Tuesday nights called No Lights No Lycra which is a dance jam in the dark, it’s a total departure from Van Leeuwen. I really love everything about Brooklyn: the music, food, art, all of it.
I feel like over the years the local blogs been super supportive and written about Van Leeuwen and I’ve met a lot of amazing people, so it really does feel like more of a village than the city. And Manhattan’s great, but I don’t think I could ever live there. I’d never even visited New York before I lived here.
That must have been a huge change then.
It was and it wasn’t. It was simple because I was with Ben, so when you have a boyfriend it makes it easier, and he’s from Connecticut so he knew the city pretty well. Also coming from Melbourne, it’s a big metropolitan city.
Pete has never been to Australia and he can’t grasp that I’m from a city—I think he thinks I’m in the outback drawing in red dirt or something. I’m like no; it’s normal there too.
What’s it like working in the food business as a woman? Especially in terms of how you eat and your relationship with your body.
We’re as obsessed with all facets of food and eating and nutrition. I don’t eat meat but I do eat fish, and my mom and sister are vegan, so I’ve always been brought up being very conscious about food.
But people are always saying, “how are you not fat eating ice cream a lot?” And I do eat a lot of ice cream, but I think I am obsessed with everything that I eat as I am with the ice cream that we make. So I’m not going to eat our ice cream that is so pure and eat in this incredible traditional way and then go and like eat McDonald’s. Our ice cream is really fatty, it’s 22% butter fat like it should be, but when I’m not eating ice cream I’m eating vegetables.
The one thing that’s really changed for me since I opened a restaurant is that I never cook at home anymore because I’m eating family meal here every day. I’ll buy stuff and it rots in my fridge, so I miss having to make my own meals. At the same time Jason and the other cooks are making great family meals every day.
Do you all eat together?
Not really, we just kind of hover out of the back and eat it. I wish we all sat down and discussed the menu but in reality it’s always a race to the doors. There’s always ice cream around but everything else that’s around is great quality.
What would be the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
I don’t know if it’s advice anyone gave us, but we definitely learned quickly not to compromise what we wanted to do. People will always say this is the easier, faster way to do something, but you should always do it the way you feel is right.
And then, I mean it’s really cliché but to be friendly and positive is so important, and to treat people with respect. We’ve all had shitty jobs in the past, so I think I’m always mindful of knowing that these people who work with us are choosing to come here and do this and they’re representing our company, and we’re paying them as much as we can but they need to be respected. I’m not going to take out a bad mood on any of our employees. I’ve had terrible bosses so I would never. These are humans and they need to be treated well.
Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in starting a business like yours?
I think definitely go into it out of a passion for food or for the product you’re going to make and not out of business. Do what you love and hopefully the money will come, but don’t make it about that. Make smart decisions so that you don’t end up bankrupting yourself, but I hate when I see places that open because that’s the fad. There’s so much out there that it would be great if everywhere really cared about what they were doing.
What is your dream for the business for the future?
I really want to grow the wholesale, like selling the pints. I think that could be a really great way of getting really stable with the business and having year around business.
But I guess I just wish that the trucks and stores will be really busy and that people will continue to love the ice cream. The restaurant is doing great, but just to continue to build it.
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