Ben Van Leeuwen may drive ice cream trucks, but he’s anything but your afterschool ice cream man. His business, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream is a twenty-first century take on the schoolyard ice cream truck model: he ditched the annoying music, switched out melty popsicles for artisanally crafted flavors, and moves his fleet of trucks between the cities busiest corners. Ben, along with his business partners Peter Van Leeuwen and Laura O’Neill, is scooping out a name for Van Leeuwen’s these days.
CONVICTS caught up with the ice cream guru and got the full download on quality ingredients, the best spots to eat ice cream in New York, and the ways that classic ice cream truck music can make you crazy.
Hey Ben. To start, can you tell us what’s so special about eating ice cream?
One of the unique things about ice cream is that you’re like it’s changing its state from frozen to liquid like during the eating process.
How did Van Leeuwen get its start?
So I started Van Leeuwen ice cream in 2009 with my brother Pete Van Leeuwen and my girlfriend at the time Laura O’Neill.
What sets Van Leeuwen Ice Cream apart from the imitators?
What’s special about Van Leeuwen ice cream is that we’re only using milk, cream, cane sugar and organic egg yolks, then we’re finding the absolute best ingredients. We’re not using any powders or stabilizers.
Can you tell us a bit more about the ingredients and flavors?
So we do cold ground Tahitian vanilla, Bronte Sicilian pistachio, organic Colombian coffee, salted caramel with Maldom salt. We do a northwest totem strawberry ice cream which is the variety of strawberry from Oregon, we do mint chip which is organic peppermint with 72% single plantation Askinosie Choclate chips. We do an Early Grey tea that we buy from a tea trader called Rishi-really amazing black tea mixed with a bit of bergamot citrus oil. People think that flavor tastes like fruit loops. It really does, strange. We do ginger which is made with organic Fijian ginger, we do honeycomb a classic British Australian dessert flavor.
I’m getting aroused hearing about all this ice cream. Changing gears, how has Van Leeuwen’s evolved over the years?
About three years ago we started making vegan ice cream which was a huge hit. That surprised us-we didn’t realize how successful the vegan ice cream would be. Also, we’ve got five stores in NYC and two in LA. A third one under construction in Franklin Village which will be our flagship in LA, so we’re very excited about that.
Good on you. How do you make the vegan ice cream?
We make with cashew milk, coconut milk, cocoa butter-which is the fat from chocolate-raw extroverted coconut oil and organic cane sugar.
How is selling ice cream in New York different from selling ice cream in LA?
LA is our second city. The weather in LA is more conducive to ice cream year ’round but it doesn’t have the same density of population so it can be a little harder in ways.
Can you tell us what you mean by artisanal ice cream?
It means making our number one goal deliciousness and quality and never doing anything with the product based on cost. We’re completely transparent, we constantly have people into the factory because there’s never any ingredient we’re be ashamed of, which is cool. We make our cakes the way they’re made in two and three Michelin star pastry kitchens, not ice cream factories.
Did you have to forge your own path in that regard? I imagine there weren’t too many high end ice cream operations to model Van Leeuwen’s on?
There’s a standard for ice cream. They say “Ok, you should spend this much on ingredients per this much sales.” We’re double that, cause we realized no one was making ice cream in a way that matched what our vision for ice cream. Our cost of goods sold is the highest in the industry which means we’re not getting rich but the customers getting the best value which is pretty cool.
What interesting things have you found selling ice cream? What are the primo streets for ice cream?
It’s interesting to see the difference of like five blocks. I think the reason Canal doesn’t work is that people just want to get off of Canal. Whereas Greene in Soho is this very pleasant street you wouldn’t mind hanging out on, waiting in line for ice cream. We’re always trying new spots.
What are the best spots in the city for selling ice cream?
In New York city best spot is Bedford and North 7th in Williamsburg. Better than Soho better than Meatpacking to this day.
What’s the best spot in New York for eating ice cream?
I think the best spot to eat ice cream would be on the Highline on a super hot day. It’s sunny, you really want the ice cream you’re out in New York style nature.
Do you guys have the classic ice cream truck music going?
We don’t have like a loud ice cream music thing we always thought that was annoying. My brother Pete and I actually drove Good Humor ice cream trucks for two summers in Connecticut before we started this so that’s what gave us the idea to do this. We were very used to the music because those trucks had the music but it can drive you a bit crazy.
What’s your escape from the ice cream grind?
Right my escape is nature if i can, yoga on a daily basis. Laura does music, my brother is also really into music he lives in LA where we have stores and trucks so he has more accessibility to nature. We all love nature and animals yoga.
Do you think ice cream brings people together?
Oh yeah, ice cream definitely brings people together. Ice cream is social.
Keep up the good work, Ben. Thanks for the chat.