Enjoying the sweet life with Van Leeuwen Ice Cream; AWNY Startup Stories interviews Laura O’Neill

Life is full of twists and turns, and while visiting her brother in London in 2006 Laura O’Neill fell for an American living in London. She followed her heart and made the transatlantic hop from Melbourne to New York. When the romantic relationship faltered, it gave way to an even stronger friendship and business relationship.

Read on to discover more about the string of successful ice cream trucks and NYC/L.A. ice cream shops that are the very hip and very delicious Van Leeuwen brand.

What brought you to the USA?

I met my business partner (then boyfriend) Ben in London in 2006, I was ready for a change so jumped at the opportunity when he suggested I move to NYC and start a ice cream truck business with him and his brother, Pete.

Tell us more about how you met and why are you are in business together?

Ben and Pete had driven ice cream trucks as summer job in Connecticut during college, then right before graduation Ben was in Manhattan and found himself in front of a Mr Softee truck thinking “why doesn’t anyone sell great ice cream off trucks?” That was the ah-ha moment and the birth of the idea.

How was the new business born? 

After enlisting Pete and myself, the three of us started experimenting with making ice cream in our shared Brooklyn apartment.

We were making amazing ice cream using simply milk, cream, cane sugar and egg yolks, but when we looked to find a simple product to buy and sell off the trucks, nothing met our standards of purity. We knew we had to find a way to make our own recipes on a large scale. All the ice cream we found were full of stabilizers, fillers and gums and no one was using exceptional chocolates, fruits nuts etc. Simultaneously as we were experimenting with ice cream making, we found an old 1988 Chevrolet Step Van and retrofitted in to our first pretty yellow ice cream truck.

Was there capital investment when you started up?

We wrote a business plan and raised $60K to get started (very little for a food business!) We managed to pull together the funds from small investments from friends and family and a line of credit. We’ve grown without further investment until this day, with the help of some debt and a small business grant we won in 2012. We currently have 8 stores and 6 trucks across NYC and L.A. and sell our pints of ice cream through around 250 wholesale accounts, with big plans to expand in the next 12 months.

Starting up can be notoriously difficult – what motivates you to keep going?

I won’t lie, there have been some really tough days; time management goes out the window, you’re being pulled in all directions. One particular day there was a literal meltdown of a ton of our ice cream! That was stressful for sure, but with each challenge you realize how resilient and resourceful you can be difficult times and how you deal with these moments, define you as an entrepreneur.

How do you know that you are on the right path?

By remaining authentic to our vision. It’s easy for us to know what to do, because we have a clear vision and know what we won’t do. It comes back to our passion for our product; we will not compromise our ingredients.

How many people are working in your business?

We manage about 180 people at the peak of our busy season, across retail, production and office.

Lets talk about your brand messaging…

Our dedication to making the best ice cream is completely authentic, we use the best ingredients across all our flavors. About 5 years ago we introduced our vegan ice cream. The easy thing would have been to start using gums and fillers to give it the right “mouth feel”, but instead we created a product using fats from plant based ingredients that naturally mimic ice cream. For our vegan ice cream we use house made cashew milk, cocoa butter (the fat from chocolate), coconut cream and coconut oil. Last year we rebranded our pints and chose to work with design firm Pentagram; the best in the biz. With their guidance we were able to realize a brand image that so perfectly and simply communicates our vision.

What is your strongest marketing tool?

Instagram (check us out at @vanleeuwanicecream) is our best marketing tool. We’ve not yet ever spent a cent on marketing or PR so tools like Instagram are a great direct link to our customers.

It was a very deliberate decision to make our packaging more Instagrammable and we’ve doubled our sales since the redesign.

Deciding to use the professional design services of Pentagram was a very smart move; it’s important to know when to invest and work with other professionals to move your business forward.

Photo credit: Sydney Bensimon / Van Leeuwan Facebook

Where are your sales coming from?

Mainly our sales are from our retail; scoop shops that do great and of course our ice cream trucks. Currently we are focusing on wholesale distribution and opening more stores. We also do a lot of events with our trucks, film sets, weddings, festivals etc.

Tell us about ‘Aha’ moment – I’ve made it in New York!

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day grind, but it’s amazing to simply be at the stores and see people enjoying our ice cream. The food business can be tough, many try and fail, so although we’ve worked very hard we also feel very lucky that we have so many loyal customers that keep us going!

What are your 3 greatest learning’s in starting up a business? 

  1. Its worth investing in getting your packaging design right.
  2. Invest in quality equipment , if you cut corners it will cost more in the long run.
  3. Be authentic and focused, dig in your heels and stand up for what you believe.

What have been your greatest challenges in starting up a new business in New York? 

The mobile vending world presents many hurdles in terms of permits and parking and truck break downs etc, and the city doesn’t go out of their way to be very helpful, so that can be challenging.

Managing people, particularly as we grow isn’t always easy. When we were smaller it was simpler to convey and promote the company culture we desire. Nowadays we rely on great leaders within the company to help keep our culture and vision strong when we can’t always be present. Our team is awesome!

Going through a break-up with my business partner was a trying time, but we certainly came out stronger and closer and have done our best work since breaking up.

What do you love about doing business in New York? 

  1. If you have a good product, people will support it.
  2. There is the population density to support any type of idea and people who will collaborate with you!
  3. You can always find what you need; I’ll often be searching for an specific part or piece of equipment and realize I can find it right in our own neighborhood.

Photo credit: Van Leeuwan Facebook

In hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?

We used to be such purists when it came to our flavors. The early menu was all single ingredient flavors, now we are willing to make more fun flavors with chunks and swirls etc, so long as we make everything in-house from scratch.

What advice would you give to someone else in a start-up?

  • Partner with the right people and its good to have business partnerships.
  • When you have an exceptional product, keep working at it. We never rested on our laurels; we continued to evolve our product.
  • It’s when you become stagnant that your business gets stale.

What is next for you and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream?

We are working towards opening more stores in New York and L.A., and increasing our wholesale distribution.

When I’m not doing all things ice cream related, I’m making music with my band Laura and Greg and running the Brooklyn chapter of No Lights, No Lycra. My partners I also run an Indonesian restaurant we opened 4 years ago called Selamat Pagi in Greenpoint.

As a final note, what was your favourite ice cream flavour growing up?

I have very fond memories of vanilla dixie cups with chocolate syrup on top.  Also I loved vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries, and I’m especially nostalgic about Hokey Pokey ice cream and it inspired our honeycomb flavour, that’s our number one seller.

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The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream book can be ordered through Amazon.

 

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