Way back in the summer of 2013, we first noticed ice creamery and coffee chop Van Leeuwen‘s welcome vegan friendliness. They were on our regular route from our home in Carroll Gardens to our design studio in Cobble Hill and we saw a poster they’d put up about their new vegan flavors. We reached out to them then and there to find out more, writing up a brief piece on the journal at the time. Then, when we made the move to Los Angeles a little while later, we again stumbled across them, this time in pint form as they expanded to new and exciting flavors (again, a write-up). As their ice cream kingdom grows to include five shops and a fleet of trucks in NYC, two trucks in LA, and two-going-on-three brick-and-mortars in Los Angeles, we thought we’d reach out again, getting the scoop from co-founder and one of two namesakes, Pete Van Leeuwen, on the move west, their propensity for amazing vegan ice cream, and our eerily parallel moves.
raven + crow: Okay, first off, how did you all get into the ice cream game in the first place? What’s the story behind the early days of Van Leeuwen?
Pete Van Leeuwen: Ben and I used to rent Good Humor ice cream trucks from a couple of Greek brothers named Teddy and Peter from Queens and sell novelties in the suburbs for a few summers . A few years later, Ben graduated from Skidmore with the idea of selling the best ice cream in NYC out of retrofitted ice cream trucks. I was already living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn working for a vodka company and playing in a couple bands. Laura had just arrived from Down Unduh, and her and Ben moved into my apartment. Within a year, we had bought and outfitted two old postal trucks, learned how to make and produce incredibly good ice cream, and hit the streets much to the delight of the “ever so hungry for the new” New Yorkers .
And where does that name come from? I mean, I know it’s you and your brother’s surname, but what’s the inspiration behind using that for the business name?
Originally we were calling ourselves Churn, but we were advised that IF we ever were successful with our brand, undoubtedly someone would sue us…. So , we decided to go with our very difficult-to-spell last name, against my wishes. In the end I’m of course thrilled that we went with it, as I can’t imagine it being anything but Van Leeuwen. You only have to plug the first 4 or 5 letters in and Google knows what you mean, so spelling didn’t turn out to be an issue.
Good point. Guessing Churn would not have fared so well in this internet age. So no affiliation with the nationwide distributor of aftermarket motorcycle parts and accessories since 1973, then?
None. Nor with the guitarist from Queens of the Stone Age or the father of microbiology Van Leeuwenhoek (though I can’t confirm this!)
I mean, food chemistry’s clearly in the blood…. Can you school us on the correct pronunciation? Sorry for the fixation—we’re branding people.
That helps. I usually gave you all the usual treatment when I don’t know a pronunciation, where you kind of murmur the syllables you’re not sure about. The result was something along the lines of ‘Van Lu-uh’. So you started out with the trucks and then the shops in NYC, then you landed a truck in LA—oddly right when we moved into town (thank you)—and now you’ve got a shop in Culver City and one that just opened (pictured above) walking distance from our studio…AND one seemingly opening down in Franklin Village, walking distance from our house. So the clear question is: Are you guys stalking us?
Yes. We have all of our favorite customers micro-chipped. We track their movements for 2-3 years before plugging the information into an algorithm my cousin wrote, which then dictates our next location to open in. It’s very good, in that we can even zero in on precise neighborhoods, blocks and even program in filters like “southwestern facing storefronts only”.
I KNEW it!
The truth of it is, we actually started with 2 trucks in NY. Eventually we opened a store front, then a few more all the while growing the fleet of trucks up to 6 in total. I took 2 of those 6 trucks (the Eagle and the Rattlesnake, both native creatures to California), put them on a flatbed truck, and sent them here with the same strategy in mind for LA…. In terms of good taste in neighborhoods and such? Well I guess we’re just on a plane.
No, seriously though, you’re taking over LA—what’s the story behind the initial westward move?
We’d entertained the idea of coming to LA from the first winter in business, actually. 2014 (7th year in biz) was the first year we could make it happen. I was getting colder and colder with every passing winter and was psyched to spearhead the big leap.
I hear you, man. Without just dissing New York—which we all love dearly—what do you all like about Los Angeles?
The weather, the weather, the weather aaaaaaand the weather. No really, there’s a lot I like about it. The tacos, the sushi, the farmer’s markets, the ocean and mountains, Griffith Park, living in Beachwood canyon. The people out here all seem more relaxed (for better of for worse!). There’s even a better music scene than I’d anticipated, great venues and so many great outdoor events like the shows and films at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, etc. The proximity to the desert and loads of National Parks. Life is pretty good in LA if you can handle the traffic thing. I think the traffic is why so many dispensaries stay in business.
So true on so many fronts. And yeah, you’re right about the music scene—I was pleasantly shocked to find how vibrant it is here, and I feel like it’s just getting more so.
So, we used to walk by your Boerum Hill shop nearly every day on the way to our studio. I actually tell the story of the time Hope Davis had to calm down our then newly adopted dog outside of that shop so I could pick up coffee one day. Absolutely no question there, I just needed to meet my weekly quota of telling that story. Check!
That’s awesome! How’d she do it? Or was the pup just star struck into submission?
I mean, I was, Owen the Dog coulda’ cared less. Though Ms. Davis was great with him. If you’re reading this and ever looking for a backup career, we suggest dog whisperer.
So, how are things back in New York? Are you all looking to expand there as well? Or…what’s the next phase of ice cream world domination for you all?
We are just about to open up our ice cream factory in Greenpoint that we’ve been building out for almost an entire year! By mid 2016 we will have doubled our number of shops from 4 to 8 and so I think it wise to try and refine the entire operation and have it running as perfectly as possible before determining our next big move. That said though, you never know. Sometimes when an opportunity arises you have to take it. We weren’t planning on Franklin Village as being a possibility for us but one day there was a “for rent “ sign in the window and we KNEW we had to have that spot. An absolute home run location (and right down the street from my house, so hard to beat)!
Man, yeah, we’re neighbors! Beachwood’s the absolute best. Can’t wait for the Franklin location. Speaking of new though, you all did just do an ice cream “cook”book, right?
Oh yeah. Came out in June. We worked on it for almost 2 years. There’s 100 incredible and VERY accessible recipes, both classic and vegan in it, and we are all very proud of it. The incredibly talented and sweet Olga Massov helped us write it.
That’s awesome. Being longtime vegans, that was the thing that set you all apart for us, the really fucking good vegan flavors. And not just, like, chocolate and vanilla—ya’ll have a ton of really great, creative, addictive vegan flavors. First off, what made you all want to offer that?
Actually, we’d talked about it for a couple years before really going for it, but one day I remember talking to Ben in the East Village shop and having one of those “duh” moments where you realize you absolutely HAVE TO do something. I stressed how important I thought it was that we offered vegan options and pushed him to get the ball rolling with experimenting and R&D and so forth . Initially we came up with just a chocolate and vanilla that were primarily coconut based and where they were “good” they certainly weren’t great. Ben who is far and away the most talented ice cream maker among us, buckled down and went to town on experimentation, refining and refining until finally emerging with a cashew milk, organic coconut milk, organic cocoa butter, organic extra virgin coconut oil base that, when brought to life with our meticulously soured flavors, in my experience turned out to be without doubt, the best vegan ice cream in the world.
I mean, we’re not ones to fall for easy superlatives, but we 100% agree and have for a while now—you guys do vegan fucking well. What are your favorite current flavors?
Favorite classic flavor currently is the Chocolate. We use Michel Cluizel 99% infini noir dark chocolate in our ice cream and, with as many amazing specialty flavors as we are making right now (which are incredible!), at times, I come back to the basics. Though our chocolate is anything but basic, my chocolate addiction must be answered to…daily. My favorite vegan flavor is The Green Tea Matcha, which is exclusive to LA right now. It may also be the most photogenic flavor we’ve every made!
Um, agreed (see below). Literally just had it for the first time. It’s really good—rivals my prior favorite, the Salted Caramel. Any crazy-awesome new flavors (vegan or non-) on the ice cream horizon? …mmmm, ice cream horizon.
Oh most definitely . I can’t let you in on it, but I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with “nerf” but is positively not “turf”.
I mean, happy to hear you’re not doing a steak flavor, but surf-flavored…might be gritty. Thanks, Pete!
If you’re in New York or Los Angeles, you’re probably standing next to or in front of a Van Leeuwen right now—look up. If not, you can check their site for shop locations and their trucks’ Twitter feeds. You can also get their pints—vegan and not—in a good number of stores in NYC + LA; check their locator online (Beachwooders, look for them in the freezer at the Oaks).
Above, a shot we just took of the new shop’s exterior, part of One Santa Fe, that giant condo building with bright red accents that’s started to open pretty great businesses on the ground level, Van Leeuwe and Cafe Gratitude among them. To the right, opening night at the new location (courtesy of Van Leeuwin). Below, the Arts District shop’s interior (courtesy of VL); the aforementioned vegan Matcha, which is indeed amazing (photo VL); really really good vegan chocolate chunk cookies at the Art District shop, made by Pete himself; a sign describing what you can do with those cookies; us, enjoying having done that with those cookies. By the by, if you haven’t done it before, I highly recommend ice cream lunch. The sugar coma that follows is quite calming.