Four years ago, there weren’t many fancy food trucks in the city, and Ben Van Leeuwen and his brother Pete had no idea where to park theirs.
“We were so discouraged,” said Ben, remembering his first day in business. “Maybe this whole idea isn’t going to work.”
Then they found a spot on Greene St. in SoHo. Before they opened the window of their yellow, ‘50s-style truck and started scooping superpremium Van Leeuwen ice cream, a line had formed.
It hasn’t stopped since.
Today, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream has nine locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan – six trucks and three brick-and-mortar stores – and has become a foodie favorite and dessert truck icon.
The scrappy startup run by Ben, 28, his brother Pete, 35, and Ben’s wife Laura O’Neill, 30, employs nearly 60 people, including eight at their just-opened production facility in Greenpoint that will soon unveil a small café.
More than 50 upscale groceries, including about 20 Whole Foods stores, carry Van Leeuwen’s yellow pints.
In the works: another Van Leeuwen store in Manhattan and a possible storefront and truck in downtown L.A.
The trio, who’ve added fresh-baked pastries and Toby’s Estate Coffee to their offerings to keep business churning in slow months, are also considering expanding into frozen yogurt.
“We made our first batch the other day,” said Ben, sitting at the tiny Van Leeuwen store in Greenpoint on a recent morning, wearing shorts and rumpled shirt. “It was absolutely incredible.”
How did a just-out-of-college hipster with zero culinary or business experience launch a budding Ben & Jerry’s?
He found a unique idea – superpremium ice cream sold out of vintage trucks – gave his brand a distinct point of view, and did it all on a Dixie cup-size budget.
“It’s very authentic,” said Richard Quigley, president of Chase Business Card, which along with LivingSocial just handed Van Leeuwen a $250,000 grant through a program called Mission Small Business.
“They are harking back to a previous way that ice cream was made.”
Ben and Pete worked as Good Humor men as college students, so they understood the potential profits of selling ice cream from a truck. But their product and its presentation would be way more upscale.
While still in school, Ben decided he wanted to make ice cream that matched a growing demand among foodies for high quality, locally sourced ingredients.
He would use very few: just milk and cream, cane sugar and egg yolks mostly from local farms, and fancy flavors from around the world, like pistachios from Bronte, Italy.
Ben asked his brother and his then-girlfriend, O’Neill, to help turn the idea into a business. Working out of the kitchen of their Greenpoint apartment, they mixed up ten flavors and found an upstate New York dairy.
They raised $80,000 from family and friends. The company hasn’t raised more since, using their profits to build the business.
The money went toward the first big production run and to buying and retrofitting trucks. They added chrome grilles and bumpers, and big windows to give their mobile stores an old-fashioned feel.
“That first year Ben and I worked the trucks relentlessly, seven days a week,” Pete said.
It paid off. The company was profitable off the bat. According to reports, first year sales hit $425,000 and doubled the following year. The trio declined to discuss financials, but said sales are expected to be up between 10% and 15% this year.
“They demonstrated it was possible to build a successful business using artisanal ingredients that cost more,” said Danyelle Freeman, founder of Restaurantgirl.com.
Of course, today there are scores of food trucks in the city and countless vendors selling gourmet frozen treats.
But Ben isn’t worried anymore. “We are in a great position to grow a lot more,” he said.