June 2024

I Scream, You Scream

Words: Caroline Clements Images: Mario Camilo

Dancing in the dark and scooping ice cream for lickable New Yorkers, it’s all in a days work for this Melbourne girl. Caroline Clements talks to Laura O’Neill, of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, in the Big Apple.

My first meeting with Laura O’Neill was at a church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was just before 8pm on Tuesday night. It was cold evening in May, given that summer was only weeks away and ice cream season had just begun. Fifteen minutes later music was turned up loud and the church hall was filled with almost 20 people dancing around in the dark. This is No Lights No Lycra, a one hour dance party, held every Tuesday night in New York, Berlin and Melbourne. O’Neill is one of the New York based Australians who run it.

“We do it here because I have a relationship with the pastor here, and we’d been doing some baking in the church before we opened the cafe as they have three ovens,” O’Neill explains. “So we’re pretty familiar with the space and he’s pretty open to community activities. They have a market there for Greenpoint foody people and a handful of bands that rehearse up in the chapel (apparently Grizzly Bear is one) so I couldn’t think of anywhere more perfect do it than there.”

But when she’s not dancing around in a dark church hall, O’Neill can be found sitting on one of Brooklyn’s main drags in an ice cream truck, scooping delicious organic Van Leeuwen Ice Cream. O’Neill is one part of the ice cream team she helped build with her husband Ben and his brother Peter, nearly three years ago in New York. A Melbourne girl originally, O’Neill was working as an event producer while holidaying in London, where she met American Ben (Van Leeuwen). One thing led to another and they decided to move to New York together.

Ben grew up in Conneticut where he had driven an ice cream truck when he was home on holidays from college in San Francisco. “When he’d come back he’d rent this ice cream truck to drive around, and it turned out to be incredibly lucrative and in one summer he was able to take himself around the world for nine months with the money he made. So he has the entrepreneurial spirit, but obviously it’s not very inspiring to be selling ice creams on sticks.” He wondered why people weren’t selling nice ice cream out of trucks, why the trucks weren’t beautiful, why they had these tiny little dark windows and why are they were noisey and dirty, and the idea for Van Leeuwen grew from there.

So began their mission to find the most delicious, organic ice cream they could serve from their ice cream trucks. However, they quickly learnt that all the ice cream in American, and also even in Australia, have all these additives in them that don’t need to be there. Turns out they’re only there to cut corners and costs and mainly just because it has become the norm in the process of industrial ice cream making. They wondered why they couldn’t make an ice cream just like ice cream you would make at home – with milk, cream, cane sugar, egg yolks, and whatever you’re using to flavour it – but on a large scale.

“We found this place upstate,” O’Neil explains. “They were sort of reluctant to make it this way, not because it wouldn’t work, just because no one else is doing it. They were making a lot of other ice creams there that were using a lot of guar gum and thickeners, stabilisers, milk powder and condensed milk, and we just wanted to do it simply, which is just how they do it in any good restaurant with a pastry chef making their ice cream.”

So began Van Leeuwen artisan ice cream. They cut back on the sugar content and the flavouring, they wanted every ingredient to be as pure as the ice cream base. “The chocolate we use is Michelle Cluizel, which is a really wonderful family business in France. Ben has actually just been over to a cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic because we buy so much chocolate from them, so they took him over there to visit, which was really cool for him.”

That might explain why chocolate is O’Neill’s favourite flavour at the moment, “but last week it was earl grey, it always changes, I really love the affogatos too.” O’Neill admits she’s not a real sweet tooth, but likes Van Leeuwen because it’s not too sweet, with about 40% less sugar than most ice creams. “Though it’s tempting, I don’t go crazy, Ben does a bit, he loves sundaes, it might be an American thing though.”

Now three years later, Van Leeuwen have five large ice cream/coffee trucks (serving Intelligentsia Coffee), and a store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which opened earlier in the year. Their ice cream is also stocked in a number of foodshops and delicatessens around New York, and in pints in Wholefoods in the US (the world’s largest natural and organic retailer, with stores throughout North American and the UK). So some pretty great scooping for the first few years of business. I wonder if they have plans take Van Leeuwen down under? “Maybe,” ponders O’Neill, “I think it would be nice to have a store at home in Melbourne, but I feel like whatever happens in New York sort of trickles down into the rest of the world. When we opened two years ago I was like, ‘no way would Melbourne ever have fancy food trucks’. At that time all they had was was Mr Whippy, who occasionally comes out, and the donut truck at South Melbourne Market. I think it could work but it would be more of a weekend operation to begin. I think in Sydney at Bondi it could work.”

Thought it’s not the sort of truck that brings children running from their homes at the faint sound of a tinkering nursery rhyme, it certainly draws the crowds. Considering it is only really hot in New York for about four months of the year, you would want to make sure it was hard/fast business during that time. “Actually, we still have two trucks out in winter and people do still buy ice cream, believe it or not… we don’t have music though, you’re not allowed to in Manhattan. But we’ve actually been thanked by people for not having that annoying music anyway.”

Back at the church, O’Neill is dancing all the ice cream off in the dark, where the music is certainly welcome. She was leaving back to Australia the following day, and was looking forward to seeing how No Lights No Lycra was going back in Melbourne. So why no lycra? “Well you associate lycra with looking good, you’ve got to be in good shape to wear lycra, and people who dance, like professional dancers have legitimate dancing gear (often made of lycra) and NLNL is not about that at all. People can wear lycra though, that’s fine, but with the lights off it’s just about having fun and not being looked at and not feeling like you have to look right. I think the name is quite perfect, it says a lot in a few words.”

Van Leeuwen Ice Cream

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