Together “Ice Cream” took a year to perfect before launch. It’s no diet product: full-fat coconut milk melds with flavors like fudge and mint for a premium treat that proves veganism and indulgence are not, in fact, mutually exclusive.
The founder’s story begins during a long stint in Bali. After ten years in the restaurant industry, Michael was feeling burnt out and ready for a break. Right after college, he started his own café in San Jose, CA, then sold it to immerse himself in the food world with companies of all sizes, working in operations management, learning and development, supply chains, and essentially every other division, meaning a huge swath of expertise and resources that would come in handy later – and a big incentive for a break. When the time came for his partner to take a sabbatical, Michael quit his job, packed a backpack, and together they left overseas.
In Bali, Michael was blown away by the plant-based market and local lifestyles. There was so much freshness and simplicity in the food, much of it coconut-based. After touring coconut and cacao farms, and attending courses at Bamboo U (a university built entirely out of bamboo!), Michael immersed himself in the world of food sustainability and was itching to start a brand that would bring these kinds of practices into a broader market.
Back in the states, he began reaching out to his network of chef friends, a community he’d cultivated during his years in the industry. Michael found a fit with Caroline, a pastry chef he’d met working at a small-batch ice cream company. They had parallel work ethic, and found common ground in areas like process improvement and lean manufacturing. The partnership clicked right away.
Caroline’s culinary background complemented Michael’s operational expertise well. After studying chemistry as an undergrad, Caroline worked as a pharmaceutical technician at Stanford Hospital, compounding leukemia therapy drugs while keeping her coworkers’ spirits high with an ongoing stream of homemade French pastries. While continuing to work weekends at the hospital, she got her degree in culinary school – at a time women were scarce. Her degree paid off in a long, fruitful career as a pastry chef: among much else, she worked at the Ritz Carlton, and later ran the viennoiserie division at La Boulange. When the chain was acquired by Starbucks, she oversaw the production of half a million croissants a week.
Together (excuse the pun), Michael and Caroline started in on plant-based ice cream, hunkering down in Michael’s kitchen with a mini ice cream maker, testing all kinds of alternative milks and recipe variations. (“My kitchen was a mess,” he emphasizes.) Competing with dairy means a quest for the creamiest texture possible, and coconut was a standout immediately. They developed 25 flavors quickly within three different verticals: nostalgic, seasonal, and innovative, planning to release five classics in the initial launch before introducing a regular rotation. Every new flavor meant 6-8 iterations, playing around with different percentages of sugar to allow for easy freezing without the iciness, while keeping the added flavors rich without overwhelming.
“In most jobs, you only get to use some of your experience,” Caroline said. “This one lets me use all of it.” Her pastry background inspired flavors like banana coconut curry, and her chemistry knowledge allowed her to perfect the ice cream’s consistency.
When COVID hit, the duo had to get logistically creative. In a process resembling a baton-passing marathon, Caroline would develop the base of the latest iteration of a flavor and drop it off in a cooler on Michael’s steps; Michael would then turn it into ice cream, taste it, and leave some samples in the cooler for Caroline to pick up before virtually comparing notes.
While they adjusted a million different pieces of the recipe, plant-based was always a no-brainer. They wanted no gums or stabilizers, no artificial additives, no long list of ingredients. They wanted something kind – something everyone can eat and feel good about. But plant-based also simplifies operational procedures. In his restaurant experience, Michael spent many a days immersed in the messy regulations of meat contamination, a world he definitely never wanted to deal with again. Coconut is simple.
Consumer thinking, too, has been a critical component of the process. In every grocery trip, Michael makes a point to look over any new additions to the non-dairy ice cream aisle. If he notices a customer reaching for a pint, he’ll ask for feedback – is that product good, should I try it? What do you like about it? How could it be better? “Vegan” can be a polarizing term, so he’s on a quest to understand and reposition its perception. Together isn’t a compromise; it’s an indulgent treat even side-by-side with animal-derived cream.
Michael and Caroline develop all of the ice cream at the KitchenTown production facility in San Mateo, with an initial public launch on National Ice Cream Day (July 2020) through KitchenTown’s curbside pickup program. They dream of, perhaps, an eventual brick and mortar, and prioritize thoughtful decision-making across the business: everything from sustainable packaging design to inclusive hiring practices. “Kindness in every scoop,” indeed.