Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Great Ice Cream - Van Leeuwen Artisan (Part 2)

Ben Van Leeuwen loves food. Mr. Softee, meet your grass-fed, synthetic-free match.

Van Leeuwen is the boyish-looking founder of the eponymous company that started offering ten flavors of premium ice cream in late June, sold from two trucks in Manhattan.

Business is brisk, especially on summer nights, and customers seem hooked on the ice cream’s flavor and quality ingredients and intrigued by the old-fashioned truck.

“It’s going great,” Van Leeuwen said from his usual evening spot on University Place between 11th and 12th Streets. (The second truck, manned by either Ben’s brother, Pete, or Dan Suarez, travels from neighborhood to neighborhood on a rotating basis.) “People’s reactions are perfect.”

And well they should be, since the ice cream tastes clean and not too sweet, with a proper balance of flavors. The chocolate is complex and deep, the espresso tastes like coffee, the strawberry tastes like strawberry and the ginger tastes like ginger. Small cups (the choice of most people) are $3.95. Pints, a better buy if you are on your way home, are $8.

Van Leeuwen’s motto is written on the two trucks:

“Welcome to Van Leeuwen Artisan, the original gourmet ice cream truck. We make our ice cream with fresh hormone free milk and cream from local farms, cane sugar and eggs. Our flavors come from the finest small producers all over the world.”

In addition, most of the milk and cream comes from grass-fed cows.

Van Leeuwen is no novice to the ice cream business--he drove a Good Humor truck during summers in the Connecticut suburb where he grew up--and his passion for food is palpable.

“It gave me the idea for the business,” he said of his Good Humor experience. “Selling food out of a truck is a good model for New York City. The ice cream truck was waiting to be reinvented.”

Why the avoidance of the usual stabilizers, emulsifiers, refined sugars and hormone-ridden ingredients found in most commercial and many high-end ice creams?

“It just tastes good,” Van Leeuwen said. “Since I was a kid, I thought junk food was disgusting.”

According to Van Leeuwen, even the premium ice creams employ--in addition to fresh milk--condensed milk or milk powder to help thicken the final product. Van Leeuwen eschews such techniques, and the results are obvious.

“Ours has a lighter taste,” he said. “But it’s still creamy and the flavors come through.”

Whole Foods will start selling pints in a limited number of area stores toward the end of the summer.

Van Leeuwen may be soft-spoken and have a pacific demeanor, but he isn’t bashful about his capitalist business goals.

“I want to have lots of trucks and be in stores all over,” he said. “My greed is limitless.”

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