Nitrogen ice cream shop blows into Columbia Heights


Faith Holmes serves ice cream at her Love ’n Faith Community Cafe at 2424 14th St. NW in Columbia Heights. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Peter Zemenides stumbled into Love ’n Faith Community Cafe by accident last week.

After a round of samples, he walked out with three cups of ice cream.

“I’d been looking for a place like this,” the 34-year-old said.

Love ’n Faith, which opened quietly in mid-June, is one of the first shops in the District to flash-freeze ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

Founder Faith Holmes, who has been selling her treats at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for three years, says she decided to open the cafe in Columbia Heights to have a more permanent presence in the District.

“We make happy, joyful food, and I wanted to be somewhere that has a community feel to it,” Holmes said.

The 42-year-old has quite literally embraced her community, moving into an apartment in the same building as her shop. When she realized there was a need for a neighborhood coffee shop, she added lattes, fresh fruit smoothies and paninis to her menu.

“There is a Baskin-Robbins in my building, but it’s not as nice as this,” said James Abadian, a neighborhood regular. “I not a big ice cream guy, but I like the ice cream here.”

That’s how Zitta Rezvani feels, too. Rezvani, an eye doctor who owns Idoc Optical on F Street NW, helped fund the new cafe after trying Holmes’ ice cream a few years ago.

“There is something about the texture — it’s so smooth and creamy — that I really loved,” Rezvani said.

A handful of similar businesses, including Nice Cream in Clarendon and Lulu’s, a regular at farmers’ markets in Bethesda and Mount Pleasant, have also cropped up in the past year. The flash-freezing process is efficient, Holmes said, and leads to little waste because ice cream can be made and frozen to order.

It took about $140,000 to start Love ’n Faith Cafe — less, Holmes, said than it would have taken to open a traditional ice cream parlor. For starters, she didn’t have to shell out $30,000 upfront for an ice cream maker. Instead, she uses three KitchenAid mixers and four tanks of liquid nitrogen to create her desserts.

“I don’t have that one-time, $30,000 blow that most ice cream shops would have,” Holmes said. “But at the same time, I go through liquid nitrogen constantly.”

Holmes estimates that she spends several hundred dollars a week on roughly 1,500 liters of liquid nitrogen, which arrives in large tanks that sit in the back of the cafe.

Nitrogen is funneled, and then stirred, into mixing bowls full of custard-based blends. A blast of cold fog fills the air as the ice cream freezes at minus-320 degrees.

Holmes — who previously served as executive director of the Oneness Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes racial unity — got the idea for a liquid nitrogen stand during a visit to Orlando.

“I didn’t even see the demonstration, I only heard about it,” Holmes said. “But it was enough for me to say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what we need in Washington.’ ”

Four months later, she had set up Sweet Freeze by Faithfully Sweet, a kiosk at the convention center.

It cost about $15,000 to get the business off the ground. Holmes financed the stand using her own savings as well as proceeds from a piece of artwork signed by Michael Jackson. (The Romero Britto print, which was signed by both the artist and Jackson, brought in nearly $20,000 in a private auction, she said.)

“I was able to start a business there without spending a ton of money,” Holmes said. “I didn’t have to do build-out, and I didn’t have to have $200,000 in the bank to be able to start a business.”

Holmes said she isn’t sure how much revenue she’ll bring in this year. She said last year’s convention center sales totaled more than $300,000.

Eventually, she plans to begin selling her naturally sweetened line of ice creams — which are made with maple syrup, agave and honey — at stores such as Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market and Yes Organic Market.

For now, the cafe’s employees are often camped out on the sidewalk handing out samples of strawberry-banana smoothies or coffee toffee crunch ice cream.

Rashawn Jackson and her two children, ages 2 and 6, walked by one afternoon last week.

“I don’t even like coffee, but this is good,” Jackson said. Her children agreed.

“Ok,” she said as they finished their first sample. “Let’s get another one before we go home.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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