A month before the planned grand opening, Victoria Lai stands in the middle of her Navy Yard scoop shop, Ice Cream Jubilee.
It is, ahem, a work in progress. Appliances are still shrink-wrapped. The wall murals aren’t finished. The outdoor seating is indoors for the time being, and, truth be told, it’s all a bit dusty.
Lai might as well be leading a tour of the Taj Mahal. She’s that proud, especially as she dips into her portable freezer to offer samples of her smooth, slightly fluffy ice creams that will transport you from Phuket (a refreshing Thai iced tea flavor) to Provence (honey-lemon-lavender) in the most delightful form of culinary whiplash.
Lai’s is a story of persistence, long hours, happenstance and, yes, ice cream, lots and lots of ice cream.
It’s also a story about finding a home — in the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life sense as well as the more practical real estate sense. Lai is one of three frozen-dessert entrepreneurs in the Washington area who are opening bricks-and-mortar locations after months — or years — of pounding the pavement.
Like many such endeavors, Lai’s journey began while she was hunched over a computer, in her case, searching Craigslist.
In 2010, prompted by her longtime love of desserts and a New York apartment without air-conditioning, the law school graduate scored a $25 bargain on a Cuisinart ice cream maker that typically retails for around $60. “That’s probably why I got into ice cream in the first place,” says Lai, 34. “There was a machine for the right price at the right time.”
That same year, instead of returning to a law firm after clerking in federal court, she took an apprenticeship at the Brooklyn bakery Four & Twenty Blackbirds. Eventually, the bakery asked her to start making ice cream — on the same day she learned she would be getting a legal appointment to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
She couldn’t refuse the Washington job, but “I wanted to make sure that I held onto this creative spark in myself that I found in New York,” she says. Thus was born her side gig: Ice Cream Jubilee, a blog about her favorite subject. Writing about making ice cream led to tastings for the public at her apartment and other venues. They were so popular (one event she listed on Feastly caused the site to crash), Blind Dog Cafe owners Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist signed Lai as one of the first tenants at Union Kitchen, their culinary incubator and communal commercial kitchen in Northeast Washington.
Meanwhile, she held her day job as a government attorney. She spent nights and weekends crafting batches of ice cream and then summoning an Uber to hustle them to Glen’s Garden Market. The Silver Spork market began carrying her ice cream, too.
“Even after I would work a full day . . . I would have more energy after I did all that ice cream work,” she says.
Her ultimate goal was to participate in DC Scoop, the annual ice cream competition at Union Market, where in July 2013 she won the people’s choice vote.
“I didn’t even know what to do with myself,” she says.
At least one other person did, though. The next month a broker representing a Navy Yard development asked whether she’d consider opening a shop.
“This development feels like a Saturday every day,” she says, overlooking the Anacostia River on a sunny June afternoon. “The location itself made me decide to take the leap.”
At Ice Cream Jubilee, set to open July 12, she plans to offer eight ice cream and four sorbet flavors seven days a week.
Lai’s ice cream base uses milk and cream from South Mountain Creamery. She divides her flavors into four categories: international (cardamom-black pepper, mango-habanero), cocktail (dark and stormy, gin and tonic), culinary blends (fig and honey) and childhood favorites (blueberry pie, cookies and cookie dough).
“I have so many flavors to choose from,” Lai says, estimating her total roster at about 60.
She also has a little more time to make those choices these days: In February, so she could focus all of her energy on ice cream, she left the government job behind.
At the other end of the spectrum from Lai, at least conceptually, is Brandon Byrd. His new Goodies Frozen Custard & Soda Bar in National Harbor offers exactly one flavor: vanilla bean.
On its own, that solitary option would satisfy most any summer craving for cold treats. The milk-and-cream-based custard, enriched with whole eggs and egg yolks, is smooth as silk. It sings with a clear, comforting vanilla flavor. It’s clean on the palate, rich without leaving a heavy slick. Byrd describes the custard as “soft serve meets Häagen-Dazs.”
As if that weren’t enough, Byrd’s menu uses his custard in a variety of indulgences inspired by “classic American desserts.” There’s a “Route 66” Root Beer Float, a “Juke Box” Cookies ’n’ Cream Concrete, a “Boogie Woogie” Turtle Pecan Sundae and a “Jitterbug” Peanut Butter Shake.
Calories? What calories? Did anyone in the 1950s, the era that inspired Byrd’s throwback business, worry about calories?
Washington’s food-aware might already have encountered Byrd dishing out custard from his nostalgia-tinged food truck, and the soda bar continues the theme. Here, the 1950s and ’60s are brought to life with decor including replicas of a vintage Coca-Cola cooler and Route 66 gas pump. Not to mention the spiffy bow-tie uniforms Byrd and his staff wear.
Contrast that with where Byrd was in 2011, when he was the marketing director at XXL, a hip-hop magazine. He describes his decision to leave as a mutual one: The magazine was cutting back, and he wasn’t happy with his career. He didn’t know what else he wanted to do until he attended Truckeroo, a monthly food truck festival held at Navy Yard.
“I fell in love with the whole culture of the food truck,” Byrd says.
Byrd says visiting his family’s farm in Alabama and serving as the kitchen sous-chef under his grandmother, mother and aunt gave him the cooking skills and starter recipes to pursue his dream of a food business.
But what would he sell? He thought about frozen yogurt (too trendy) and ice cream (not distinctive enough). “My mouth was never satisfied with those other frozen desserts,” he says.
Almost a decade of living in Wisconsin had instilled in him a passion for frozen custard, and even as a high school student, he knew he wanted to get into the frozen dessert industry. But “I didn’t know when. I didn’t know how.”
The “when” arrived in 2012 with the launch of his truck, Gigi, a restored 1952 step van from which Byrd still sells his retro treats to a Motown and oldies soundtrack. (He’s close to introducing a Kickstarter campaign to fund Gigi’s kid brother, a 1957 step van christened Rudy.)
A permanent location was a little longer in coming. Byrd, a Prince George’s County resident, lives only minutes from National Harbor. He’d occasionally visit the neighborhood to dish up free custard to workers at the development. Last year, he floated the idea of a shop there, and this year, the developers told him they were on the same page. The retro red, white and baby blue soda bar with a panoramic view of the Potomac River opened the first day of summer.
At 35, Byrd admits he’s too young to be nostalgic for an era he never lived through. Still, he describes himself as an “old soul” with an affection for nostalgia.
“I love the whole soda bar feel,” he says. “You don’t see that stuff anymore.”
Across the river in Virginia, another frozen-dessert business has found a new home. Unlike Goodies, this one has a modern concept and design.
Clarendon’s Nicecream Factory opened in May. The twist: It uses liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze ice cream.
Sandra Tran, 24, launched Nicecream last year with her boyfriend, Gil Welsford, 24.
They make each serving of ice cream to order. The process starts with cream, milk, sugar and the flavor-specific ingredients, which go into the bowl of an eight-quart commercial KitchenAid stand mixer. As the mixer’s paddle begins to spin, the liquid nitrogen is poured in and immediately begins to evaporate, freezing the ice cream and sending clouds of gaseous nitrogen over the counter like a super-cool science experiment.
Freezing times for different flavors vary, but each serving is finished within 30 to 60 seconds. The result is dense and creamy. Less churning time means less air whipped into the ice cream and smaller ice crystals. The stuff is so thick, you might question the structural integrity of your plastic spoon.
Before Nicecream, Tran had been working at Living Social. Her frequent interactions with local small businesses gave her insight into her dream of opening a dessert shop. A trip to California with Welsford convinced her that liquid nitrogen ice cream was the way to go.
The pair spent about two months experimenting with the process, including developing flavors with the aid of a culinary student. In May 2013, the Science Club in Dupont Circle let Nicecream set up on its patio. Regulars began to flock to their sessions, including a local mailman Tran fondly recalls for using the lunch money his wife gave him on ice cream instead.
Nicecream added farmers markets and private events to its stops. A stint at the Downtown Holiday Market in Penn Quarter led to a collaboration with a real estate agent representing the property that would become their home on Clarendon Boulevard in Arlington.
“It’s young, it’s fun, it’s vibrant,” Tran says of their location a few blocks from the Clarendon Metro station. Nicecream still considers itself a pop-up, but one that will be there for at least two years, if not longer.
She says the neighborhood appreciates Nicecream’s use of local products; she buys from vendors at three area farmers markets. There are two exceptions to the local and in-shop-prepared ingredients: Nutella and Speculoos spreads.
Nicecream sells four flavors of ice cream a day, culled from a rotation of 70. They include bacon, honey lavender, strawberry, mint mojito, lemony Jenny and pistachio; for the last, Nicecream grinds its own nuts — no extracts or fluorescent green food coloring allowed. That effort may be one reason customers favor the pistachio, which is laced with crunchy specks and tastes like sweetened, frozen nut butter, in a good way.
Of course, the show might be just as much of an attraction as the ice cream itself.
“People really flock to this concept,” Tran says. “Lots of kids love it. Adults love it.”
Customers tend to clump around the counter watching this sweet miracle of science — jaws slack, hands waving through the evaporated nitrogen — as it’s repeated over and over again in rapid succession.
The speedy alchemy is not unlike Nicecream’s transformation into a storefront, a development that still amazes Tran.
“We did not know it was going to be this soon,” she says.
Lai is just as awed by Ice Cream Jubilee’s turnaround. That $25 Cuisinart has turned out to be a pretty good investment.
Ice Cream Jubilee: 301 Water St. SE. 202-863-0727. www.icecreamjubilee.com.
Goodies Frozen Custard & Soda Bar: 150 American Way, Oxon Hill. 202-630-6455. www.mmmgoodies.com.
Nicecream Factory: 2831 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. 703-908-0225. www.nicecreamfactory.com.
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