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Issue 4: Ellie Zitsman, former Head of R&D at Van Leeuwen Ice Cream
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Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream is a decade-old company that started as an ice cream truck operation on the streets of New York City. The company has opened stores on two coasts and expanded into the pint businesses in their 10 years, and they’re known for their classic and unusual flavors. Van Leeuwen’s former Head of Research and Development, Ellie Zitsman, is responsible for the research and development of new flavors, as well as the logistics to make it all happen — basically the perfect job. I spoke with her to talk about recipe development, social media’s role in ice cream flavors, and some of her crazy ideas.
Brianna Plaza: How did you get to this role?
Ellie Zitsman: I went to culinary school in 2010, but I was never interested in pastry. I worked in a ton of high-end restaurants and then got offered the head chef position at Boilermaker in the East Village. I created all the menus and the night we opened, I found out I was pregnant. I was there for about 7 months and it was just me and one other line cook. There were no dishwashers and no prep cooks, and it became a lot, so I decided to step down. I stayed home about 2 years and then one of my Facebook acquaintances became Director of Operations at Van Leeuwen and needed a production worker on the weekend. I started doing that and I immediately got poached by the pastry team because I had kitchen experience. I worked on weekends making all the cookies and other inclusions (aka mixins) from scratch to include in the ice cream.
I did that for about a year and a half and I noticed that things were missing in terms of how things were run. After a while, I wrote up a proposal and talked about how all these holes needed to be filled and how there’s no one doing it, and they hired me for this yet-to-be-determined role. The job was tailor-made for me, it really helped streamline everything. Now, LA launches their specials the same day as NYC. No one was in charge of stuff like this before. I just made it my job.
Brianna Plaza: How do you work on developing flavors?
Ellie Zitsman: A lot of it is based on what’s available seasonally and what people are going to be excited about. Ben Van Leeuwen and I brainstorm a lot; we come to the table with 4-5 ideas each and then we pair it down to 4 flavors and recipe test. We recently came up with a vegan pink lemonade. It was originally going to have a corn cake in it and the more we thought about it the more we thought that it would be weird to have a beverage-type flavor with cake in it.
Brianna Plaza: How do you come up with your ideas?
Ellie Zitsman: That’s part of the research side. I like to look at high-end restaurants and see what flavor combinations they’re doing. I don’t really look at other ice cream places/flavors. I also think about what I want to have and what excites me. I also try to find balance between the comforting and familiar, and the exciting. And also what’s instagramable. If we can make something naturally blue or has a bright color and stands out, I like to try and put that on the specials menu.
Brianna Plaza: What are some of the craziest ideas that you’ve gone through with?
Ellie Zitsman: I always want to do a savory ice cream. I really like sweet and savory snacks. We haven’t done a lot of my crazy savory ideas yet.
Brianna Plaza: Is social media something that drives the menu?
Ellie Zitsman: I think social is really important because we don’t do other advertising. Social is how we promote new specials and events. I think it’s important for us to be able to have all the stores scoop the same size scoops and be uniform. How something will look on social is really important. It gets people excited to see and eat what they see online.
Brianna Plaza: How much of your day is spent cooking and testing as opposed to coming up with ideas?
Ellie Zitsman: A lot of my day is actually spent doing logistics. Probably 60% of the week is figuring out how to source things, pricing things, working on writing recipes, making sure the stores have what they need. Maybe 20% is in the kitchen actually testing new recipes. The other 20% is making things that I am fully in charge of like the specials.
Brianna Plaza: Do you have thoughts on the rise of super cool ice cream shops?
Ellie Zitsman: Ice cream has recently become trendy which is weird because it’s been around forever. Whatever gets people excited about our field is a good thing. The fact that we stand behind the quality and ingredients I think shows in the ice cream. It’s exciting to see the fun things coming out but we’re not really worried about the competition.
Brianna Plaza: How does Van Leeuwen stay true to their ethos in this crowded market?
Ellie Zitsman: I think it’s pretty easy to not stray from the idea of having the best products and the most environmentally friendly products. The bigger we get the harder it is to do things (like use biodegradable cups) but it’s still important to us. Our customers notice. We don’t have to do much besides make really high quality products and stay environmentally friendly.
Brianna Plaza: Van Leeuwen has some of the best vegan ice cream on the market. How do you feel about other bigger brands getting into the vegan ice cream game?
Ellie Zitsman: I don’t think anyone was doing vegan ice cream well when we first started. There was space in the market to do it. We did about 200 tests to get to the vegan ice cream base. I think more players will only be good and will make people aware that vegan ice cream can be delicious.
Other Things ~
If you’re in New York or Los Angeles, you can visit Van Leeuwen scoop shops, and it seems that in nice markets in most cities you can find an assortment of higher-end ice creams. But did you know that in New York City, there is a “rivalry” between people who love Van Leeuwen and people who love Ample Hills, another Brooklyn classic? Ultimately, it’s ice cream and I will eat it from anywhere, but I’m team Van Leeuwen all the way.
If you don’t already know this, our new President also loves ice cream. He spent $10,000 on ice cream on the campaign trail.
In high school chemistry, we had a lab day where we made ice cream in coffee cans by rolling it on the floor. This is the slightly more upgraded version of that. Plus! You have the seal of approval from my old roommate Dan — it was favorite, early quarantine activity of his. Be like Dan, make this ice cream.