Up Top since 2007
It’s lucky Laura O’Neill makes ice cream, because the day I met her at the Van Leeuwen store in Greenpoint was one of those unbearably sticky New York late summer days. Laura is one of the three brains behind Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, which started as fancy ice cream trucks before expanding into three cafes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, selling pints in grocery stores and, for something different, an Indonesian restaurant, Selamat Pagi, they opened last year.
Over a much needed iced coffee and some of the best damn ice cream I’ve ever had (the palm sugar was to die for), Laura and I chatted about her American journey – from moving to New York to be with her then-boyfriend (now business partner) to launching into the more than a little bit crowded food industry, an area in which she’d never worked before.
Laura was working in event production in her hometown of Melbourne when she took a trip to London and met Ben Van Leeuwen, an American studying in the UK. “We started dating, he came to Australia a few times and then we were doing the long distance thing and pretty early on decided that I would move here. I was kind of ready for a change cause I was thinking of moving to London when I was on that trip.” And of course, moving to New York isn’t an entirely unsavoury option.
Arriving in May 2007, it wasn’t long before Laura, Ben and Ben’s brother Pete, began hatching a plan. “Ben and Pete grew up in Connecticut and during a couple of summers when Ben was in college they drove ice cream trucks around the neighbourhood – it was just ice creams on sticks.” The brothers made a lot of money, but were pretty uninspired by the generic product they were selling. Ben was perplexed as to why no one was selling decent ice cream out of trucks, and the idea for Van Leeuwen was born – just as the food truck trend was about to explode.
Originally the partners weren’t planning on making their own ice cream, but this quickly changed. “We started to get samples and we saw all the stuff that was going into the ice cream,” says Laura. “It became very clear early on that we were going to have to make our own ice cream and luckily being keen home cooks, that was not a problem.” It helps that ice cream isn’t rocket science. “Ice cream’s really simple and it should be. Our ice cream’s just milk, cream, cane sugar and egg yolks. We didn’t have to be pastry chefs or go to culinary school to work out how to make really simple, rich ice cream using excellent ingredients.”
By the spring of 2008, Van Leeuwen was up and running with two trucks, and a third was added by the end of that first summer. A need to trade through the winter led to two more trucks equipped with espresso machines as well as freezers and before long, another truck for Central Park was built. In 2009, they opened their first store in Greenpoint, with Boerum Hill and the East Village following a year later. They've had take-home pints in supermarkets in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York for a while now and this winter are bringing a truck out West to the always sunny Los Angeles (all the better for me!)
Ben, Pete and Laura had little to no hospitality experience between them, but, “we’re all really obsessed with food – food that’s made the right way,” says Laura. Her arrival in New York, considered one of the world’s culinary capitals, was in fact a shock to the system for Laura. “My mum and my sister are vegan and my dad’s a really good cook, we always just had good food in the house. So when I moved here it was a rude awakening to not be able to even get good bread. There just wasn’t even a Baker’s Delight equivalent or anything – there was no way you could just stop at a bodega and get a loaf of bread.”
It’s not just good bread that Laura misses, but the beach. “I grew up going down to Lorne, so by the middle to end of summer here I just want some nice beach time and you go to the beaches around here and they’re not that nice. I miss just being able to jump in the car and go away for the weekend.”
Despite moving to be with her boyfriend, there was still a big adjustment period. “It made it easier in some ways and harder in others cause we would spend a lot of time together. I definitely made friends but I had great friends back home, it was always difficult to find people I had that kind of connection with here.” She says the early years were particularly hard, “I felt like I went on a series of girl dates.” Her break-up with Ben seems to have been a kind of lightbulb moment. “Because the reason I came for wasn’t really there anymore. Even though we’re still [working] together everyday, it was really cool to realise that I still wanted to be here and my family and friends were really supportive of that as well.”
But who’d really think of going home when they’ve got as much going on as Laura? She’s been running the Brooklyn outpost of No Lights No Lycra – a weekly night of dancing in the dark with abandon, started in Melbourne by a friend of Laura's – for the past three and a half years. Laura went to a No Lights No Lycra on a trip back home, mostly to support her friend. “I thought it was going to be so uncomfortable and I’m not much of dancer, but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t even think about feeling comfortable or what I looked like or what I was wearing. So afterwards I thought, ‘I don’t want to not do this when I go back to Brooklyn’ and my friend said to start one.” She approached the pastor of a church Van Leeuwen had used the kitchen of a few times, and has been dancing every Tuesday since. “It’s kind of nice to have that connection with Melbourne as well – they’re dancing on Tuesdays too, even though it’s not the same time. It’s nice that it brings in Aussies that do it there, it’s nice to feel that connection.”
So where exactly does the Indonesian restaurant, Selamat Pagi, come in? Ben and Laura had visited Bali a few times on their Australian trips and, “just fell in love with that style of food. We took a cooking class and we came back and were starting to cook that way at home – we would do scrambled eggs with coconut oil instead of oil and add turmeric and all those wonderful Balinese flavours.” After they set up a little Van Leeuwen HQ in Greenpoint, with an office, kitchen and ice cream production in the one building, they had a store front to fill. “We didn’t want to do another Van Leeuwen because we have this one [around the corner], so we decided, ‘let’s do an Indonesian restaurant!’ It’s been really, really well received. People love it.”
And while the link between ice cream and an Indonesian restaurant seems a little shaky, Laura says it makes sense to them. “Van Leeuwen is a Dutch name so some people think it’s the Dutch connection with Indonesia, but that’s just coincidental. We really wanted to apply all the theories we have about the ice cream and Van Leeuwen to a savoury kitchen.” This means organic, sustainable and all around excellent ingredients. “Although it sounds totally random, it works really well.”
As for the prospect of coming home, Laura is mulling it over. “People always ask if we would do it Melbourne. It would be really nice and fun to operate in my own city, but it doesn’t really make sense. We don’t really have the foot traffic to support [a truck] or the population density, so if we could do a store in Melbourne and make it a destination, that’s probably a better way to run.”
Check out Laura's New York Local's Pick's here.