Pete Van Leeuwen started Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in 2008 with his brother Ben, their partner, Laura O’Neill, and two classic yellow trucks. Now in their sixth year of business, they have six trucks and three stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as a Balinese restaurant (Selamat Pagi) in the front of their production facility. The first summer Mr. Van Leeuwen drove around, scooping ice cream. These days, with the food truck boom in New York City and their growing business — just this week they introduced vegan ice cream — Mr. Van Leeuwen, 36, spends his time organizing and troubleshooting, with occasional breaks for a pistachio cone, his favorite flavor.
Are people surprised there really is a Van Leeuwen?
They’re oftentimes like, “That’s not your real last name, is it?” Of course it is! I think it’s because of the Haagen-Dazs thing. Everybody is now aware that Haagen-Dazs is this made up — brilliantly made up — name. People think we’re doing the Dutch thing too.
Interviews with New Yorkers whose behind-the-scenes jobs help keep the city humming.
In fact, early on I was not convinced that Van Leeuwen would be a good name to use, because it was hard to spell. How were people going to look us up, Google it, find us?
What’s the most popular ice cream flavor?
Vanilla, just as you’d expect. It’s a known fact and we see it to be true as well. Even in New York City, where people are way more adventurous and used to more interesting flavors, different flavors and trying new things.
About those adventurous flavors. Do children like gourmet ice cream?
Oh yeah. They do. Dogs, too. We have a lot of dog customers who come up. We give dogs free tastes of ice cream, little tasting spoons full. I’ve seen it happen: they see the truck before the owner does, and are pulling the owner up and jump up on the counter waiting for their taste.
How was it different having a truck five years ago, versus now?
Five years ago, we pulled up to the sidewalk on Greene Street between Prince and Spring and a line formed immediately, and basically we had a line that lasted all summer.
And now there’s not quite as much of this frenzied excitement from the customers and people walking by on the street. Chances are they’ve walked by several trucks that day. And others are now making beautiful trucks and eye-catching trucks.
Also with all of these other food trucks, they follow what works. If they see a truck on Bedford Avenue being successful, they say: let’s go to Bedford Ave — and all of the sudden you have this caravan of trucks up and down on every single block.
And then five years ago, where it used to be tolerated, that one truck was in a 10-block span, maybe the precinct gets one phone call a day from an angry resident or an upset business owner. Now the precinct is slammed with phone calls from every single block. So then they have to say, “We have a problem here, what do we have to do about it? We have to enforce the laws which say no vending from metered parking.” So they go down and ticket every truck over and over again, until you submit and you leave.
How do you figure out where to park the trucks? Is there competition or fighting?
I’m always scouting spots. The parking signs. The businesses around. See if there’s a guy on the corner selling pretzels and water. They see us as competition, even though it’s not.
We had a big to-do at our Fifth Avenue spot about four years ago, when we started the coffee thing. This guy who was selling dollar cups of coffee and dollar bagels thought we were ruining his business. The fact is, it’s two completely different demographics who will buy a four dollar latte or a dollar cup of coffee. And he was just fighting, fighting us to the point that it’s not worth it. He actually ended up slashing our tires. That’s the worst it’s ever gotten.
How much of your truck business is events — weddings or ice cream at Google?
One of the best things about the truck business is that you are this rolling, catered dessert. We go as far as 100 miles for the right price. People for a wedding way upstate, all the way up on the island, or whatever, will hire a truck. That’s a big part of the business. It’s certainly one of the things that make the trucks worth it because those are relatively stress-free. There’s no permits needed, there’s no health department issues and policing. As long as we can get the truck there, get the generator on, it’s going to be great.
Do you remember the first cone you sold?
I think I do. It was before we figured out how to manage the temperatures of the freezer really well, because protein-y flavors will get harder than others. Mint chip will melt the fastest because there’s a little bit of alcoholic extract in it, and the ginger softens up, but the pistachio and chocolate might be rock hard. Before getting used to this, I remember settling in, register is ready, opening the window and somebody asks for a chocolate, and it’s like trying to chip rock, literally. It’s like chipping at rock, and you’re like, “Oh god, I’m sorry, the ice cream is too hard.” So, that happened a couple of times before we figured that part out.
What’s the hardest problem you’ve had to troubleshoot or solve?
I would say it’s just this ongoing thing of juggling and maintaining our employees and scheduling them, because of the permitting issue — it takes three months before they are legally allowed to start working — and because it’s seasonal. There’s really only 3 or 4 months of any definitive schedule, which is June 1 to September, when we’re going to be out every single day. It’s just massive organization and scheduling. It also frustrates our staff.
Are trucks or stores a better business?
At this point, I would say stores are a better business. However, we would have never been able to open a store if we didn’t have the trucks first. We just didn’t have the capital.
I can be stressed and complain about it, but at the end of the day it still feels good. I like this idea of having a roving team selling our ice cream. It’s pretty awesome to be able to roll up to SoHo. Feels good, play music. People are psyched to come up and get ice cream. The trade-off is I don’t have to pay $50,000 to have a space there. But, instead, I have less peace of mind and it’s more stressful. It’s a monetary and stress trade-off. When it is working and balanced, it feels good.
This interview has been condensed and edited.