Since its start in 2007, local ice creamery Smitten has transformed the way ice cream is created, served, and enjoyed in the Bay Area. Its charming flagship location in San Francisco‘s Hayes Valley neighborhood is a go-to for locals. We talk to founder Robyn Sue Fisher and Smitteneer Eliza Bennett about this unique spot.
The Culture Trip: What sparked you to create Smitten?
Robyn: I am a self-proclaimed ice cream fanatic! I love the product and can barely go a day without eating it. I worked in the corporate world for a number of years and didn’t feel like it was a fit for me, so I decided I wanted to take something I love and try to make it better. Ice cream was that thing for me. I dove headfirst into the process of determining how ice cream could be improved.
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First, I didn’t know all of the ingredients on the back of an ice cream carton, so I really wanted to make it pure again. Also, I wanted to elevate the product experience, so the idea of making an original batch from scratch to order had the potential of getting rid of all the unpronounceable ingredients. This includes taking the freshest berries from a farm, combining them with organic milk and cream, and churning it to order. It was a combination of all these ideas that amounted to Smitten.
How did it come about?
Blood, sweat, and tears! I started in my backyard at grad school and after duct taping parts together that I’d bought off Craigslist, I learned very quickly that it was very hard to make high-quality ice cream and that there was no machine in existence that could do that. I ended up finding a retired engineer who was crazy enough to work with me for two years in his basement to develop a prototype of the Brrr™ machine. This was in 2009, the heart of the recession, so unfortunately I had no way of getting my ice cream to people.
I decided to start selling my ice cream out of a wagon. It was very much around creating word of mouth and a following. It ended up really making me better understand that choice and customization were not that important; what is important is that each and every thing coming out of the machine is jaw-droppingly amazing.
That is how we decided we only need four or five flavors per shop that change more often. A small menu enables us to make sure everything is perfect and allows us to splurge on ingredients because we don’t have to worry about having so many perishable items. There is another Robyn on our team who is a classically trained pastry chef, and she works to develop these flavors. All the original recipes came from her. In order to make the very best ice cream, you need a skilled expert who knows how to do that. We do a full chef approach of making ice cream taste good and starting from scratch.
What are Smitten’s values?
It is to re-imagine the entire ice cream experience from start to finish. This entails the highest-quality, fresh ingredients, including organic milk and cream and locally sourced produce. Purity is key for us, both from a value standpoint and a taste standpoint. The fewer ingredients in the ice cream, the more each of those ingredients can shine.
Brrfectionism is that perfect scoop and texture that makes up a totally new echelon of what ice cream is. The pastry chef approach is another value. We approach our flavors by thinking with our thinking cap, which is a pastry chef’s hat.
Eliza: Another value is being a good neighbor, which means relying on great people in the area to provide ingredients to complement our ice cream. One example is TCHO chocolate in Berkeley, and another is our new flavor, Blue Bottle Coffee. We thoughtfully select others that are putting the same purposeful energy that we have towards ice cream towards their own products and feature those instead of trying to do it ourselves.
Robyn: We also want to be a magnet for the community. This includes who we choose as partners and what we do for community outreach. Ever since the wagon days, it has been about community gathering. I used to go to a park and hang out with a couple of other street food vendors, and we would create this amazing community gathering. It’s all about bringing people together. Also, we love to reward people in our community for doing good outside the shop by allowing them to come here as a happy moment and pat themselves on the back.
Each of the 2,500 volunteers will receive a specially designed ‘scoop badge of honor’ that can be redeemed for a free scoop of ice cream at any Smitten location. What better way to celebrate hard work and community improvement than with a scoop of the freshest and creamiest ice cream around?
Southern Californians, have no fear – Smitten will be heading down south in the near future. After the grand opening of their Pacific Heights shop on California and Fillmore this coming May, Smitten plans to spread the love to the Los Angeles area. Wherever they go, the Smitten team will remain dedicated to gathering and improving the community while serving the purest, most high-quality ice cream.
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