At Humphry Slocombe, you won’t find neon-pink bubblegum or cerulean cotton candy ice cream. Instead, you’ll encounter the esoteric, the eccentric and the exotic: smooth foie gras, sweet summer corn and salty prosciutto.
Jake Godby and Sean Vahey are at the helm of the San Francisco-based ice cream shop. Both are impressive industry veterans: Godby has flitted around kitchens in town as a pastry chef, from the now-shuttered Tartare to Boulevard, and Vahey’s background resides in hotel restaurant management, having worked at the Four Seasons. The duo met at Tartare – Godby as the pastry chef, and Vahey as the restaurant manager – and ultimately determined they wanted to start a business together. That idea evolved into ice cream, and Humphry Slocombe was born – the name derived from two characters on the 1970s BBC show Are You Being Served?
“The idea was Jake would make ice cream [and] I’ll run the place. It’ll be easy,” Vahey says. “None of that was true. None of it was easy.”
Prior to Humphry Slocombe’s opening, San Francisco certainly couldn’t be characterized as an ice cream town. Back then, there were few places to grab a cone; these days, however, Humphry Slocombe has been joined by several famed San Francisco ice cream shops: Smitten Ice Cream, Bi-Rite Creamery and Three Twins Ice Cream.
But in 2008, Godby had a strong feeling the place would cater to chefs and other people in the food industry – people who were used to idiosyncratic combinations and wacky flavors – but it turned out that industry people weren’t the only ones bewitched by the stuff. Ice cream lovers of all kinds quickly flocked to the Mission for a scoop of Secret Breakfast, the cheekily named bourbon ice cream folded with chunks of crisp cornflake cookies.
“The best way to describe us – this isn’t something we made up; it’s something we adopted – we’re adults making ice cream for adults,” Vahey says. “We make ice cream that no one else is doing. We make them with the idea of something we’d want to eat.”
At this point, the ice cream list has grown far past 100 flavors, studded with kooky offerings like peanut butter curry, strawberry black olive and salt and pepper, along with a host of more traditional flavors still undeniably stamped with Humphry Slocombe flair: chocolate smoked sea salt, cinnamon brittle and cream cheese chocolate chip.
Despite the difficulties of getting a business off the ground, Vahey and Godby opened Humphry Slocombe’s doors to much fanfare, due in large part to the early era of social media. The pair cannily employed Twitter – still in its budding form – as a free marketing service to get their name out. It was the first time businesses could directly network with a wide audience – without having to pay for anything. Godby and Vahey immediately saw results; any time they’d tweet, the shop would flourish. Thanks to the large Twitter following, Humphry Slocombe transformed from a local scoop shop into a roaring success.
“We thought we’d be a little neighborhood ice cream shop,” Godby says.
“But that wasn’t the case,” Vahey adds. “We blew up out of the gate. It was a happy craziness.”
Over the past 10 years, Vahey and Godby have adhered to generating unabashedly unusual flavors. “Jake and I aren’t interested in bubblegum or sprinkles or anything fluffy,” Vahey explains. “Which is how a lot of ice cream is marketed towards kids.”
It’s often told by San Francisco parents that upon bringing their kids to Humphry Slocombe, one lick of black vinegar halva ice cream had kids throwing ice cream cones straight onto the ground in confusion. But neither Vahey nor Godby are perturbed by that frequent occurrence.
“People were asking us, ‘Why do you want to make this crazy ice cream?’ Jake said something like, ‘It’s not that we’re trying to challenge people. We want you to enjoy the ice cream,’” Vahey says. “We’re trying to do something that we like. We hope you like it too.”