Ice cream is arguably the best end-product to come out of a cow’s nipple, and you’d think local versions would thrive in Hawai’i, where the craving for a cold treat is a perennial receptor on our collective tongue. Indeed, Catherine Nobriga-Kim, vice president of Roselani Ice Cream, calls ice cream “the drug of normal people” island-wide.
But while Roselani and some other local brands can be found in grocery cold cases, what happened to the old-fashioned, local ice cream parlor? Why did Dave’s shops disappear from Kapahulu and Waikiki, leaving cone-seekers with only Sears Ala Moana, a store whose own days are numbered on this little rock? And whatever happened to Ed & Don’s? It hit home one hot, humid day as the Weekly’s air conditioning sputtered and we bemoaned the dearth of places to which we could run out to get, you know, a cold fix. Is that too much to ask?
The local challenge
The US population enjoyed 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream last year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Ninety-eight percent of American families buy it. In 1991, Business Trend Analysts reported that Honolulu was the nation’s top-spending metropolis for ice cream and frozen desserts. Now, however, we’re not even in the top ten.
Why? Despite the product’s popularity, the Hawaii ice cream industry faces a host of difficulties, including the high cost of ingredients (milk is, by far, the most expensive, and its price continues to rise as the country faces widespread drought), high rent, and competition with national brands such as Dreyers, Haagen Dazs and Cold Stone Creamery.
Still, the small guys are getting space. While it’s less surprising to go into a locally owned Foodland and see local brands on the shelf, it’s a nice curveball to see them in a Safeway or Wal-Mart. And, as befits the product, it’s a friendly marketplace, no Honolulu ice cream wars. Each company’s representative says the same thing: They don’t step on each others’ toes.
The Heavenly Rose
One of the biggest–and oldest–brands in the local ice cream take-home market is Roselani, named for Lokelani, or “heavenly rose”, the official flower of the island where it’s been made since 1932. Only since 2006 has Roselani become available statewide; they made it to Wal-Mart just two years ago.
The reason, Catherine Nobriga-Kim said over the phone, is that ice cream makers, especially local and usually smaller brands, have a hard time competing for shelf space. “Not many of the major stores would open up for us. In the retail landscape, it’s real estate. ”
Companies that have a bigger budget for a stronger marketing campaign sell more product, gaining more shelf space. “We’re not rolling in dough,” Nobriga-Kim said.
Roselani tries to use as many local ingredients as possible, but, Nobriga-Kim points out, sometimes it just isn’t possible to do so while still providing a product people can afford. “[When we started out] we were able to get a lot of our ingredients from within the state. We can’t do that anymore. The dairies are minimal. It wouldn’t be cost-effective.” Now, she says, most of their ingredients are from California farms and dairies, but they still use vanilla from the Big Island and Maui mangoes, and the students of the culinary program at Maui Community College make the truffle in Roselani’s Aloha Cherry Truffle flavor.
Whip out the bright, rectangular Roselani tub at a party, it’s always the popular choice. It’s creamy, it melts the right way. Try letting a Dreyers scoop melt: It doesn’t. It turns into unnatural foamy paste bubbles. The best thing about Roselani: There’s not much to chew in it. “Ice cream wasn’t meant to be chewed, it was meant to be savored,” said Nobriga-Kim. “We make ice cream. The trends are all marketing promotions. Trends [like Greek yogurt] are gonna come and they’re gonna go.”
The ColdFyyre Dept.
Gerry Nakashima has a different philosophy. ColdFyyre’s ice cream is made by Nakashima and his partner, Cliff Silverstein, with only natural, locally sourced ingredients: heavy cream from the Big Island, vanilla beans, bananas, and lilikoi from Kahuku Farms on the north shore, Keopu Kona coffee, chocolate from Kate Wagner (of Not Just Desserts in Chinatown and a regular farmers’ market vendor).
Nakashima assures that everything going into his ice cream stays natural because he never uses water-crystallizing preservatives or gums. We spoke to Nakashima at his table in the Kapiolani Community College farmers market, during the recent Tuesday evening openings. “We know it’s a super-premium grade ice cream, and that’s our goal: to establish the highest possible standard,” he said. “I don’t take any short cuts, and as a result, ours is probably the most expensive.”
A member of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, Nakashima has networked with farmers he met through working at the bureau-organized Kailua and KCC farmers’ markets, where the vendors are under strict bureau-enforced guidelines to remain locally-sourced. Right now, Nakashima says he’s happy under a tent at the markets, targeting the buyer who can spend $8 on a pint of ice cream and justify it because they’re either buying locally-sourced or because it’s just damn good quality.
Nakashima’s background is actually in graphic design, but as he studied he retained an interest in pastry. “There are a lot of similarities between the design world and the pastry world,” he said, pulling a blow torch from his belt and pointing it at something that looked like a frozen brick of an oversized Oreo cookie. “I studied culinary arts at KCC, and the ice cream came from that.”
The torch is one of his techniques used on the CookiCreem, ColdFyyre’s intentionally misspelled version of the ice cream sandwich. Pick from one of any of his current ice cream flavors and pair it with one of three cookie selections, for up to twenty-one different combos, pissing off everyone in line behind you because you can’t decide. ColdFyyre keeps about eight flavors on sale at a time, “based on what we find locally. We stopped at eight because we can only make how much we can bring out to market.” Right now they range from Keopu Kona coffee to Kula Strawberry, Kahuku Apple Banana, North Shore Lilikoi and others. His Green Sea flavor–freeze dried seaweed–came from an idea by marine agrifuture farmer Wen Hao, one of those spontaneous but necessary collaborations that happen at community events like the KCC farmers market when two vendors dare each other to make something unique. It doesn’t taste as bad as you might think.
ColdFyyre just moved into a larger factory and is looking at getting into a food truck as well, although Nakashima wouldn’t say more than that. Asked if they’ll ever open up a store like Bubbies or Dave’s, Nakashima shook his head. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but that’s a long time from now.”
Bubbies breaks the frozen mold. Keith Robbins, founder and chief product creator, says his philosophy is “not caring about what the others are doing; we’re just going to keep doing what we’re going to do.” He’s famous for his mochi balls stuffed with Bubbies house-made ice cream, which has appeared on The View and was written up in Food & Wine as one of the nation’s best ice creams. Now, it seems you can find a Bubbies product anywhere you have to wait in line. I’ve seen it at Panda Express in Ala Moana, the Polynesian Cultural Center and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. You know the joke about Starbucks opening another Starbucks in the bathroom of a Starbucks? That’s Bubbies mochi ice cream; it’s as if it sells itself.
Robbins, no relation to either Baskin or Robbins, says he got the idea when Mikawaya, a mainland competitor of Shirokiya, invented the product and brought it to Hawaii in 1993. “It was an interesting concept, but when I ate it, it was poorly executed. We kept perfecting it, and now people will tell you ours is the best mochi ice cream in the world,” he said. “You know that when the owner of Mikawaya calls you, you’ve hit close to the mark.”
It’s not just the mochi ice cream that sets Bubbies apart. Go into the store on University and you’ll immediately feel the different experience. They’re open late, it’s a long line, the ambiance is college-y, cute coeds flirt and make fun of each other, and the choices range from interesting to stuff you don’t want to order out loud: Hair By Daniel, Come Here Little Girl, and the complete flavor sampler, Eat My Balls. Sizes range from “fetal dip” to however much you want scooped; they weigh it at the end, anyway. One of the keywords most people use to describe Bubbies is “unique” and the experience is always such, which leads me to Dave’s nostalgia-based attack.
Dave’s Hawaiian Ice Cream is a child of the sweets boom of the late 1980s-early 90s and once sponsored 16 franchises on O’ahu, yet only half remain open today. Why are the other ice cream companies able to achieve growth, while Dave’s is stuck in the Kona mud pie?
Still arguably the best-known of the local companies, Dave’s opened its first store in 1981, when Dave Leong was one of only three O’ahu vendors licensed to make ice cream from scratch (along with Meadow Gold and Foremost Dairies). Today, Dave’s is the only one of the three that continues to make it from scratch. Foremost is out of business in Hawaii, and Meadow Gold ships ice cream from California, putting their name on the tubs.
Dave’s however, still makes its own mix, or formula (see Sidebar, above). Once they find the mix, ice cream makers like Dave’s add flavoring and ingredients based on the mix’s ratio. Daniel Bulatao, operations manager for Dave’s factory and headquarters in Pearl City and Leong’s right-hand man for all things production- and quality-controlled, defines their philosophy: avoiding gimmicks. “The one thing that I’ve noticed about ice cream through the years,” Bulatao said over the phone, “is that vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are still number one, number two, and number three. When you read into the dairy industry and what’s doing well, it’s always vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. When we create something new, people always go to the usual.” Put another way, Dave’s philosophy means surviving on what’s been known to work previously–that is, nostalgia.
Truth is, the bulk of Dave’s business doesn’t come from grocery sales or his franchise stores. It’s in an arrangement he’s organized with Meadow Gold to produce their ice cream in his Pearl City factory, and then distribute it to resorts and restaurants. “Meadow Gold is everything to me,” Leong said. “They are tremendous people to be with, because they give [me] volume.” One senses that this, along with Leong’s commitments to the sports bar and fitness gym he also owns, forces him to relegate ice cream to a back burner. So what happened to Dave’s? Well, it turns out they’ve always been an ice cream factory, sending out the products to all the individual sellers, the franchisers or hotels/boutiques that feature Dave’s products. “We try to set owner/operators up for success. We work with [them] to maintain what we have, always asking, is the owner/operator is happy here? Is the landlord happy here? And if they’re not, we set up a meeting.”
Asked if they were planning on opening any new stores, Bulatao laughed. “We plan it every day! What’s the rent? You don’t even want to hear what the rent is.” It’s notable, however, that when some of the Dave’s Ice Cream stores–the Pearl City, Waimanalo and Ala Moana franchises–were called, their owners claimed rent wasn’t such a tough battle. Regardless, The Rent Issue, for most local business owners, is no new blues song. Rent keeps getting higher, which partly explains why you find a Dave’s in the basement of Sears, where I was actually relieved to find a small line–a mother and her four kids trying to get their order straight. But after I got my ice cream, I walked past Jamba Juice and a line fifteen people deep.
The future is here
R/D in Kaka’ako, in their recent event “Ice Cream BaR/D”, featured a sampling of seemingly random, yet delicious and surprising flavor combos, served in tiny cups to hungry, grasping, fervent hands. I don’t know what it is about eating crazy foods in tiny portions that makes it more delicious, but the spicy watermelon sorbet (with a sneak-attack at the back of the throat) and the french-fry and chocolate truffle soft-serve, were instantly addicting. I passed on the garlic shrimp ice cream, but still respected the idea. It underscores how the creativity may have frozen at Dave’s, which still gets by on what have become tourist staples: coconut, lilikoi, mango, macadamia nut (and a few newish ideas–the Okinawan Sweet Potato, for example). The guys from Prima (chefs Alejandro “Aker” Briceño and Daniel Skurnick appeared at R/D) use natural ingredients down to the vanilla bean to make their ice creams fresh each time.
R/D was rearranged to accommodate two ice cream bars: one with the soft-serve truffle station against the windows, and the other bar toward the back of the room, where the freezers and transportation bags could be staged, with ice cream ready to get scooped and served in tiny paper ramekins by the tattooed fingers of Mr. Skurnick. And people went a little nuts. Like, everything-must-go, lowest-prices-of-the-season, it’s Black-Friday-so-steal-that-last-Elmo-from-that-handicapped-kid’s-hands kind of frenzy.
It’s not exaggerating to describe them as zombies. I mean, people lost their faculties when up against a wall of unlimited ice cream. I was shoved out of the way a few times. Blanks stares, ice cream on odd places of the face, sporks everywhere. This, in our health-conscious, yogurt and smoothie era was ultimately liberating, and the group’s response to the unusual flavors was varied, but connected by “wows” and laughter.
Someone near me said it was like they turned seafood into ice cream, and another compared the crimini mushroom flavor to cold soup. There were plenty of opinions about every flavor any time somebody had a second (or sixth) helping, and many heated debates, but one thing remained steady: everybody loved it, and everybody smiled the whole time. Ice cream does that to people.
But maybe it means something more than merely using local ingredients to be considered a locally-oriented company that makes products locally. Maybe it has more to do with what the business provides the community around it. “Look, everybody’s suffering,” said Nobriga-Kim. “There’s not enough jobs, and if there’s any way we can develop partnerships that will fester positive outcomes, we try to go that avenue. That’s our philosophy. Our business was built by the people that live here. People on the islands is what makes Roselani. It’s a passion.”
Indeed it is. Chatting with consumers from malls to R/D, no matter who I asked about their favorite local ice cream, even if they replied that they didn’t even really like ice cream, a smile was the first reaction. And then a long discussion usually followed, because people like to talk about ice cream. It’s something we all have in common: an opinion on the stuff.