Six months into a new relationship, most couples are planning their first weekend getaway, exchanging apartment keys or—if they’re especially brave—bringing their significant other home for the holidays.
What they probably aren’t doing is launching a small-batch ice cream company together. But that’s exactly what Jess Eddy and Crista Freeman of Phin & Phebes did half a year after they met.
“We always liked to have projects, and this one stuck,” Jess says, laughing.
Striking a more serious note, she explains that, as lifelong ice cream lovers, they were unimpressed with some artisanal Brooklyn brands that, as she phrases it, put themselves “on a pedestal.” Since they couldn’t find what they were looking for in their neighborhood freezer case, the couple decided to launch their own line—together.
For the next three months their East Williamsburg kitchen served as a workshop, with a chalkboard wall standing in for a drafting table. Flavors were conjured up from their happiest memories and favorite travels, with Crista, who had studied art in college, turning their brainstorms into illustrated recipes that reveal the couple’s creativity as well as their single-minded pursuit of flavor. A sketch of “Key Lime Pie Ice Cream” (soon to become Coconut Key Lime), shows a cross-section of key lime pie sliding into a pint of coconut ice cream. “Vroom!” Crista’s note reads. “Crumble in a key lime pppieye…. taste goes boom!”
Some of Jess and Crista’s other early concoctions sound even more intense: “Hudson Baby Bourbon with Maine Root Beer”; “Rico Pico” (a ricotta ice cream with homemade pineapple-jalapeño compote); “Horchata y Mexican Chocolate” (“if you want to do that one right, you have to really steep the jasmine rice,” Crista notes with a sigh); and “Fluffnut,” a version of the childhood sandwich (Ritz cracker, peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff) that gilded the lily with chocolate and caramel.
These early recipes were mostly too challenging to scale up for mass production, but their sweet memory lives on in the name of the couple’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Fluffnut.
What did survive this rigorous (if highly caloric) process of invention were five fanciful flavors and an alliterative name: Phin & Phebes (the former a truncated family name for Crista, the latter Jess’s middle name).
Three years and a week at Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course (a seven-day intensive where instructors take serious students “from cow to cone”) later, Fluffnut the spaniel stands guard over a small office in Greenpoint, the world headquarters of Phin & Phebes.
But while the company’s real estate space may be modest, their retail presence is growing all the time: At press time, 140 stores in the United States carry their whimsically decorated pints (inspired by Crista’s chalkboard sketches), and Jess and Crista have mostly quit their day jobs (Jess still consults as a Web site designer) to focus on the intricacies of ice cream around the clock. With the help of a Small Business Administration loan and some private investor support, they have been able to ramp up their production to 25,000 pints per month. Still, they remain the company’s only staff.
“We like to be thrifty,” Crista says, smiling. “And scrappy!” adds Jess. “We sleep, but weekends really don’t exist.”
One of their first champions, Mercedes Singleton of Marlow & Daughters, explained the particular appeal of Phin & Phebes in an e-mail: “I chose to add them to the limited selection at Marlow & Daughters because I truly felt (and still do) that they had landed on a unique product. Beyond responsibly sourcing their ingredients, they offer a wild combination of flavors that are undeniably delicious.”
And while growth has forced Phin & Phebes to exchange their original production plant in upstate New York for a larger one across the border in Massachusetts, the company remains committed to natural ingredients, hormone-free milk and a zero-tolerance policy toward stabilizers.
These “real food” bona fides don’t negate Jess and Crista’s original principles of accessible, honest fun, however: They just mean that the vanilla wafers in the Proustian Banana Whama are handmade, rather than Nabisco, while the addictive Vietnamese Iced Coffee is made with chicory as well as regular coffee, for a flavor so intense that Jess and Crista have received mash notes from travelers homesick for Hanoi.
Fans of Phin & Phebes will soon have new reasons to send a valentine to the couple: By press time they will have released two new flavors, Dark Chocolate Salty Caramel and Peanutty Pretzel (a peanut butter ice cream with chocolate-covered pretzel chunks). As has become typical of the company, there are months of thoughtful brainstorming, testing and sourcing behind these seemingly impulsive new tastes, but Jess and Crista can’t imagine doing it any other way.
“We didn’t plan to become an ice cream company,” Jess says candidly, reminiscing about the beginning of their relationship, “so we had no boundaries.”
May the course of true love ever run smooth—and with a ribbon of salted caramel.