For Giuseppe Maione, it began with an ill-selected wedding gift that his vegan roommates received: an ice cream maker. Rather than exchange or re-gift it, however, they happily encouraged Maione, who is lactose-intolerant, to try his hand at crafting some form of frozen dessert that they could all enjoy.
Those tentative kitchen experiments eventually produced a faux ice cream that was nearly indistinguishable from the real deal. Friends and coworkers were so enthusiastic about Maione’s coconut-almond-hazelnut-cashew-based blend that he decided to take his hobby to the next level, following in his restaurant-industry family’s footsteps. In 2012, he partnered with JD Gross, a biz-whiz college buddy, to found Alchemy Creamery—a company solely dedicated to producing dairy-free ice cream. Their motto? Dairy has met its match.
Vegan ice cream is experiencing something of a moment, not just in New York City but nationwide. Nondairy frozen desserts—the technical term, according to the Food and Drug Administration—are tied for number-one with vegan cheese as the most-purchased specialty food, according to a 2015 report released by the Specialty Food Association. That group also found that vegan ice cream is the third-fastest growing specialty food product, with sales jumping 28 percent from 2013 to 2014. But while a few retail companies have been around for years, not everyone was satisfied with those offerings. Some are not gluten-free, while others are not kosher. Still others, according to Maione, just aren’t good enough. “I couldn’t find a nondairy ice cream I liked,” he says. “One brand all tastes like coconut, and [another] tastes like water. I was tired of paying $7 for water.”
Alchemy Creamery’s desserts decidedly do not taste like water. Maione now makes five permanent retail flavors but has a roster of over 50—from salted peanut butter to red tea and lime—all of which are as rich, velvety and dense as gelato. Rather than solely go the scoop route, he and Gross opted to also present their ice cream in push-pop form—an homage to the old Flintstones pops they both cite as childhood favorites. As I gobbled three of these pops at a recent meeting at Alchemy’s office-cum-warehouse space, located in an industrial strip of Long Island City, I couldn’t help but wonder out loud, “How is there not dairy in this?”
The Alchemy guys aren’t the only ones who have taken note of growing demand for vegan ice creams that go above and beyond frozen water. Mom-and-pop-style purveyors offer such scoops across the city, including Steve’s Ice Cream in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sweet Janes in Astoria and Ample Hills and the Ice Cream House in multiple Brooklyn locations. Astoria-based DF Mavens also sells vegan pints at grocery stores in New York and beyond.
“There’s more and more every day, but we’re not scared of the competition,” Maione says. He and Gross’s I-can’t-believe-this-isn’t-ice-cream pops can be found online or at Smorgasburg, where the treats have been staples for five consecutive seasons. Business is booming, he says, to the point that they are checking out locations in the Lower East Side, West Village, SoHo and Chelsea for their first brick-and-mortar shop. Even as they search, the duo already has plans to open a second location in Brooklyn. “The concept would be a push-pop pop-up, like Baked by Melissa is for cupcakes,” Gross says. “We’ll have little push pops lined up in the window.”
While Alchemy’s future shop would likely represent the only all-vegan ice cream option in Manhattan (several others have closed in recent months for various reasons), in the meantime, solid choices do exist, including at Van Leeuwen Ice Cream. “We obsessively source the best ingredients in the world to create each flavor and make not just incredible ‘vegan ice cream’ but incredible ice cream, period,” says co-founder Laura O’Neill. She and her partners Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen introduced vegan flavors about three years ago, landing on a cashew-, coconut- and cocoa-butter-based recipe that sacrifices none of the taste and creaminess of the team’s dairy-based treats. “It turns out that you can make vegan ice cream that’s rich and luscious like regular ice cream, but without the stabilizers and fillers,” O’Neill says. “The finished product tastes like a high-fat ice cream but with no milk.”
Van Leeuwen now offers 10 flavors of vegan ice cream, many of which are ordered by non-vegan customers, according to O’Neill. Indeed, on a recent visit to the company’s Greenpoint parlor, I released my inner seven-year-old, ecstatically devouring a scoop each of caramelized banana nut, chocolate, salted caramel and chocolate chip cookie dough. When those were gone, I scraped the bottom of the bowl with my spoon, desperate for every drop of creamy goodness.
Alchemy Creamery and Van Leeuwen’s desserts are practically indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts, but Jawea, a newcomer to the vegan ice cream playing field, is going for something a bit different. Jawea’s natural coconut-cream-based pints combine passion and practicality for founder Mike Rosenthal, who finds inspiration for his flavors in travels around the world. Rosenthal is lactose-intolerant and, like Maione, simply wanted a better-tasting ice cream option that wouldn’t make his stomach do a back flip. At the same time, he craved a healthier choice than what’s already on the market. Thus, a serving of his frozen desserts contains just 12 to 14 grams of sugar—about half that of most traditional ice creams—and 100 fewer calories. “Eating Häagen-Dazs is all about ‘I feel really guilty,’ whereas diet ice creams alleviate the guilt but don’t taste good,” Rosenthal says. “I wanted people to be able to eat my ice cream and actually enjoy it, without feeling terrible about themselves.”
Indeed Jawea’s pints—which are now sold in more than 100 stores throughout the city and beyond—are no less mouthwatering than any other ice cream, dairy-based or otherwise. Years of working in the wine and spirits industry left Rosenthal with a particularly fine-tuned nose and taste buds. He approaches ice-cream-making with the same mindset as he does with fine wine, bestowing each creation with distinct flavor notes that unfold as the dessert melts on the tongue. Horchata, for example, was inspired by Rosenthal’s time in Mexico—“At first, I was like, why is everyone here drinking milk?”—and is a deceptively simple riff on vanilla. A spoonful is at first all creamy vanilla and tart coconut, but soon delivers aromas of cinnamon. The finish is a lip-smacking, starchy goodness, compliments of the recipe’s rice flour. “I’m not just concerned with whether my ice cream’s good or not, but with how it transitions on the palate,” Rosenthal says. “Like the best wines, it’s interesting. It’s complex but elegant and well-balanced, from the first taste to the last.”
For now, Jawea offers two additional flavors—chocolate horchata and salty “dulce no leche”—although two more—spiced coffee and mango chili—are slated to launch in the summer. That initial list of offerings, both at Jawea’s and beyond, is likely only the beginning. “The stores aren’t saying ‘We already have a vegan ice cream,’—they know this space is growing,” Rosenthal says. “Every time we do demos, we have people who go nuts over it, vegan or otherwise.”