A chance meeting in London would eventually lead Australian Laura O’Neill to Brooklyn, where she would become a co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. Growing the business from two food trucks to shops on both coasts, Laura talks to us about the hectic life of an entrepreneur and “fitting it all in.”
You’re a fellow Australian! How long have you been in New York?
I’m originally from Melbourne and have been here for just over nine years.
You’re almost an official New Yorker.
I originally came here on a whim—I had no idea I would stay this long. I met Ben Van Leeuwen, who is one of my business partners, in London when he was studying abroad. He is American and I was in London visiting my brother. We ended up dating, and I moved to Brooklyn with him after I graduated university. We actually got married, although we’re currently separated. Right before I moved, he called me with the idea for the business. The initial idea was very loose, a different take on the ice-cream truck. I was totally onboard and it was great timing because I didn’t have any work lined up in New York.
Had you had any experience in food before?
I worked in event production in Melbourne. None of us have had any formal culinary training. My mom and my sister are vegan, and my dad is an amazing cook, so I had that interest and experience through them. I also think it’s different in Australia—we grow up with amazing fresh produce, bread and local markets.
The bread here is like a loaf of sugar.
There are a million ingredients you aren’t aware of. That was kind of our philosophy with the ice cream when we first started. We were so surprised when we started looking at what was already in the market; there were so many strange and unnatural ingredients. We were like, “Why can't it just be milk, cream, sugar and eggs?” We wanted to make really pure ice cream.
It still kind of feels like we’re in the beginning stages of the business, even though we’re almost a decade in.
How did the business get started?
Ben had actually driven ice-cream trucks before as a summer job when he was younger, sort of like Mister Softee. He was driving in New York one day and noticed that there wasn’t a really great, well-designed truck around. I was onboard when he told me the idea, and Ben’s brother Pete was also in. We wrote a short business plan together. Initially we thought we would be able to find a really good brand of ice cream to sell in our trucks, but it became clear really quickly that there wasn’t anything around that was going to meet our standards. We realized the ice cream we had in mind didn’t actually exist yet. We would get samples and they would be full of corn syrup, gum and all these stabilizers. We would have to make the product ourselves.
We ended up raising $80,000 from friends and family, and by taking out a line of credit. That allowed us to buy two trucks and have them fitted out, and get the first production run of ice cream done. We would go out and sell everyday and everything went straight back into the business.
Not having had any food production experience, how did the first batch of ice cream actually come about?
We started by looking to chefs that we respected. I remember looking at Thomas Keller’s recipes—they are all classic French cooking, lots of egg yolks and heavy cream.
To start, we wanted to perfect a few classic flavors: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, mint chip. We didn’t want to do any crazy flavors just for the hell of it. We wanted to make the classics the best they could be. We researched: “Who makes the best chocolate. Where did it come from? Which chocolate has no preservatives in it?” We wanted everything that went into the ice cream to be as pure as it could be. For the pistachio flavor, we tried nuts from Iran and California until we learned that Sicilian pistachios are the best. We get our pistachio paste from Bronte in Sicily.
The three of us lived together at the time, and we had a small ice-cream maker that we would use to test recipes. Once we had the flavors and the recipes down, we found a factory upstate to make larger batches.
Our ice cream has always been 100% our recipes. We have now moved production to Greenpoint, which is why we can do so many different flavors now.
We’ve also introduced vegan ice cream. Those flavors came about the same way. A lot of vegan ice cream is based from coconut, almond or soy and then filled with a bunch of stuff to give it the right consistency. We knew there were fats that could do the same thing using plant-based products.
So the business started with the three of you driving the trucks around?
The first summer was crazy. It was the three of us working, although we did have a few friends who would help us out on the weekends. The hours were long, but when it's your own business you don’t really set boundaries for yourself. We did eventually learn that we needed to start hiring people, delegating and sharing the load, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to grow the business.
Were the trucks popular at first?
From the moment we first opened the truck window! We pulled up in Soho on the first day, and people gravitated towards it because the truck looked really great. Then they would try the product and really respond to it. Our ice cream doesn't make you feel bad because its ingredients are things your body knows how to deal with. We got written up in the New York Times that first summer, which was amazing.
That’s awesome! And now you have stores around New York and LA.
The first store was in Greenpoint, which opened in 2010. Opening the first store was incredible but also a little bit scary because once you open a store, that's it. You're open unless you close.... and if you close, you failed. With the truck we had more flexibility; they could be strictly seasonal, or not go out if the weather was bad. It’s been amazing to have a profitable store, and we quickly added coffee so we could have a year-round business.
Are the trucks still part of the business?
Yes. We have four trucks in New York and two of them in LA.
Everyone must ask you this, but what’s your favorite flavor?
We make a passion fruit sporadically that I really love. That one we're going to be doing in pints soon. Actually, we just redid our packaging and we're going to be rolling that out in a couple of months for grocery stores. Plus, we're adding tons of new flavors.
The three of you also run another business together, right?
Yes! It’s an Indonesian restaurant in Greenpoint called Selamat Pagi. We’ve had it for about four years now. It came about because there was a storefront section of our Greenpoint office and factory. We wanted to use that space. We all really love Indonesian food and have traveled to Bali a lot. The philosophy of the food echoes what we do with Van Leeuwen. Traditional dishes made well with local ingredients.
How do you feel about where you guys are now?
I feel like we’ve had like a fairly unconventional path. We are successful as a business, but it’s not like we have a ton of money behind us. We never had to take on a second round of investment, which is amazing because it means we have complete control over what we do.
The three of us still wear a bunch of different hats because we are still a small company. I feel really grateful because I like being my own boss. I have the freedom to do whatever I want within reason. It means I can make the time to do things outside of work. I’m in a band and it’s great to be able to go out of town to play shows, to have the freedom to do that.
I don’t know how you do all this! What’s your band called?
Laura and Greg. We have been playing for about two years. We recently played the Northside Festival, and are currently working on our new album. I guess it’s garage pop. I sing and then I play keyboard and then Greg plays guitar and sings.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
It’s really important to balance your life. You can fit everything in. Try things now that you want to do, don’t wait. For me that has most recently been music. Make time for the things you care about. You can’t just bury yourself in work. I think it’s especially easy to do in New York, because time moves so quickly here.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is really hard to sum up. I feel as though I really see what I love about New York when I'm away from here. The energy is undeniable and suits a busy mind like mine. I think one day I'll wake up and be ready to leave, but it hasn't happened yet.