by Howard Walfish
A few months ago I wrote about Phin & Phebes, a Brooklyn-based ice cream company. Through the magic of social media I was able to get in touch with the owners, Crista Freeman and Jess Eddy. Recently I met up with the two of them at their new office in Greenpoint to discuss how they got into the ice cream business, the name of their company, and Ice Cream University.
Crista and Jess don’t come from a food background. Crista went to art school in California, and Jess was a Journalism major — though what she was really interested in was design. They started making ice cream at home, for themselves, making up interesting flavors. Their first original creation was the Fluffnut, which was an ice cream rendition of a childhood snack they both enjoyed — Ritz crackers with peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, chocolate, and caramel (here’s a photo). Although it’s not one of the flavors they market, it’s still one of their favorites, and it’s the name of their adorable dog. The industry name for those kinds of additions is “inclusions”, I was informed, a fact they picked up while attending Ice Cream University. But that came later.
In February of 2010 they were working regular jobs, but they got bored and they were eating a lot. “It’s like we were in hibernation.” They were inspired to make something, which led to the creation of the Fluffnut ice cream. For about three months they worked “experimenting” with different, interesting flavors based on Crista’s whimsical designs. In fact, everything they’ve done with ice cream has been an extension of that chalkboard at home in their kitchen.
Since they didn’t know anything about making ice cream, and had no one to eat it except themselves, they did things differently. When making their Coconut Key Lime Pie ice cream, they did it by baking a key lime pie, and then breaking it up and mixing it into coconut ice cream. For their Ginger Cookie Snap they made ginger cookies with lemon frosting and crumbled into ginger ice cream. In fact, that’s still how that ice cream is made today, though for mass production they had to hand off the baking duties to someone else. While expanding they have had to come to terms with the fact that this will happen more often than not. “Do everything yourself, until you can’t,” is their motto.
So they were making ice cream at home, and their friends were eating it and enjoying it. So much so, in fact, that their friends were telling Crista and Jess to quit their jobs and go into the ice cream business. “But you can’t listen to friends,” they said. They just might be telling you what you want to hear, after all, so they needed a way to test their flavors. They took their flavors to a market at the Brooklyn Lyceum, and gave out samples in exchange for a market survey. This data became a part of their business plan, featuring six flavors, and took their ice cream to the Hester St. Fair. Although three of those flavors are still in production, a few of them are not — among them the Fluffnut and the intriguing Rico Pico, ricotta ice cream with a pineapple-jalapeno compote. That last flavor is one that Crista would like to try to get into production again.
When they were getting started, the name of the company was Phinizy & Phebe. “Phinizy” is Crista’s great-grandmother’s maiden name, and “Phebe” is Jess’s middle name. But later, when it came to marketing, they were in agreement that the name needed to be a lot shorter. “We both kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Phin & Phebes. Yup.’”
After the Hester St. Fair they had built up some momentum, and began selling half-pints at small stores like Marlow & Daughters. They were making the ice cream in small batches in a commercial kitchen in Queens, and the half-pints were selling out faster than they could make them. If they were to do this seriously, they had to make some changes.
In December of 2010 they said, “Let’s quit our jobs,” and began to focus on ice cream as a business. In January 2011 they attended “Ice Cream University”, a 10-day intensive course at the University of Pennsylvania. In their class of roughly 150 people were industry professionals, and they had to attend lectures, participate in lab work, and do tons of homework. It was the equivalent of a food science degree crammed into a week and a half, and it was so much work and so much information it gave Jess & Crista pause. “Shit,” they thought, “what did we just do?”
They learned all of the key pieces that they would need, especially how much money it would take and the right kind of equipment. They also decided what they wanted for their mix — its texture, melting point, what ingredients they wanted… “and what ingredients we didn’t want.” They only use cream, skim milk, sugar, whole milk and egg yolks in their mix — no corn syrup, no artificial stabilizers. They worked with a food scientist to develop all of those things, and they began the arduous process of sourcing their ingredients. That’s still one of the hardest parts of the job, whether it’s spices like cinnamon and vanilla or something like banana puree. One of the reasons it’s so hard is that they are such a small company. “Because of that we don’t have the luxury of ordering in large quantities and getting the discount that comes along with that.” And they try very hard to use only all-natural ingredients, which is an additional challenge; according to Crista, “The ice cream industry is saturated with products laden with corn syrup and non natural things.”
By July of 2011 they were ready to go. They got a loan, finalized their flavors, and decided on “co-packing” — meaning that the ice cream would be produced and packed at a facility other than their own, up in the Adirondacks. That decision was more a financial one than anything else, it being far more expensive to buy your own machines and rent the space for them. They didn’t ship their first batch until the week of Thanksgiving, 2011. That their business is so new came as a surprise to me — I’ve seen their pints in stores all over Brooklyn. They currently sell in stores like Union market, Marlow & Daughters, and the Greene Grape. They are trying to gradually expand, and prefer selling face-to-face by meeting with store managers and owners and giving them samples. Most people who taste their ice cream want to buy it.
The first thing that caught my eye when I saw their pints in the store was the interesting packaging. Jefferson Cheng, a friend of Crista’s from the California College of the Arts, designs it all. It continues the whimsical feel of what Jess and Crista have been doing from the start, when everything was hand drawn and they thought everything would be “fun and playful”.
So what’s next for Phin & Phebes? Crista and Jess are constantly re-evaluating the business and trying to decide what the best plan is. Although they’ve had a lot of success, the business is still small. Jess is freelancing full time to help pay the bills, and to help them afford their growth. Although they sometimes consider a scoop shop, they plan for now to concentrate on the pint business, and are gearing up for the summer. But they don’t want to get too serious. At the end of the day, they say, “Ice cream should be fun.”
For more information, check out Phin & Phebes website.