Mike Rosenthal waxes romantic when talking about what he’s eaten on his many travels, and food memories from childhood. So when pondering a new food product that would bring comfort, culture, and satisfaction to a wide variety of eaters, he looked to to his past.
“I grew up in Philadelphia,” Rosenthal tells the Voice, “where we have ‘water ice,’ which everyone else calls Italian ice. My favorite memory as a kid was going to get water ice on the first day of summer. It was a nostalgic feeling, and whenever I thought about it, I’d smile.”
Meanwhile, he was working in the restaurant industry but found his happiest moments in adulthood were cooking for friends. Being lactose intolerant, he’d whip up dairy-free ice cream and sorbet for dessert, pulling in the flavors of his travels in combinations like avocado-lime and mango-chili. When his friends requested these desserts more than anything else, Rosenthal knew he’d found his product. Thus, Jawea Frozen Desserts was born.
Rosenthal moved to Chicago to work on his recipes out of the kitchen of Revolución Steakhouse, where a friend was the manager. “Every day I would wake up early and make my ice cream; twenty or thirty recipes on three tabletop machines, the kind that would take an hour to make a gallon of sorbet,” he explains. “I sold my car so that I could afford to live for a year, and so I could only sell to restaurants I could walk to! But it was cool: I was making these half-gallon containers and hand-delivering the products. I learned a lot about myself, entrepreneurship, and the business.”
Part of what Rosenthal learned in this year of experimenting and selling to Chicago restaurants was that the restaurant industry — especially in a particularly cold-winter city — did not foster equity in an ice cream company. And he missed New York: “I missed the energy. I missed people not waiting for the light to change to cross the street. And New York is the center of food trends in the country. It was a huge thing for me to quit my job and start this crazy company, but I learned that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond — I wanted to be a big fish in a big pond. And there’s no bigger pond than New York City.”
For the name, Rosenthal shortened Sacajawea — the Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition cross from North Dakota to the Pacific — to Jawea, writing the word on a poster and polling people as to what it made them think of. “The top responses were that it was exotic, natural, and smooth,” he says, “which is exactly what I wanted.”
From the start, his Horchata flavor — with cinnamon, rice flour, and vanilla in a coconut base — was the biggest hit, so much so that Chicago eaters still ordered it in the dead of winter. The creamy coconut-based desserts did the best overall when compared to the fruit-based sorbets, and so he worked on developing that base recipe.
When he first started out, the tubs needed to be removed from the freezer ten minutes before plating to reach optimum texture; not ideal for busy restaurant dessert stations, nor home eaters. That led to the challenge of how to create an easily scoopable, dairy-free product without too many added or artificial stabilizers. So he started experimenting with invert sugars — sucrose split into its parts, glucose and fructose, which add body and creaminess along with sweetness — and settled upon tapioca syrup. Now, Jawea desserts are scoopable just minutes out of the freezer.
As far as the parameters Rosenthal set for the rest of Jawea’s ingredients, he focused on how his product would make eaters feel more than anything. “People talk a lot about guilt when it comes to ice cream,” he says. “They’re happy and comforted with full-fat ice cream, but then they’re super guilty. On the other side are low-calorie diet products that have a lot of sweeteners, oils, and powders, but they don’t taste great and so customers are unsatisfied. I wanted to launch a dessert that’s balanced and draws health-conscious people who want something comforting that’s also not bad for you.”
Jawea flavors are a touch less sweet than other ice creams and are certified vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free. The ice cream also doesn’t contain any corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, or GMOs. The line now includes a Chocolate Horchata, a Salty Dulce, Spiced Coffee, and Mango Chili (inspired by the flavor combination he loved while traveling in Thailand and Mexico).
“The big thing was learning how to trust my gut,” Rosenthal says of the learning curves he has overcome in the past few years. “So many people have done this before and everyone has advice, which is great, but you get pulled in so many directions. I learned the hard way, [by] making mistakes, but now I ask what’s the why behind every decision: ‘Is that who I am and what this brand is going for?’ I’ve learned to trust myself, which is not easy, because I’m learning how as I go.”