Let’s clear up one thing: There is no Steve behind Steve’s Ice Cream…at least, not anymore. But there is a David Stein. Stein’s history with the quality and innovation that comes packed in flavors like Whoopie Pies & Sweet Cream and Speculoos Cookie Butter goes way back. Like, back to the late 1970s, when Stein was studying at Harvard and fell in love with a smart little ice cream shop twenty minutes from Harvard Square in Boston that was the place to get ice cream: Steve’s.
“I started standing in line in ’78,” Stein tells the Voice. “Steve’s had opened in ’73, and the founder had kind of started the whole artisanal ice cream thing: making it in very old-fashioned machines where there was an oak barrel packed with rock salt and ice. In [the machine], you spun a can filled with cream and ingredients, and the result extremely dependent on how well you did it. And you’d order mix-ins — Reese’s, Oreo cookies, Heath bars, things like that…that started a whole movement.”
After graduation, Stein took what was supposed to be a temporary job at Steve’s, but after he helped them open a parlor on the Upper West Side, the company “kind of took off.” It went public in 1985, and Steve’s old-fashioned mix-in shops started popping up all over the country. When Ben & Jerry’s started selling the same idea to retail stores in pints, Steve’s tried “to catch up with them, but they were way ahead of us.” So, the company put that idea aside and found their niche making specialty ice cream products for companies like Weight Watchers, Atkins, Godiva, and Tropicana.
“That’s what I spent most of my working life doing,” Stein says. “I ended up being the CEO of that company, and left it in 2007.”
By the end of his tenure in “big ice cream,” Stein noticed that small ice cream parlors were en vogue again. Not only was the market ripe for high-quality products with even more innovative flavors, but the fun side of ice cream was back, too. “When I joined Steve’s, it was an extremely joyful place to be,” Stein reminisces. “We were all kids, and we were having a lot of fun. I thought, not only is the market right for doing something like Steve’s again, but it would be a lot of fun if I could re-create that joy.”
In late 2010, Stein bought the Steve’s Ice Cream brand from his old company and moved shop to Brooklyn, starting from scratch with developing new flavors that weren’t out on the market. First came Mexican Chili Chocolate, then Strawberry Ricotta. “We basically took things that were more like real food, whereas 35 years ago it was new and interesting to grind candy bars into ice cream.”
The first pints were hand-packed in Brooklyn and sold to stores like Murray’s Cheese, the Park Slope Food Coop, and the Milk Pail out in Water Mill. They also started selling scoops out of stands in a few Whole Foods markets and, eventually, scaled up to sell pints there, too.
While specialty-store shelves were already flooded with artisanal ice cream products, Stein noticed a big gap: dairy-free flavors that went beyond vanilla, chocolate, and chocolate chip.
“Our thinking was that if we’re doing crazy flavors, let’s do some in dairy and others dairy free, all in one line,” he says. “Because not everyone is either a dairy person or a dairy-free person. Some people dip their toe into vegan, raw, Paleo, or things like that. I think more and more people will buy dairy-free if it tastes good. And who knows, maybe ten years from now, people won’t view it as such a big difference whether it’s made with cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or coconut milk — as long as it tastes really good.”
The Brooklyn team (about ten employees) starts with an interesting perspective when they create a new flavor: Will it go into a base of cream and milk, or a base of coconut? The team won’t make the same flavor in both bases.
Some flavors clearly fall into one category over the other: Banana Pudding, for example, wouldn’t have the same rich flavor in a coconut base as it does in a cream base. Most of the dairy-free items are also gluten free, broadening the base of consumers who can safely eat them. However, the Speculoos Cookie Butter held up so well in a coconut base that it fell into the company’s dairy-free line — and won a highly coveted SOFI Award at the 2015 Specialty Food Show in New York.
There are also a few flavors that are so versatile that the team comes up with flavor variations for both bases. Salty Caramel was a hit in the dairy line, but caramel went so well with coconut cream that they created a dairy-free Chocolate Salty Caramel. And since vanilla is still the top-requested flavor nationwide, there’s a Small Batch Bourbon Vanilla ice cream and a dairy-free Burnt Sugar Vanilla.
Nowadays, Steve’s is somewhere between a small business and a national retailer: They make under ten million dollars in sales each year, but they supply to so many stores around the country that they need to use several packing facilities to ensure the product is as “small-batch” as possible. And because their flavors are so unique — think Vanilla Crème Fraiche or Root Rum Raisin (made with a parsnip base!) — some will never make it onto the shelves of major retailers.
“Parsnip Rum Raisin only made it into twenty stores, but it was a great flavor,” Stein says. “We have to come up with a hundred flavors first before we can make something like that happen.”
That’s why good ol’ New York City is the ideal place for Steve’s to continue to spread their own roots nice and deep. Eaters here are more ambitious and explore wilder flavors. Plus, those flavors are dreamed up by “people who love food” rather than executives in a boardroom.
“Once you hire people who love food, it would be counterproductive to not listen to them,” Stein says. “That’s part of the reason being in Brooklyn is important — we’re in a culture where you’re going to run into a lot of good ideas just from living here.”
While they’re nowhere near the $400 million revenue Stein’s big ice cream company was making at its peak, he’s aware that his current company walks a fine line with expansion: “Success comes at a price. It may mean that you can only get so big. Unfortunately, business has its own momentum. I don’t have a better answer other than being clear about the connection between what the company is and what the product is, and how consumers relate to it. I’m not sure there’s a better word for it than ‘authenticity.’ It’s a contentious word, but I think it has something to do with interpersonal relations. Another buzzword is ‘culture.’ It’s taking culture seriously.”
So Stein and his Brooklyn team will keep their focus on exploring flavors like Manhattan Cherry Chip and Almond Coconut Macaroon, along with innovating with local honey to make Black Berry Honey and Wildflower Honey Pistachio. Some flavors will make it nationwide, others will stay local.
“It was hard work — adding ingredients by hand, packing the rock salt continually, customers watching while you’re doing it,” Stein reminisces of his early ice cream days. “That was fun and physical. There were 100 people in line, the speakers were blasting, it was eight p.m., and you would compete [with fellow employees] to do a flashier mix-in, shoulder to shoulder. It all resulted in customers who were happier, employees who were the happiest, and ice cream that was better.”
All these decades later, that same joy from the original Steve’s is back. “Steve made ice cream cool for adults,” Stein says. “For me, that’s still what it’s all about.”