Coolhaus isn’t just any ice cream company. While flavours such as fried chicken and waffles, olive oil, and cream cheese and rye are just some of the usuals, their ice cream cookie towers take the Italian classic to a whole new level – potentially to a whole new galaxy.
Since starting in 2008 and making their debut in a gleaming silver food truck at Coachella Valley Music Festival in 2009, co-founders Natasha Case and Freya Estreller have been pushing the boundaries with artisan ice cream. Coolhaus has gone from strength to strength and are now stocked in over 4,000 stores, including Whole Foods and Kroger, throughout the US. We spoke to Natasha about what inspired the idea behind Coolhaus, how the team go about creating these fantastical flavours, and plans for the future.
In one sentence, why are Coolhaus’ ice cream creations innovative?
We push the boundaries of traditional ice cream by creating sweet-meets-savoury flavours, like brown butter candied bacon and caramelized pastrami (goes well with our marbled rye whoopies to create the Reuben ice cream sandwich), and we give them architecturally inspired punny names.
With an education in architecture, what inspired you to start your own ice cream company?
While I was an architecture student at UC Berkeley, one of my professors compared my model to a layer cake (as if it was a bad thing)… so my next model was an actual cake! That’s when I started exploring the concept I called “Farchitecture,” or the intersection of food and architecture. After graduation, I worked for Disney Imagineering. That’s where I started making ice cream sandwiches from scratch and naming them after famous architects as a product under the Farchitecture concept. When I met Freya, Coolhaus co-founder and my wife, she had the notion, “I think you’re onto something here, let’s turn this into a business”.
What difficulties did you face when starting up?
Almost everyone thought we were crazy, especially my parents! Once everyone started hearing about us thanks to the viral press from Coachella Valley Music Festival, it was difficult to keep up with demand – but it was a good problem. We also had a lot of territory to cover early on as it was pretty much just the two of us running the business – so we wore a lot of hats. In the end, that paid off, as we learned a ton and acquired many new skills and areas of knowledge; I discovered my love of accounting!
How do you think the food truck movement has aided your success?
We were one of the first five gourmet food trucks in Los Angeles, so being on the forefront of that movement was a major factor in our success, but as a pioneer you also may be the first to encounter many problems in an industry. But yes, no one was doing gourmet ice cream sandwiches and social media (especially Twitter) wasn’t as important as it is now, so the timing was just right. We were able to capitalise upon being first to market and embracing the explosion in social media for our purposes. As we grew, trucks became an important piece of a larger strategy: today I consider them marketing, partnership and data-accumulating machines to drive product innovation and development, especially for our wholesale business (our pre-packaged sammies – or ice cream sandwiches – pints and bars are now sold in 4,000 stores like Whole Foods and Kroger and at restaurants like Umami Burger and Bareburger).
Coolhaus is known for its unique and often bizarre flavour combinations. How do you come up with them and what’s your R&D process?
We try to predict food trends by looking at past trends and thinking about how they might evolve. We also consider what our fans want and many flavour innovations come from client partnerships, like the special sammie we did for the finals season of Showtime’s Dexter. Flavour R&D is one of my favourite parts of my job!
How do consumers react to some of the most unusual flavours, such as fried chicken and waffles and cuban cigar?
Fried chicken and waffles is one of our most popular flavours, so the reaction to that one is great. People are usually intrigued by that flavour; many are even surprised at how much they like it! I recently created a peanut butter and pickles ice cream (every pregnant woman’s food fantasy), but it wasn’t popular with the interns when we were doing tastings. If someone screams after opening a pint of ice cream, don’t take the idea any further. Write that down! However, some flavours serve the purpose of a conversation piece or PR magnet (hello pizza ice cream – mascarpone, sundried tomato, olive oil, basil and sea salt) and exist for people more to taste – and we know it’s unlikely that they order it as a scoop or sammie. Even if they order our delicious Tahitian vanilla bean after trying it, the pizza ice cream drew them to Coolhaus – and we’re okay with that.
Fried chicken and waffle is one of Coolhaus’ most popular flavours.
Artisan ice cream is a relatively niche market, so how important was it for you to create something different in order to stand out?
It’s one of our main values. Coolhaus was “architecturally inspired” from the very beginning, so our concept always stood out, and I think the company always will. We’re always going to push the envelope and create wild flavours and stay ahead of trends. If you do something truly original and have an original story, as I believe we do, you stand on your own. Plus, artisan ice cream is exploding! So opportunities are getting bigger and bigger.
Any tips for other start-ups?
Take calculated, strategic risks, and know that sometimes what you don’t know can be a secret weapon: you can walk through a wall when you don’t know it’s there.
What’s your plan for the future?
We have a major focus on our wholesale side of the business right now. This year we were added to 1,000 Kroger stores which is a big accomplishment for us. We just introduced two new mmiemmies and are adding two new pints to our pre-packaged line. We will continue to innovate with new flavours and products in frozen, and eventually plan to move to chocolate, beverages, cookies and snacks. Or what do you think about Coolhaus craft beer?!
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