Austin's Favorite Vegan Ice Cream Shop Needs You
Update: They did it, they were fully funded!
On the morning I visited Sweet Ritual for our interview, their Kickstarter for moving to a new location had reached over $6,000. By the time this story publishes, they will have more than met their goal half-way. This is, no doubt, a triumph. But with less than 5 days remaining, don’t let it fool you. Austin’s favorite vegan ice cream shop still needs your support; if they aren’t fully funded by February 28th, as per Kickstarter’s guidelines, then they don't get a dime.
In 2011, Sweet Ritual got their start by renting space within Juiceland, a popular juice bar here in Texas, where they reside to this day. Owners Valerie and Amelia both cut their teeth working in Austin mainstays, Amy’s Ice Cream and Toy Joy respectively. Their unique perspective and ethos melds to create a business that is both plant-based and innovative. For five years, they’ve thrived and slowly, but steadily, grown their business to meet community need:
Amelia: Every time we had the opportunity to expand the business, we would Kickstart for a bigger machine to actually make hard-scooped ice cream.
Valerie: We also had a really good summer and so we invested that money into Ice Cream University for a special non-dairy course to learn some ways to improve our product and that made a really huge difference.
Amelia: We had a really tiny machine that makes ice cream a gallon at a time. So, we made 12 tonnes of ice cream a gallon at a time, which is kind of like owning a bakery and making every cupcake in an easy bake oven [laughs] and we had such a successful summer that we were able to take that money and invest in leasing a bigger machine, that makes quadruple that. So as we've gotten bigger our streamline process has gotten easier and easier.
Valerie: Now the biggest thing limiting us is that we don't have enough space. We can make four times as much ice cream but we still only have the same small freezer. So, once we fill it, we're stuck and we can't make anymore until we sell it.
Amelia: Every weekend, from May to October, I fill the back freezer completely full and then when I come in on Monday morning there's no ice cream left. So, we can only make as much as to fulfill a busy weekend and that means we can't really grow.
This is no exaggeration. After our interview, Amelia and Valerie lead me into the kitchen where they conceive and execute their ice cream flavors. The space is small. Commercially apt and clean, of course, but small considering how many people they serve each day. I get to sample freshly made vanilla ice cream (the best I’ve ever had) and watch it travel into a walk-in freezer, where it has to harden for 24 hours before scooping. When I imagine this freezer during our interview, I think of the large restaurant or grocery freezers that I’ve seen all my life. What I’m met with during the kitchen tour is about a fourth of my imagining. Sweet Ritual’s growth dilemma zooms sharply into focus.
Later, I walk over to a second standing freezer reserved only for products, like pints, packaged for sale. Valerie reiterates that they can’t take larger orders from grocery stores and other businesses because they can only make enough ice cream to fill the freezer at any given time. This means that they have to say no, often.
To go from the kitchen to the scoop counter, you have to pass by a kale chip operation and go through another room full of bustling Juiceland employees. The air is happy and neither party seems annoyed by the other but it’s clear at this point, to me at least, that they have outgrown their current set-up. Amelia and Valerie just seem grateful for the chance to share their passion with the many different patrons that visit them each day:
Amelia: There are so many kids now that have allergies, and a lot of them grow out of them, but in those formative years, in their early life, they can’t eat ice cream. [They] can’t have cow’s milk. So, it’s important to have an alternative for them. Conversely, there are a lot of people who are lactose intolerant who are stubbornly still eating ice cream.
We’ve served grown men banana splits who haven’t had ice cream in 20 years and they’ve cried and cried with us. It’s very special.
Valerie: I really love the community that’s grown around the store. They’re not just customers. [They’re] people who are really excited and emotionally invested in us. I think a lot of that has come from raising money through Kickstarter. Not only do we give people a chance to contribute to the business, [but] we show them how we’re growing. They get to see how they directly impact the business.
We get feedback about what flavors people want. We work with other local companies like Better Bites, Capital City [Bakery], and Yellow Bird [Hot Sauce] and create collaborations with them. So, it’s this interaction with the community, from the customer to other businesses all the way to other vegan organizations, that creates this really nice kind of friendship.
And that’s genuinely the vibe that you get when you walk into the store. After I take some final photos, Amelia rushes back to the kitchen to continue working and Valerie zips off to a meeting. I chat with Murph, the manager, about the company's identity and employee culture. There’s an authenticity and openness in this discussion that makes me feel like the ice cream that I’m eating was made with intention, and that’s comforting.
So, what else is good about this move?
Amelia: A parking lot!
Valerie: So much parking!
We’ll have a bigger production space, which means we’ll be able to experiment with flavors more and make more novelties and cakes. Getting ahead will also give us some time to work on other projects that we’ve been wanting to do like writing a cookbook. [Something] that really shares how we make ice cream with lots of different ingredients and suss it up, so that the home cook can make ice cream to their [own] specifications. Whatever their restrictions or needs are; if they’re nut free, coconut free, allergic, etc. We’ll walk you through the steps and all of the different alternatives you can use.
Amelia: As we get bigger, as we get better, we’re able to invest in better ingredients. Right now, we’re in the process of transitioning to a completely soy-free and allergen-free chocolate. A lot of dark chocolates are produced on shared lines with dairy and so it’s difficult to get one that is 100% guaranteed [allergen-free]. We just found one that is not produced on shared lines so now, we can guarantee that our chocolate is 100% non-dairy and soy-free, as well.
Valerie: That’s the great thing about growing. We can be more particular and really invest in making the product that we want to make.
If you'd like to donate to their Kickstarter, please click here. And if you're not from Austin, maybe consider donating $125 or more so that you can choose to have four pints shipped to you with dry ice, anywhere in the contiguous US! Really!