Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Saving the Environment, Scoop by Scoop

Sometimes, a sweet tooth and concern for the environment go hand in hand. Such is the case for Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream (VLAIC) started last year by brothers Ben and Peter Van Leeuwen and Laura O’Neill, Ben’s wife, who are not only committed to offering the best ice cream possible, but also to reducing their carbon footprint.

What began from testing recipes in their Greenpoint home has evolved into a business that includes three trucks (soon to be five) that are stationed around the city and a presence in Whole Foods Markets in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Various independent markets, such as Get Fresh and Foragers Market in Brooklyn and Pioneer Supermarket in Manhattan, also carry VLAIC.

“We always wanted to have a smaller impact on the environment,” said O’Neill, who went on to explain that one way this is achieved is by keeping the trucks stationary, “like more of a storefront.”

The ingredients are all fresh, and local or organic wherever possible. The ice cream is made from hormone-free fresh milk and cream from farms in upstate New York. Other ingredients in the ice cream base are egg yolks and pure cane sugar. O’Neill explained that they don’t use condensed milk or preservatives or corn syrup in their ice cream, giving it a clean taste.

“It sets us apart from other ice creams,” she said. “It’s just like the kind of ice cream you would make at home.” She noted that their product has 19 percent butterfat and 30 percent less sugar than other high-end ice creams.

Also minimizing VLAIC’s carbon footprint are the disposable goods used, which are made from 100 percent renewable resources. The cups and napkins are Bagasse, a fiber made from sugar cane husk; and the drink cups, spoons and straws are made from corn husks.

The freezers in the ice cream trucks are plate freezers and charge overnight, meaning they don’t need to be plugged in every day. “We just have a very small generator to run the lights and cash register,” said O’Neill. “This means our trucks are nice and quiet and not burning unnecessary fuel all day.”

When creating their 10 flavors, O’Neill and the Van Leeuwens searched worldwide for the best ingredients possible. For the vanilla ice cream (VLAIC’s most popular flavor), they use organic Bourbon and Tahitian vanilla orchids grown in Papua New Guinea. French company Michel Cluizel is VLAIC’s chocolate supplier, and they use Piedmont hazelnuts for their hazelnut flavor.

“All of our ingredients are to the standards of organic or above,” O’Neill said. She noted that the red currants for the “Currants & Cream” flavor are local — grown in the Hudson Valley — and that the pistachios for the pistachio flavor are the only ones certified by the International Slow Food Institute, which supports food that is produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment.

VLAIC just introduced — six days ago, in fact — its newest flavor: Earl Grey tea, made with organic Rishi Tea and using only tea leaves from ancient tea trees. Later this summer, O’Neill will introduce a cinnamon flavor.

Currently, the Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream trucks stop in Brooklyn on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. One of the trucks has a permanent location on Greene and Prince streets in SoHo, and another stops under the High Line park at West 13th and Washington streets. VLAIC’s Twitter feed posts daily locations under the tag “VLAIC.”

Out of all their locations, O’Neill says she prefers Brooklyn. “We like working in Brooklyn because it’s our neighborhood,” she said, adding that she sees a lot of regular customers. She and Ben were in the truck at Bedford Avenue on the Fourth of July, where they sold so many banana splits that she had make a few trips to buy more organic bananas.

VLAIC’s commitment to the environment goes beyond daily business practices: to help preserve the Mountain Gorilla, one of the world’s most endangered species, one percent of all profits are given to Wildlife Direct, a grassroots organization that actively protects endangered species. VLAIC also donates to the WSPCA and the World Wildlife Foundation.

For more information about Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, visit

Photo by Marc Hibsher

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