One part naïve optimism, one part everything going wrong along the way. That’s the real recipe for Smitten Ice Cream, according to founder Robyn Sue Fisher.
Robyn perfected the machine that now makes Smitten’s signature fresh scoops on the spot just in time for the Great Recession, which made it a bit challenging, as you can probably imagine, to get funding and spin the innovation into an actual business.
By that point, though, Robyn had already learned she could do things scrappily. So instead of folding her cards, she decided to break some rules.
Rules were never really her thing anyway. Robyn tried the rule-driven corporate world for several years working as a management consultant. “I felt like my life was creating PowerPoint presentations that someone would just put in a drawer and never look at again,” she said. “I realized that just wasn’t a fit for my personality because I hate office buildings, I don’t follow directions very well and I hate routine.”
The two things Robyn really loves, on the other hand, are ice cream and making things. So when she dug deeper into the world of ice cream many years ago and found a problem that needed to be solved, it sparked the creation that eventually became Smitten.
“Modernization of the industry has really tarnished the product,” Robyn explained. “Most ice cream is not made for eating; it’s made for shelf life.”
And that's where naïve optimism first came in. “I thought: Screw all that! What if you made every batch of ice cream from scratch, so you could just focus on taste?”
“Part of my goal with Smitten was to bring ice cream back in time and make it pure again; to fix something that modernization ruined," she said. "The other half was to make it better than it’s ever been before. It’s this juxtaposition between grandma and inventor."
The freshness and smoothness of ice cream are directly related to the temperature at which it’s frozen. Freezing things colder means freezing them faster, which means fewer ice crystals form in the product.
If you did it fast enough, Robyn realized, you could actually make ice cream to order, on the spot. She turned to liquid nitrogen to make that a reality.
When you freeze ice cream ingredients so cold, though, everything has a tendency to stick together. Robyn needed a next-level mixer to prevent such sticking and quickly realized she’d have to build it herself.
The key to the machine, since named the Brrr, is that it never gives the ingredients a chance to stick together, because every surface of the bowl and mixer is being scraped at all times.
That hardware (inspired by the movement of a screw) is only half the story, though. The other half, in true San Francisco fashion, is software; pre-programmed algorithms for every flavor sense viscosity (i.e. how easy it is to push a spoon through) and dose liquid nitrogen accordingly.
And that brings us back to the rule-breaking year of 2009, when Brrr was finally complete and the Great Recession was in full swing. With no possibility of raising money to open a store, Robyn decided to take to the streets with her machine. “I had this wacky machine and I needed something to carry it,” she remembers. “I chose a wagon for three reasons: it has old-fashioned nostalgia, it was under $150, and it could carry a heavy load.”
In true maker fashion, she bungee-corded her machine on top of the wagon, re-wired a motorcycle battery to fuel it, and strapped on a portable tank of liquid nitrogen. Then, she took to Twitter. As she explained: “I’d say: Here’s the flavor of the day and here’s where I’ll be. Come and get it before I sell out or the cops come. And that was my life for the next year.”
Before long, San Francisco was smitten with Smitten. The wagon, which took around four minutes to serve each fresh-made scoop, attracted crazy lines and crazy awesome Yelp ratings. “It was the days before food trucks,” she said. “It was a pretty viral cult following.”
That early success led to Smitten’s Hayes Valley location, but it didn’t change Robyn’s approach. She stuck to her bootstrapping roots and opened the store in a shipping container store, proving you don’t need loads of capital to start a business. As she put it, "It’s kind of the antithesis of business school.”
“My life 80 hours a week was managing that store and realizing how little I knew,” she added. “I was trying to adapt and grow and be better and play.”
Just a few years later, her original optimism and ongoing commitment have paid off. Smitten has almost ten locations, including one opening soon in the Mission, which is where Robyn first introduced Smitten and the Brrr machine to the world via her DIY-wagon.
“That store is going to be so, so special to me,” she said. Considering all the creativity and work that went into Smitten before it was cool, it's easy to see why.
photo credit: audrey ma