Van Leeuwen Ice Cream was founded by Ben Van Leeuwen, Laura O’Neill, and Peter Van Leeuwen in 2008 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who started the company with $60,000 and a single buttery yellow truck.
The limited cash meant the trio had to be nimble and adaptable to get the Van Leeuwen brand off the ground.
The company began producing its packaged pint products, which now encompass 26 flavors including a vegan range, within its first year and over the course of eight years has grown its store footprint to 700 locations across 25 states.
“We were approached by Whole Foods the day we took the truck out, and probably six months later we launched onto the shelves at Whole Foods,” Laura O’Neill, co-founder and co-CEO of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, told FoodNavigator-USA.
By its third year, the brand had set up ice cream shops in New York and Los Angeles, another channel the company plans to grow to 16 locations with new openings in Soho, Prospect Park and Silver Lake over the next few weeks. With its new cash injection, the brand aims to be in all 50 states by April 2019, co-founder and co-CEO Ben Van Leeuwen shared.
'It’s a cult-like brand with a Brooklyn halo'
Strand Equity has made multiple investments in emerging food and beverage brands including Bai Brands, Hum Nutrition, and Vita Coco.
According to Seth Rodsky, co-founder and managing partner of the private equity firm, Van Leeuwen stood out from a branding point of view as it had grown recognition organically with zero formal marketing.
“It’s a cult-like brand with a Brooklyn halo around it that started this whole artisanal ice cream trend,” Rodsky said.
Strand Equity was also pleased with the company's strong unit economics.
“We looked at the retail units and they’re highly productive – they generate efficient unit economics and are by design easier to operate than other concepts. (i.e. small storefronts generate huge cash flows),” Rodsky explained.
“They’re incredibly profitable, growing revenue at fast clip without burning through cash.”
Each pint of ice cream retails for $15, classifying it as an "affordable luxury," Rodsky said.
"Most Americans are focused on eating better, but most still want to indulge, and when they do, they want to spend more on the experience," he said.
“One of the really attractive things about working with Strand is that we aligned immediately and they recognized all the things in Van Leeuwen that we’re very proud of,” O’Neill added.
“They’re as hands on or hands off as we want them to be, which we really appreciate.”
Emphasis on exceptional ingredients
According to Ben Van Leeuwen, the company's point of difference is in sourcing “exceptional” ingredients such as Askinosie single plantation cacao nibs, single source chocolate without soy lecithin, pistachios from Bronte, Sicily, coffee from the Andean Foothills of Colombia, and organic Rishi Tea hand harvested from old tea tree forests of Yunnan, China.
Every pint of ice cream is also free from stabilizers and gums.
“Our customers can taste that we’re never taking shortcuts on sourcing and trust that we never will,” Van Leeuwen said.
The same approach was applied to its vegan flavors, an offering the company added about six years after launching based on consumer requests for a dairy-free option.
"We didn’t do it for a few years because we never wanted the vegan to be an afterthought. When we decided to do the vegan, the goal wasn’t to make really good vegan ice cream, it was to make exceptional ice cream that happens to be vegan," Van Leeuwen said.
He went home and obsessively tinkered on the non-dairy recipe which includes a combination of cashew milk, coconut cream, coconut oil, and sugar.
After introducing the vegan offerings, Van Leeuwen found that many of their consumers, who weren't vegan or lactose-intolerant, were trying and rebuying the non-dairy options.
"We didn’t anticipate it being a huge part of our brand and right now 40% of the menus [and pints] in our stores are vegan."