STYLE

Big Gay Ice Cream owners point to social media, humour as reasons for success

07/07/2015 04:24 EDT | Updated 07/07/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Concert bassoonist Douglas Quint needed a summer break from his PhD studies in music and was casting about for something unusual to do.

He decided to drive an ice-cream truck.

Hip-hop flutist Andrea Fisher, a friend from the Juilliard School, was already driving one and the New York Times had written a story about her. When the truck's owner said she could recruit more drivers, she put out a casting call on Facebook.

Quint signed up and would go on to launch his Big Gay Ice Cream business with partner Bryan Petroff.

Though he was close to completing his doctorate he'd become disillusioned.

"I thought, 'Why would I teach people how to play the bassoon when it's such a narrow career opportunity and there's no work?'"

Petroff suggested sprucing up the ice-cream truck menu to go beyond old-style sprinkles and dips.

"Why hadn't anyone taken an ice-cream truck and moved it into what desserts are now?" said Petroff, who was working as a meeting and event planner.

They shopped for unusual topping ingredients, whipped inexpensive store-bought ice cream to mimic soft-serve, and invited friends to tasting parties.

First on the menu was olive oil and sea salt.

"Then we added dulce de leche and ginger syrup and curries and different things, wasabi, they all became our first season's menu," said Petroff, prior to a keynote address by the pair at the recent Terroir Symposium for the hospitality industry in Toronto.

They also offered Nilla wafers, spices like cardamom and cayenne, and fresh berries tossed in saba, a thick grape reduction resembling balsamic vinegar.

What was even more surprising than the eventual lineups was their social media success — before the first scoop was sold.

The food-truck neophytes started a blog and Twitter account to document their lengthy start-up process and soon had a fan base.

The Serious Eats website posted an item in June 2009 about the truck's looming launch, then NBC.com followed suit.

"We were taken aback that people started writing about us before we even had our first day out," Quint said.

They peddled their sought-after goodies for four seasons in the beat-up rented truck, blazoned with a rainbow-striped cone logo.

The food truck is no more, but the soft-serve tradition carries on in two bricks-and-mortar locations in New York and one in Philadelphia. There are plans to open a shop in L.A.

And now Petroff and Quint have a new cookbook, "Big Gay Ice Cream — Saucy Stories & Frozen Treats: Going All the Way with Ice Cream" (Clarkson Potter).

It's in the style of a high-school yearbook, with a tongue-in-cheek message from "headmaster" Anthony Bourdain.

Recipes start with Ice Cream 101 — super easy mix-ins for freshman students — before moving on to challenging sophomore-year toppings and junior-year sundaes and shakes. It's not until senior year that recipes for more difficult homemade hard ice creams and sorbets appear.

The recipes are adaptations of goodies sold in the shops plus originals developed for the book.

"It works because of the humour in it, which is very representative of our brand," said Petroff.

"If it had been the 'Thomas Keller Yearbook' I don't think it would have had the same fun childlike vibe, which totally goes with ice cream."

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