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Food Truck Week: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream of NYC

From coast to coast we’ve searched to find some of the quirkiest, interesting, original, and of course delicious food trucks around. Each day we’ll introduce a new truck and let you discover why it made it to our list.

A lot of people can remember the music and limitless menu of their neighborhood ice cream truck from childhood. Ben Van Leeuwen, his wife Laura O’Neill and his brother Peter Van Leeuwen took this classic model of traditional ice cream trucks and made it their own – giving ice cream a cool, modern twist. From six different trucks painted in their signature buttery yellow, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream of New York City serves ice cream, fresh pastries and coffees all created using the finest hand-picked ingredients. PBS Food spoke with co-owner Laura O’Neill to find out the story behind the Van Leeuwen and its signature ice creams.

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream - New York, New York (photo credit: Martin Adolfsson)

What is Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream?

Ben Van Leeuwen, Peter Van Leeuwen and myself, launched the first Van Leeuwen ice cream truck in SoHo during the spring of 2008. The idea came out of our passion for artisanally produced foods. We set out to make the best possible ice cream using only fresh milk and cream, cane sugar, egg yolks and the finest flavors ingredients from small producers locally and around the world. We wanted to make the trucks open, airy and beautiful. We painted them a buttery yellow and commissioned local artist Elara Tanguy to illustrate our flavor ingredients as Victorian era botanicals for the menu.

What was the inspiration behind naming the truck Van Leeuwen?

Laura O'Neill with Ben and Peter Van Leeuwen

Van Leeuwen is Ben and Pete’s last name. Their father’s family is Jewish and from the Netherlands. A few centuries ago they changed their name from Levy to Van Leeuwen. Not sure why. To us, artisan means with a goal of quality rather than efficiency or low cost. Ben and Pete (pictured beside Laura left to right) were reluctant to use their own name as the brand, but I pushed for it, feeling it lent itself so well to an ice cream brand and looked great in the logo font.

What makes your food truck different and unique?

We now have three ice cream scoop trucks and three coffee/pastry/ice cream trucks. We serve our 12 core flavors as well as special flavors we create in our kitchen in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We serve Intelligentsia Coffee and Espresso, and pastry made daily by our pastry chef Chelsea Wilkes. Pastries include hazelnut brown butter cakes, gougeres, scones, muffins, cookies, using locally milled flours and many of the same chocolates, spices, nuts and fruits we us in our ice cream. Our espresso, cappuccinos and lattes are made on Mirage Veloce machines that are a hand built in the Netherlands by Kees Van Der Westen.

Van Leeuwen's vanilla ice cream

What inspired the menu?

We wanted to make the classic flavors as well as they could possibly be made. We spent a lot of time researching and sourcing the world’s best nuts, chocolate, spices, and fruits. We wanted to find ingredients that matched the quality and purity of the base we were making. Our ice cream is simple and generally showcases our special flavor ingredient. For the pastries, we like to make a selection that pair well with both our ice cream and coffee programs.

What are some of the challenges and advantages with operating a food truck as opposed to having a traditional restaurant?

The scoop truck is a classic method of distribution for ice cream and is very whimsical. Its great being able to park in high traffic areas without paying high rents, however there are always pros and cons. We now have 3 brick and mortar locations that run really smoothly and can’t break down!

How important is location? How do you decide/ plan your locations?

In the beginning it was a lot of trial and error, SoHo was our first busy spot and four years later its still a really great location. I guess we just think about where there is a lot of foot traffic. Luckily we serve a product that almost everyone loves!


Do you have a few words of wisdom for anyone looking to start their own food truck?

Never compromise the quality of your product. Use any money you save on overheads to produce a truly awesome product. I would hope that people go in to the food truck business with a passion for food, not just for trends or making money.

Learn more about Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and stay updated with news and their locations on Twitter and Facebook.