How Smitten Is Reinventing Ice Cream
The freshest ice cream you’ve ever tasted is just 90 seconds away. That’s how long it takes Smitten’s Brrr(®) machine, with the help of a little liquid nitrogen, to churn simple, wholesome ingredients into ice cream unlike anything you’ll find at your local grocery store. But this minute-and-a-half miracle didn’t happen overnight. It took a decade of fine-tuning that began with founder Robyn Sue Fisher pulling a prototype of the Brrr (powered by a motorcycle battery) through the streets of San Francisco in a RADIO FLYER(™) wagon, serving her nostalgic take on ice cream to social media fans.
A lot has changed since then. The Brrr has evolved into a patented piece of technology that churns scoops and pints at Smitten’s six California locations. It’s not about the show of liquid nitrogen smoke, though. With the help of her Culinary Director, Brooke Mosley, Robyn is focused on making ice cream the freshest product possible — which means no stabilizers, gums, or other shady ingredients.
We sat down with Robyn and Brooke at Smitten’s Mission shop, where pints are churned for Good Eggs, to talk about their success and learn about their plans for the future.
What made you decide to churn ice cream to order?
R: I’ve always been obsessed with ice cream and it’s had a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me I had two tummies and one was reserved for ice cream. When I grew up, I looked critically at the industry and it made me sad. I realized how industrialized it was, and how the product at large is made for an 18-month shelf life. I just felt like it needed to be fixed. So Smitten was my attempt to turn it inside-out and upside-down and reverse-engineer it into a fresh product that we could be proud of.
What’s your process for selecting ingredients and developing new flavors?
B: Any chef worth their salt (or sugar in this case) would say that first and foremost, they listen to the season and their environment. But a really close second is paying attention to the community and what interests people. If I were creating ice cream for myself, I would probably make some weird flavors — like olive. You have to look at the season and ask, “what is the season offering that people find as beloved as ice cream?” So peaches and strawberries and things like that. And third, can we execute this? I’d love to do a cherry ice cream, but I can’t really ask the people in the kitchen to be popping pits out of cherries, and because we have the ethos that we have, that would be the only option.
R: Right — it’s not like we can just buy cherry mix! Now that we’re serving six stores, our kitchen team does a lot of hulling, chopping, and cooking. If a new flavor will literally make them cry, we have to take care of our people, so we can’t do that. Where we’re trying to get to is that different stores can potentially have different flavors to go. With pints, we can open up a lot of Brooke’s creativity and not upset our team while delighting our customers more. That’s why we just added pint freezers to all of our stores and we’re obviously so thrilled to partner with Good Eggs — we can do some really neat things we don’t do in our store.
When you’re thinking about what’s beloved, are you also thinking about flavor trends?
B: You have to, but we have to keep within our realm, so I wouldn’t be doing something just because it’s trendy. We also learned that people are coming here because the ice cream is the best; they’re not coming here because we’re doing the sexiest things. We’ve run matcha flavors, which are very trendy, but that hasn’t been our number-one seller. People trust us to have the best ice cream, and that’s just it.
B: Every week I run the numbers and I see what we produce — chocolate and cookie dough, every week. Our chocolate ice cream is actually the best chocolate ice cream.
R: The cookie dough though…
Creating the Brrr sounds like it was a challenge — did you ever think about giving up?
R: Absolutely. It was basically a decade of honing and refining. In the beginning, it was like, this doesn’t exist yet, but I know that it would make better ice cream and enable us to turn this into a fresh product. Because if any product should be fresh, it should be ice cream, which has this wholesome image. But it was really hard — shocking — to build a machine that didn’t exist. I started with a KitchenAid mixer and you see a lot of other concepts that are trying to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen, using existing mixers. That’s where I started over a decade ago. Yeah, you can make ice cream that way and it’ll get the superficial job done, but the texture was not mind-blowing at all.
What’s the difference — how does the Brrr machine affect the texture?
R: Ice crystals grow as ice cream melts and refreezes — think about when you open a pint and put it back in the freezer — that change in temperature causes ice crystals to form and that crystallization creates the grittiness you’ll encounter from ice cream that’s been left in the freezer too long. Our Brrr machine is designed to churn the ice cream in a way that compresses the ingredients and makes sure that nothing sticks together. And it churns with these blades that scrape each other and scrape every surface of the bowl, which counterrotates. Then it has viscosity monitoring and a triple-stage algorithm to help it feel how thick the ice cream is and it responds to what it feels with doses of liquid nitrogen. And the whole process takes about 90 seconds, so the ice cream is ultra-creamy. Basically, as nerdy as you can make ice cream, that’s what we did. To get to that level of automation and perfection and scalability, it took a lot of hard work. There were many times I almost gave up and I was like, “I’m not there yet and I need to get there and I know it’s possible and I’m just going to put my head down and keep going.” But yeah, there’s no way that invention is easy.
Were there any memorable flops or failures along the way?
R: Because I started with a prototype machine on a wagon, the Brrr machine would fall off the wagon when I was trying to go over a curb. I was dating my now husband — he’s an engineer — so I’d bring the Brrr machine over and be like, “Honey, I had a little fall...” And then he taught me how to do some of the repairs. When I was opening Hayes Valley for the first time, the beaters, which are the handmade blades that mix, they arrived from our vendor the night before, and I put them in our machine, and they didn’t quite mix right. I was like, “oh no, we’re opening tomorrow, it’s already in the media!” So we stayed up all night in the workshop filing them down and getting them perfect. I have this picture on my phone of him showing up at the opening with the last set of beaters in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.
B: She just doesn’t give up. The rest of us would be like, “are you sure?” She’s like, “yup, we can do this.”
R: I’m very stubborn — a nicer word would be persistent.
B: She also has a clear vision and she’s not going to let our fear or her fear get in the way of that.
R: I’d rather fail on my own terms than do what everyone else is doing. Looking back and having no regrets about trying is really important to me as a human. And failure is OK. I think charting your own path is important and doing something because it’s the right thing to do, not because everyone else is doing it. And if everyone else is doing it, ask why! And that’s what Smitten is all about.
Smitten has grown a lot in the past decade, but has managed to keep its soul and values — what’s your secret?
R: People. For sure. Period.
B: The people who she’s hired, she sometimes takes 7 or 8 months to vet them. You don’t even know you’re being vetted. You think you’re just making a new friend, then all of a sudden it’s like, “oh, I missed that!”
R: I date people! The first thing I look for is that there’s an energy with people, that I can feel this is a good person. Secondly, our team working together is really important to me. That is so much of what makes the success of our product. Also, I obviously look at things I’m not good at. For example, Brooke has so much talent that I don’t have in terms of creative energy and making everything that you eat here at Smitten.
What’s your all-time favorite Smitten flavor?
B: I think everyone who knows me knows that it was the watermelon cream. I loved eating it, even though — and you probably hear this from other pastry chefs — I don’t crave sweets. I like to balance flavors and to figure things out. And making a watermelon ice cream… just think about watermelon — it’s all water! It actually doesn’t make sense, which is why I think you never see it, so I just messed with it and added a number of things and it ended up being a combination of cultured cream and adding vodka to mess with the freezing point.
R: It was amazing. It felt like you were biting into a watermelon and it melted in your mouth.
B: It was really crazy.
R: Brooke is amazing at figuring out how to make seemingly impossible things work — of course vodka was the secret ingredient!
What’s your process for testing recipes — do you set out to make a specific flavor, or experiment?
B: It depends on the month. I’ve been working at Smitten for a year and a half. When I first started, yeah, I would be making eight different options, feeding them all to Robyn, and together we’d narrow it down. Now, I can look ahead and say I definitely want to do blueberry or a berry — get me all the berries so I can test it. But at first, it was so much testing. Now, I’m more familiar with how the machine works, so it’s more streamlined.
Any exciting new flavors you want to tell us about?
R: The Peaches and Cream flavor that we have on the menu now is 50 percent organic peaches in every bite.
B: It’s only been running since Friday and we’ve already made 400 pounds of peach jam — it’s crazy.
R: There’s no other ice cream that’s 50 percent real organic peaches. I love it with the oat crisp on top. It’s the best. If you come into Smitten and you get two scoops, get a scoop of the Peaches and Cream and get a scoop of the Toffee & Oatmeal Cookies.
B: Mind-blowing, it’s so good.
R: You mix them, and the toffee with the peaches, then you get the oatmeal cookies… it’s like a caramelized peach crumble.
B: And we’re doing an oatmeal apricot cookie, so you can also add that to the situation.
What’s Next for Smitten?
R: We have this goal of turning ice cream into a fresh product and we’re just beginning that journey, so there’s a lot more to come.
That’s such a teaser!?
I need to pry a little… is retail the focus going forward?
R: I’d say retail was never our north star — it’s important for our brand and obviously it’s important from a business standpoint. It allows us to learn and interact with our world and our guests. But our north star is turning ice cream into a fresh product and people consume ice cream out and at home, so we’re working on how to get fresh ice cream into their homes.
In the last decade, as Smitten has been building this model, are other people bandwagoning or trying to buy your machines?
R: All the time, but we’re not interested in franchising. This is a mission that’s running through our veins. If we wanted to make quick cash, we would have done that years ago. But yes, we get requests to buy our machine and franchise all the time — from all over the world.
Do you want to see other brands revamp their models to focus on freshness?
R: There are a lot of copycats with subpar machines and not the cleanest labels or ingredients. They get attention with the show and so they’re doing it more around the mad science piece, which honestly, I hate. The last thing I want to be known as is the liquid nitrogen ice cream company. I want to be known as the fresh ice cream company. Luckily, we now have six patents on our machine so people can’t actually copy it, but they can mimic it and they are.
How do you respond to that?
R: I encourage everyone to go taste it then taste ours and let the product speak for itself. I think it’s really hard to replicate what we’re doing exactly how we’re doing it because we’ve been honing and refining for 10 years and we’ve got patents protecting it. Sorry, not sorry!
Do you think the machine will evolve in 10 years?
R: I’d say we’ve come a long way, but every time we manufacture the machine we build in small improvements.
What type of improvements?
R: We’re continuing to refine and hone the software side of things because that also evolves as our flavors change. Different flavors have different ideal viscosities and as we embark into the non-dairy category, there are some software adjustments that will help us make sure those are indistinguishable from the dairy flavors in terms of texture. That’ll be coming down the road… and they’re going to be daydream good.
Can I ask what sort of bases you’re playing around with?
B: It’s the ones you’d expect, and because they’d technically be sorbet, the way we introduce fat is important. We want to be able to have several bases and one that has no nuts.
R: Our bar for non-dairy is that me, as a person who loves dairy, I have to want this flavor. To all the good vegans out there, we love you and we want you to have just as good an experience without having to compromise… and we’re going to get there soon.