Interview: Bryan Petroff – Big Gay Ice Cream

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Before Messina, before Pidapipo, and before all the other boundary-pushing ice cream products were being pumped out around the world at the alarming rate they are now, there existed in the States a little food truck with a big personality: the Big Gay Ice Cream truck.

Only a few years after Twitter and Facebook were launched, BGIC co-founders Bryan Petroff and Doug Quint took advantage of the social media platforms to launch a brand of ice cream desserts that were decidedly more adult than could previously have been purchased from a Mr Whippy-style van.

Since the truck graced New York streets for the first time in 2009, Petroff and Quint have launched three stores, written a recipe book and become firm friends with Anthony Bourdain, the world’s most reputable foul-mouthed food writer.

We spoke to Petroff in Melbourne during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to talk all things sophisticated soft serve, accidentally political business names and why Big Gay Ice Cream loves coming to Australia.

Bryan you were working in Human Resources and Doug was a classical bassoonist when you decided to start the Big Gay Ice Cream truck. What made you opt for such a drastic career change?

The truck was really just happenstance. In 2009, a friend of Doug’s – they went to Julliard together – had been featured in the New York Times regarding her ice cream truck, and it got recognition and that kind of intrigued people.

She knew Doug was looking for something to do over the summer, so she was like, “Do you want to do this?” And he said, “Sure”. I came on board because it was an opportunity to create a little mobile restaurant.

[Doug’s friend] was just [operating it as] a Mr Whippy truck, so I said, “Let’s have a little fun with the menu.” The truck owner let us do that and let us brand it. We did that for three summers as a seasonal truck, and it wasn’t until we opened our first shop in 2011 that we had to make a big decision, you know: are we ice cream people or is this just a summer project? Now that we were actually [starting] a shop that would be open full-time, all year round, we had to start making decisions. So I quit my job and Doug pulled out of his doctorate program [at Julliard].

You made quite a, some would say, political statement with the brand name, Big Gay Ice Cream. Was this deliberate?

It was actually the opposite of a political statement. We’re not political people. [But] as much as we didn’t want to be political, we also didn’t want to be a gimmick, because we wanted people to realise we were actually paying attention to the quality of what we were doing and presenting.

So the name was a lark. Doug made a comment on Facebook that was something to the affect of, “Hey, I’m going to have a big gay ice cream truck this summer. So I’m going to start a blog if you guys want to follow the adventures and are interested.” And then we were like, “Well, that’s our name.”

So no motivation [other than] we liked the ambiguity of it, we like the play on ‘happy’ or ‘gay’, and once we had the name, we gave it to our friend who is an art director who came up with the logo for it.

We actually did a presentation in Toronto two years ago where the theme of the convention was ‘Food As A Social Change’ and we talked about being accidentally political. What we realise is that people look at us however they want to look at us. We try to remain apolitical, [so] if they see us as weird kooky people who are just having fun, then that’s who we are. If they think we’re the antichrist trying to indoctrinate children through ice cream…

Jeez! Have you come across that?!

Oh yeah.

And what do you do with that stuff? Do you simply ignore it and move on?

You have to. It’s just so ridiculous and in my mind, they’re projecting their own sense of fear and how they look at the world [onto us]. It’s like, my god, if you think we’re going after children, then you are way beyond what I or ice cream can do for you.

I remember when you guys started, I was back in Melbourne following the ice cream truck’s whereabouts on twitter thinking that nobody else is doing this sophisticated soft serve stuff. How did you come up with that concept?

It was just because it was there. That was the truck that we had, and it was like, “Well, let’s not do the same old thing. Let’s have fun with it.” Our feeling was Mr Whippy hadn’t changed their menu in decades, and there’s so much more you could do with it. While we didn’t cook ourselves, we loved going out to eat, and we loved following chefs and pastry chefs, and had travelled internationally and so we tried to bring in all of those concepts.

We thought of it like, if the truck was inside a restaurant, what would it be doing? And so bringing in olive oil and sea salt and ginger and curry and wasabi and all these flavours Mr Whippy never approached, it seemed very natural. We even would joke, like, “Why, why hasn’t anybody done this before? Why did it take until the 2000s before somebody thought, hey, this can be more than just cherry dip?”

So did you anticipate then that that would be a success? I remember the photos you posted on twitter with lines for days outside the truck.

We didn’t anticipate anything! It was so crazy. We’ve been very gob-smacked at times about it (in a good way) and we like having fun and all these things keep it fun for us. Like coming [to Australia for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival], everything is a new adventure and a new learning experience.

You’ve got three shops now; two in New York and one in Philadelphia. So what have been the main differences between running an ice cream truck and operating stores?

Um, It’s a lot more expensive. We did everything as cheaply as we really could [with the truck]. We didn’t actually own it so we rented it on a daily basis. Whereas every shop we opened cost about four times as much as the previous one. And there are more expectations now – we have 50 employees and they count on us and the decisions that we make to remain employed and to remain in great work environments. So it’s a little less flexible.

We read our audiences much more closely now than we used to, and our production is much greater than it used to be. As opposed to a couple of zip lock bags of stuff on the truck, now it’s 25 gallons of whatever ingredient, and that costs money and you don’t wanna waste anything.

And I think we’ve realised what we do and don’t wanna do, the costs involved, and the importance of kind of straddling that line and keeping it fun but professional, listening to the audience while staying true to our roots where we started. BGIC wouldn’t have existed and it wouldn’t be what it is without the two of us. I think I kind of reign in Doug and Doug pulls weirdness out of me, so there’s a nice push-pull going on there.

It definitely makes you realise that starting a business by yourself is ungodly difficult and knowing that you can rely on somebody else who has the exact same values and mindset is a really great thing because I don’t know how people could do this stuff on their own.

You’ve come to Melbourne a couple of times now – what keeps you coming back?

Well you keep inviting us pretty much [laughs]. We like working with friends, basically. We like our extended Big Gay Family you know, [people and chefs that] we’ve met on this journey, and people that get us and stick around and really love what we do. It’s fun to be in a new sphere of influence.

There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on these days and it’s just great to get your presence out there and to meet new people.

Yeah and I think for us it’s nice because you operate in a silo a lot, and you don’t know what’s going on with your friends, and you don’t know what’s going on with the restaurant next door to you, because you’re just so focused on your own work. So to be able to catch up with your friends and to do it by working together on something, I think that’s a lot of fun.

So what’s your favourite classic Big Gay Ice Cream flavour?

My favourite ice cream [dessert] in general is hot fudge sundaes with peanuts and whipped cream. I like our hot fudge a lot so just a very classic [sundae]. I think both Doug and I are classics at heart; we both grew up with a very traditional ice cream experience.

If I want something palate-cleansing and clean, lemon sorbet would be the opposite end of the spectrum. Either I need a refreshing fruity clean taste, or if I just need to wallow in my tears than I’ll go the hot fudge route [laughs].

Did you enjoy working with Messina in Melbourne?

We were introduced to them through Good Food Month last time we were here, and since you can’t import dairy into the country and there wasn’t really time and space [for us] to make stuff [for the event], they put us together so collaboration could happen.

It’s just kindred spirits, you know. I’ve found that the people I met here in the pastry world are much like us. They understand how fun pastries and ice cream can be and how it’s okay to have fun. That was a big thing for us.

And when you’re working in a kitchen long hours, you’ve gotta be able to have fun when you’re working so hard.

Exactly. And the last thing you should be smug about is ice cream. This is a childhood comfort food. So when we came across and met people here like the owners of Messina, and Katherine Sabbath who we met last time, and Andy Bowdy [pastry chef, Andy Bowdy Pastry and formerly Hartsyard] they’re great technically, you know, they know their shit, but they love having fun with it too.

Ice cream should be fun. It’s the most fun food there is. And this is our idea of fun and it’s Messina’s idea of fun and it’s Pierre’s [Ice Cream Company’s] idea of fun. That’s why I think we like coming back here and I think we get a great reception when we’re here. Because Australians like having fun.

BIG GAY ICE CREAM

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Lauren Bruce

Lauren started her writing career as a communications adviser before she realised she couldn’t ignore her passion for food and the arts any longer. She gave up the world of state politics to concentrate on freelance writing and styling. She has since contributed to Spook, Paper Sea and Junkee and is a regular contributor to GRAM Magazine.