by Andrea Pyenson
Photographs by: Katie Noble
Any reasonable Bostonian could be forgiven for wondering whether the area really needs another ice cream brand. We already have an embarrassment of riches in the cold, creamy department. But one taste of the luscious Salted Caramel, the purest-ever-tasting Vanilla Bean or any of the other four flavors currently produced by tiny newcomer Batch ice cream in Jamaica Plain should be enough to trigger another, more pressing question: Where can I get more?
Susie Parish and Veronica Janssens, the women behind the ice cream, started working on Batch in September 2009 and sold their first pints in May 2010. They have been racing ever since to keep up with demand. Both came to the endeavor from vastly different fields. Susie had been a mobile software product manager. Veronica, a native of the Netherlands, was a civil engineer. She moved to Boston in 1997, when the company she was working for sent her here to work on the Big Dig.
Batch’s production facility is as impressive in its simplicity as its ice cream is in its freshness: a Taylor Frigomat ice cream maker from Milan, Italy, and a Traulsen blast freezer (“It’s the Cadillac of blast freezers,” according to Susie), in a corner of the communal Crop Circle Kitchen. There are three spoons set out on the table of the building’s conference area, where I sit with Susie and Veronica for my Batch introduction, and I am momentarily distracted—hoping it means what I think it does. Happily, a tasting is coming (this is a tough job), but I choose to save it for the end of our meeting.
Ice cream comes out of the Frigomat in a soft-serve state, the women explain, then goes directly into the blast freezer, which chills it to –20oF. After four to five hours, the ice cream’s core is frozen solid, and it is transferred to the kitchen’s walk-in freezer. But it’s what goes into the Frigomat that really makes Batch ice cream so special. The partners use local, fair trade and certified organic ingredients whenever possible. “We work with the raw food, the raw ingredient,” says Susie. “We don’t want things you don’t understand on the label.”
Once a week, Susie and Veronica drive to Arruda Dairy in Tiverton, Rhode Island, on the Massachusetts border, to get their milk and cream. Arruda is one of a small number of dairies that still pasteurizes and bottles its own milk and cream. Vanilla beans come from an organic biometric farm in Costa Rica where, according to Susie, “everything on the farm is in harmony and helps everything else.” Chocolate and coffee beans, also from Costa Rica, are fair trade and organic. And they use Maine sea salt and butter.
Susie and Veronica took a somewhat circuitous route to their current positions. In 2005, they decided they no longer wanted to work at desk jobs and moved to the Dominican Republic. They lived in what they describe as “a great ex-pat community” in Cabarete, a kite surfing destination, and worked in real estate. They moved back to Boston in September 2008—just in time for the Great Recession. Having essentially worked for themselves in the Dominican Republic, the women wanted to start a business in Boston. After they returned to the area, Susie says, they got “into local foods and joined a CSA.” For a few months Veronica, who has a Certificate in Sustainable Design from Boston Architectural College, consulted with restaurants on how to become more ‘green.’ But by spring, business dried up.
Susie learned about CropCircle, where nearly 30 small food companies share space, through an article in this magazine. Inspired by the idea of a communal kitchen, and a desire to “do fair trade”—and maybe somewhat influenced by the fact that New England is the second largest consumer of ice cream in the country—the partners decided to start an ice cream company that would operate out of the Jamaica Plain location. Their intention was to use local fruits and “great local dairies,” according to Veronica.
But first they had to learn a few things. The women located a respected industry veteran (whose identity they want to keep private) and, working with him, learned ice cream–making techniques and how to improve the six flavors they had begun to create: Vanilla Bean, Salted Caramel, Chocolate, Coffee, Mocha Chip and Cinnamon & Chocolate Bits. They also developed a base formula that allows them to not use any stabilizers.
Most commercial ice cream makers—even “premium” brands—use some kind of stabilizer, primarily to reduce iciness and extend shelf life. These are the ingredients you see on package labels—like guar gum, carrageenan and polysorbate 80—that you probably wouldn’t use if you were making ice cream at home. “They’ve always done it this way,” says Veronica talking about others in her field. “That’s an advantage for us coming from outside.”
Instead of any unpronounceable ingredient, Batch uses egg yolks, which serve the same purpose. It is a more expensive option, but it is the only one that fits with the partners’ ideals. And sticking to a very basic list of ingredients helps keep Batch ice cream “very pure and home-made tasting,” according to Susie.
Batch still offers only six flavors because, “We knew we had to get the basic flavors right from the get-go,” Susie explains. They focus enormous attention on every detail of every flavor.
The women make the caramel for the Salted Caramel, the company’s top seller. They hand-chop the Belgian chocolate chips for the Mocha Chip and toast the cinnamon for Cinnamon&Chocolate Bits, because they think it augments the spice’s flavor. “We didn’t want wishy-washy flavors,” says Veronica.
In addition to nailing the ice cream flavors and consistency, the partners wanted packaging that would really stand out from existing brands. They worked with an outside designer to come up with their labels, which are both eye-catching and engaging.They apply each one by hand around the pint containers; and put stickers on all the lids, with catchy phrases like “Made in J.P. Baby” or “Eat Local.”
“When you start out small, everything is working against you,” Susie says. Permitting and licensing posed particularly daunting challenges. Initially, Susie and Veronica had hoped to sell their ice cream at farmers markets during the 2010 season, but permitting requirements were too demanding. Instead, they started selling in six stores in the South End, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway and Cambridge. Within a couple of months, they had added two more, in Cambridge and Somerville.
For now, rather than expanding the number of flavors they make, the partners are focusing on increasing production. But they hope to incorporate seasonal flavors into their selection soon, taking advantage of local produce. From there, Susie says they are looking to get funky. “We’re totally up for adventurous flavors.”
Stay tuned for future batches.
Andrea Pyenson is a freelance food and travel writer who has considered ice cream a primary food group for as long as she can remember.