At 10 a.m. on a chilly June morning, most folks at the Tacoma Farmers Market aren’t thinking about ice cream. But that doesn’t stop Layla Isaac.
Petite, with long dark hair and a bright smile, she dishes up samples of salted caramel and roasted banana as if handing out Christmas presents, while her daughter, Sayge, makes fresh waffle cones.
It works. Passersby stop, taste, converse – and sometimes even buy a cone, despite the weather. And for Isaac, the combination of delicious, healthy flavor and friendly interchange is exactly why she began Ice Cream Social in the first place.
“I have six kids, and for 10 years I stayed home with them. That’s where I learned I enjoyed cooking, having parties and loving people through food,” said Isaac, who began making artisan ice cream in the kitchen of Medi’s Restaurant and serving it from her pistachio-painted cart at local markets a year ago. “I also baked for Hello Cupcake for a couple of years, and the owner inspired me: She was so sweet and very successful. I always wanted to do something on my own with food, and I wanted something my family could be part of.”
Now she has it. Into her second year of Ice Cream Social, Isaac is slowly building up a successful business. She sells from the cart at three markets and makes desserts for Medi’s. And she’s just moved into a new custom-designed commercial kitchen in the old Post Office building downtown, with a bigger machine and twice as much freezer storage. Opening a retail location there is her next goal – which would be handy for customers when the markets close down in fall – and she has an eye to getting a wholesale license to supply local supermarkets.
“It’s paying off,” she says. “I’ve earned back my initial investment, though it’s going to take four to five years for a real payback. But then there’s more opportunity to expand.”
Ice Cream Social isn’t just a one-woman show. True to her wishes, Isaac includes her family where she can. Sayge, 19, is a paid employee, making the cones and helping serve. She also helped in the kitchen until Isaac recently hired a new employee, and Sayge is now developing flavors of her own such as vegan piña colada and mojito. At home, the younger kids are excellent taste-testers.
“It’s a family business, it’s not all about me,” Isaac says.
It’s also about the community. Naming the company after an old-time dessert party wasn’t a coincidence; Isaac likes to create a sense of connection through food.
“I wanted the idea of an old-fashioned social when people get together and enjoy food and each other,” she says. “It also has a modern meaning of using social media to network about the product.”
But the thing that most sets Ice Cream Social apart is the ingredient list. Determined to use fresh, local, all-natural ingredients – “There’s a ton of junk people put into ice cream” – Isaac studied the science of ice cream making, including taking a course in January at Pennsylvania State University. Learning about the chemistry – including why it gets creamy, icy, crumbly or chunky, and why she had to start using stabilizers – she researched local products until she found ones that met her standards. She begins with a milk-cream-sugar mix from local supplier Smith Brothers Dairy (the mix is per Department of Agriculture regulations) and uses a natural locust bean gum to stabilize it. The only other ingredients are the flavors – but it’s the flavors that really represent Tacoma.
“I use Mad Hat Tea, fruit I find at the market that week, local herbs,” she says, pouring vanilla-flavored milk from five gallon buckets into her small commercial ice cream maker and hitting the switch. She makes even complicated flavors from scratch: soaking vanilla beans in milk overnight, candying her own bacon, roasting her own bananas, pureeing local fruit, and even popping her own corn before buttering it, blending it and straining the result into the milk before freezing it to create – yes – a buttered popcorn flavor.
In fact, apart from standbys like chocolate and coffee, the Ice Cream Social cart features more unusual flavors than regular ones. Inspired by Seattle artisan makers like Molly Moon and Bluebird, Isaac constantly experiments with ingredients, seeing what she can put into her creamy frozen mix – and how. Her chili chocolate is really popular, though she now uses a locally made rub after finding that “putting raw peppers into ice cream doesn’t really work.” She combines jalapeno with mango, fresh fig with balsamic vinegar, and lemon with ginger. Other flavors include French Toast, blood orange, grilled peach, star anise and strawberry-marscapone-honey. She even made a beer ice cream for Fathers’ Day, using Dick’s Mountain Ale from Centralia. Maybe a Tacoma-brewed porter or stout is next on the docket.
Vegan? She even has recipe with coconut milk.
The taste is just as you’d hope: tongue-tinglingly fresh, and intensely smooth. The vanilla-bean ice cream pouring out of the machine in soft runnels is not too sweet, like a perfect cupcake icing; the roasted banana tastes like a sultry night in Cuba; the salted caramel is a happy medium between salty and sweet.
You’d think, making ice cream four days a week and selling it the other three, Isaac (and her family) would get a little sick of it.
“No!” she says emphatically. “I don’t eat a lot, I just test it. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.” Where to get it
Tacoma Farmers Market locations:
Broadway: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays on Broadway between South Ninth and 11th streets.
Sixth Avenue: 3-7 p.m. Tuesdays at North Pine Street and Sixth Avenue.
South Tacoma: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays at 3873 S. 66th St.
Medi’s Pizza and Pasta: 2710 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.
Watch for: A possible retail location coming soon in the Old Post Office building, 1102 A St., Tacoma.
MORE INFO: 253-459-9279, icecreamsocial tacoma.com.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/arts