09 16 15
Laura O’Neill on ice cream freezers, works in progress, and dancing in the dark.
Laura O’Neill is the co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and co-owner of Balinese restaurant Selamat Pagi, one of our favorite spots to eat in Greenpoint these days. She is also 1/2 of indie pop band Laura & Greg, and every Tuesday she hosts No Lights No Lycra, a dance party in the dark basement of 129 Russell Street in Brooklyn (not nearly as scary as it sounds, check it out!) Wondering how you turn an ice cream truck into a career? Grab a carton and get ready to find out…
Q / Hi Laura! How do you usually start your morning?
A / After a reasonable amount of pressing snooze and cuddling my cat Gypsy, I like to have a ginger shot and water my garden before showering. I like to feel as though I have a little home time in the mornings before going in to work.
Q / What is your favorite place to work?
A / My kitchen table or couch with the windows open and good music playing.
Q / Do you have a daily uniform or something you carry with you every day? If so, why is it important to you?
A / My first thought when getting dressed is “Do I need to look somewhat professional for any reason today?” My day can easily turn messy with some manual labor, so I usually go for shorts, tees, and boots. I love wearing dresses, but they can be problematic reaching into the ice cream freezers! Boots and socks complete my look, year round. I have a S’well water bottle that I don’t go anywhere without, and I always have a notepad. I much prefer handwriting notes on the fly rather than typing in to my tiny phone. I carry a backpack rather than a handbag, so I always have plenty room for everything I could need during the day.
Q / Is there a time of day that you feel most productive? Anything specific that helps keep you focused?
A / When I really need to knuckle down and focus, I prefer to work from home. Our office is open plan and chaotic, so sometimes it’s tough to work there. I like working from home in the mornings or at the office in the evenings. My dad once told me “an hour before 9am is worth three after” and I think about that a lot.
Q / Do you find lists helpful? How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / Big time! I love lists, not only for organization, but for life. I think writing things down is the first step towards them coming to fruition. For organization at busy times, I introduced my partners to “WIP’s”, a work in progress doc in the form of a table that clearly outlines what needs to be done, by who and by when. These are crucial to us when we are juggling multiple projects and they help keep everything feeling manageable and less stressful.
Q / What is something you are good at? Something you struggle with?
A / I’m good at keeping a level head in stressful times. When something goes wrong, I immediately remind myself that, as bad as this seems, we will find a solution and everything will be OK. It comes with the territory as a business owner that things won’t always be smooth. I’m not great at keeping up with emails. If I’m on the fly for a few days, I end up buried by my inbox. (I dream about not being cc’ed!)
Q / Is there anything you will never take seriously?
A / Commenters on blogs (unless they are being nice!)…It’s mostly just funny.
Q / Something that’s very important to you?
A / Be nice, there is never any reason to be mean. I say this a lot, but you’ll catch more bees with honey than vinegar. 🙂
Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / I probably do most of my solo thinking on my bicycle, but we recently got a ping pong table in our backyard and I find that super therapeutic too.
Q / How does your home influence the kind and quality of work you produce?
A / It’s super important to me to have a my home space tidy and inspiring (sometimes to the point of driving my boyfriend crazy). I don’t like to go to bed without doing the dishes and often get inspired to clean and reorganize the whole place at midnight.
Q / You grew up in Melbourne. How would you say your upbringing shaped your perception of health and work?
A / My Dad is extremely hardworking and I like to think I have inherited that from him. We are a family of doers, more than studiers. My mom is vegan, so that had a huge impact on how I view food and health. She’s older than most of my friends’ parents, but super youthful and healthy. I grew up in a super relaxed home and was a very messy kid and teen, then something suddenly switched and now i’m the polar opposite, not sure why! My parents weren’t strict with me and I’m lucky for it, I think that empowered me to make good choices on my own. I’m the youngest of three, so I got to learn a lot from my brother and sister growing up.
Q / What is your first memory of work? Of success? Of failure?
A / I was drawn to working from a very young age. I remember offering to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant my family was eating at down the coast. They gave me a crate to stand on at the sink and I was psyched. What a weirdo! I think they paid me in hot chocolate. My first career failure was getting fired from a surf shop near my house, that was during the teen years when I was more concerned with socializing. During the later high school years, I started working as a promoter at nightclubs, which perfectly fused my love of working with socializing, and I remember making a lot a money too.
Q / Do you keep any collections? If so, how do they influence you creatively?
A / I like to collect tiny things and figurines. My apartment is full of quirky little vignettes. I also have a vinyl collection that I love. I try to buy records at shows to best support the band. My band put our record out on vinyl earlier this year.
Q / How would you define beauty and what part does it play in your work ?
A / I find things that are simple and natural to be most beautiful. For our stores we like to keep the design super clean with lots of natural light to let the ice cream and people be the star of the show. If we are to talk about beauty in people, I’m learning that people tend to be most beautiful when they are comfortable and happy, which often happens as you get older. I sometimes think I look younger now than I did in my twenties, go figure. 🙂
Q / What part do social media and the internet play in your work? Do you find them useful as tools?
A / We use social media a lot, Instagram in particular, as it’s the best visually for our ice cream posts. We love to communicate with our customers via social media and the direct link.
Q / Is there anything you find problematic about them?
A / Well it’s of course a Catch-22. I love social media for business and our band, but I also hate being a slave to it. I’m trying to make a better effort to be disconnected sometimes.
Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / I use it if it’s available, but love not having it if it’s not. When I go home to Melbourne, I don’t have data roaming on. I use my old Motorola Razr and it’s just like 2006.
Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / I host a weekly dance jam in the dark called No Lights No Lycra. It’s a part of a global dance community my best friend started in Melbourne and I’ve been hosting the Brooklyn chapter for over five years. The concept is one hour of freestyle dancing in almost pitch black [darkness] for no one but yourself. It’s my most constant exercise practice and always a highlight of my week. It’s an amazing stress reliever and will make your soul soar.
Q / Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
A / My business partner (and ex) Ben Van Leeuwen has obviously had a huge impact on my career. He’s a natural born entrepreneur and a dreamer, so I’m happy to be on this crazy ride with him and our partner Pete Van Leeuwen.
Q / How did your parents feel about your career path?
A / They’ve always been super supportive of my decision to live in NYC and run my own biz. As much as I’m sure they miss me (and I miss them too!) they are happy and proud to see what we’ve built over here.
Q / What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? The funniest?
A / I used to do promo jobs selling cigarettes in bars (*lowers head and covers face*). The pay was amazing, but the outfits were the worst (think catsuits and glo-mesh halter tops). Maybe that one gets the funniest prize too.
Q / Could you speak a bit to how Van Leeuwen was started in 2008? I know it coincided with a huge life change for you both personally and professionally.
A / I moved to NYC in 2007. The idea for Van Leeuwen was born shortly before that and Ben, Pete and myself were all sharing an apartment in Greenpoint, writing our business plan, designing the trucks, and tinkering with our recipes. We rolled out our first truck in Spring 2008 and over the past eight years have grown to having stores and trucks in NYC and LA. I worked a bunch of random jobs when I first got to NYC (art gallery, vodka promo, record label) but was so excited to be working towards a business of our own, one that’s ended up keeping me happy and on American soil for almost a decade.
Q / You used to work in event production, how would you say that experience relates to the way you developed the company? Did it feel like a completely new venture or were there a lot of parallels?
A / My experience in event production was definitely super helpful with starting Van Leeuwen. Getting off the ground and managing all the various components was not dissimilar in organization to producing an event, but the best part was that it was permanent. I was grateful to have some professional experience under my belt before embarking on our own business.
Q / You’re also very involved with the music and dance world. How do you balance all those different aspects of your life?
A / Both are super important to me, so I just make the time. Music is something I’d wanted to pursue for a long time, so it’s exciting for it to be taking root. I also like being busy, it keeps things interesting and each of my projects balances and complements the others.
Q / I know you’ve mentioned that you originally were going to sell someone else’s ice cream out of the trucks before realizing there didn’t seem to be a high quality option available, what was the process of development like for you and how long did it take to finally perfect the recipe?
A / The idea of selling anyone else’s product was very short-lived. We learned quickly that the kind of product we wanted to serve simply wasn’t out there and that became our driving force. Ben headed up the recipe development with Pete and I by his side. We researched, tested, and perfected the recipes for almost a year and used our friends as taste testers.
Q / How does running Van Leeuwen affect the rest of your life? Personally? Financially? Time-wise?
A / The thing about running your own business is you are never really not working, but with that said, we do get to somewhat call our own hours. I make it a priority to allow time for the things that are important to me. Financially, I’m happy with the path I’ve chosen. Since we are growing the business we choose to reinvest into the company rather than take big salaries. Nobody is getting rich yet, but hopefully one day soon all our hard work and dedication will pay off.
Q / You recently have been opening more brick and mortar shops, how has this changed your business? You started out with the trucks in 2008 and it seems like the growth of the company has been very organic.
A / This past year has been a big one for us. We got an SBA loan which has allowed us to open new stores and we are currently building out a new production facility that we are so excited about. We still own the majority of our business and don’t have someone putting huge amounts of cash behind us. This is not always the norm for companies like our’s, but we are happy and proud to be mostly doing it on our own.
Q / How big is your team and how involved are you in the day to day running of the business? I imagine your role has changed drastically since 2008, especially with the opening of your shops in NY and LA along with your restaurant, as you handle many of the design and marketing decisions that have become a huge signifier of Van Leeuwen.
A / In the peak of summer with the new stores and the restaurant, our team is probably around 90 people (more soon with LA), but we are still hugely involved in the day to day. We have a great team and like to empower our managers and heads of department, but we are still not quite at the point where we could step away from daily operations. Design-wise, we’ve always had a very clear idea of the aesthetic we like for VL and this has become even more refined with the help of our store designers here and in Los Angeles. In the past we did everything ourselves, but we are getting better at finding awesome collaborators.
Q / How has opening in LA been for the company? I imagine it is nice to operate in a climate where there are no drastic seasonal shifts in business.
A / LA has been wonderful. Pete moved out there about 18 months ago and LA welcomed us with open arms. We currently have 2 trucks out there and two stores on the way: Arts District in early Fall and Culver City in the Winter. The amazing California weather is perfect for ice cream and we are excited to finally be out there.
Q / Has becoming a restauranteur changed the way you view food? Ice cream is such a focused product, I imagine Selamat Pagi opened up a world of new possibilities and challenges in terms of sourcing the best sustainable, organic ingredients.
A / I’ve always been in awe of a well run restaurant, and Selamat Pagi is no exception. Our team does an amazing job of turning out consistently awesome and innovative food and drinks that grew from a crazy idea we had to open an Indonesian restaurant. After five years of ice cream, it was exciting to embark on a new concept that echoed our same dedication to quality ingredients and traditional processes. The menu at Selamat Pagi is insanely intricate with all the spice paste and mixes being made from scratch. My hat goes off to Chef Vinh, our GM/Beverage Director Taylor Vaught, and the team for bringing this exciting cuisine to Greenpoint.
Q / Was the idea to create vegan ice cream flavors something that came about early on? How big of a part does that segment play in your business?
A / The idea to do vegan ice cream was in the back of our minds for a long time, but we didn’t just want to make awesome “vegan” ice cream, we wanted it to be just awesome “ice cream”. Early on in the development, we knew we were on to something, but we are insanely proud of the final recipes that Ben spent months tinkering with in his home kitchen. The vegan ice cream we make has been super well received by vegans and non vegans alike. We are so happy to be able to offer an awesome alternative.
Q / You also released a cookbook recently. How did the idea come about and what was the production process?
A / We had been offered to do a book early on in the VL story, but wanted to wait until we really felt like we had something great to share. We worked on the book for about two years with co-author Olga Massov and tested and perfected every single recipe for the home cook. It was an extremely grueling process, but we are immensely proud of the book, and along with Sidney Bensimon’s beautiful photography, it’s everything we hoped it would be.
Q / The design of your trucks is so clean and beautiful, how did you develop them and do you find yourself making constant changes or have they stood the test of time so to speak? The image of an ice cream truck is so iconic and your trucks in particular are always a welcome sight in NY.
A / We were clear on how we wanted the trucks to look from the start. we wanted simple, iconic design elements that would evoke ideas of the classic ice cream truck while also being completely fresh and unique. Over the years we have distilled the truck design, but they still have that iconic VL look NYC has come to know and love.
Q / What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
A / I really enjoyed working on our cookbook. it was such a wonderful thing to be able to share our recipes and also take the time to reflect on the past eight years. We don’t get to do it as much these days, but jumping in to scoop on the trucks or at the stores is pretty much the greatest.
Q / What is the most boring part of your job?
A / The day to day email grind can be a bummer, unless the emails are about exciting things!
Q / What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
A / I think I’m equally proud each time we open a store, but also holding our book for the first time was really special.
Q / What are you looking forward to this year? Any adventures or new projects?
A / Van Leeuwen-wise we are so excited to have just opened our flagship location in Williamsburg and can’t wait to get LA open. Band-wise, we are recording a new EP that we are really psyched on.
Laura & Greg will be playing a free show this Friday, 9/18 at Chelsea Market in NYC…don’t miss it!
Interview & Photography