Pete Angevine, Jeffrey Ziga and Martin Brown, the three co-founders of Little Baby’s Ice Cream, picked a hell of a day to unveil their new business. May 21, 2011: Judgment Day, according to an attention-grabbing Christian end-times cult, wherein the entire planet, Philadelphia not excluded, would be consumed by earthquakes, rivers of fire and various other unpleasantries.
But doomsday be damned, it was also the annual Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, featuring the ever-popular Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. And Little Baby’s Ice Cream was pedaling its own odd contraption through the streets to the revelry: a large, custom-made, blue-and-white tricycle covered in flashing lights, bearing a freezer box packed with tubs of bizarre ice cream flavors—Earl Grey Sriracha, Peanut Butter Maple Tarragon and Balsamic Banana among them—and blaring something like traditional music-box ice cream melodies, only reconfigured into trippy ambient soundscapes. Like Mister Softee meets Brian Eno.
Between the tricked-out trike (dubbed “Flavor Blaster One”), their ice cream-making equipment and some rented kitchen space, the trio had sunk seven months of planning and $14,000—most of their collective savings—into the venture, and they were mad nervous. Would their dessert experiment be a hit, or would it crash and burn?
As it turned out, the people went apeshit. Little Baby’s sold out of all its flavors lickety split. The apocalypse never happened.
“We saved the world—” says Angevine.
“—with ice cream!” finishes Ziga.
Since then, Little Baby’s has increased its fleet to four tricycles that appear regularly at Morgan’s Pier and the Garden Variety weekend market in Northern Liberties, plus block parties, street festivals, outdoor concerts, private corporate luncheons, the Punk Rock Flea Market and other events. Last Friday, at the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association’s pop-up food truck roundup in Brewerytown, Little Baby’s boasted double the line of any other vendor, and when they ran out of ice cream, a man came up to Angevine and begged to lick the tubs clean. (Angevine politely refused.)
They’ve also established a popular kiosk inside Union Transfer, and they sell pints of their concoctions at such area stores as The Foodery, Green Aisle Grocery and Mariposa Food Co-op. They’ve got a staff of 14 part-timers. And on Friday, they’ll throw open the doors of Little Baby’s Ice Cream World Headquarters—their new shop at 2311 Frankford Ave. in East Kensington, which is attached to the forthcoming Pizza Brain pizzeria and museum.
In just a year, the upstart company has already become the most exciting development in ice cream in a city known for a couple of centuries as the “ice cream capital of the world.”
Not bad for three guys with zero culinary or business experience before all of this.
Who Are These Guys?
Prior to birthing Little Baby’s, the three founders were fixtures in the local music scene. Angevine, 28, played drums with the noisecore outfit Satanized and Philly/N.Y.C. dance-punks the Flesh. Ziga, 30, has drummed for power-punks Armalite and the post-hardcore band Gods and Queens. And Brown’s a trumpeter lauded in avant-jazz circles who’s also played with the Man Man offshoot ensemble Whales and Cops.
The idea for the company started off as a joke between Angevine and Ziga, who first met at a rock ‘n’ roll summer camp a decade ago. In 2009, says Ziga, the pair were throwing around ridiculous ideas, “like starting a band that does Christmas arrangements of Yes songs,” when Ziga suggested they open an ice cream parlor. “I thought he was an insane person,” laughs Angevine.
But the seed was planted. Angevine started making ice cream at home, and was soon inspired to try some crazy flavor combos in the summer of 2010 after a trip to the celebrated Humphry Slocombe ice cream parlor in San Francisco, where flavors like prosciutto, foie gras and “Secret Breakfast” (toasted cornflakes and bourbon) are on the menu. One of Angevine’s own favorite early inventions: Zayda’s Spicy Chinese Mustard ice cream.
“I came to recognize that ice cream is a blank canvas,” he says, “and you can just let your imagination go wild.”
Around the same time, Angevine discov-ered that Brown, another long-time friend, was also making ice cream at home, though he was perfecting more traditional flavors, like Rocky Road. In November of 2010, the three got together at Angevine’s kitchen table and decided to start up Little Baby’s as “a hobby, a fun thing to do on weekends,” with taste buds pointed toward the experimental rather than the classic flavors. (“We are not going to make better chocolate ice cream than Häagen-Dazs,” Angevine notes, “so what’s the point?”)
Brown enrolled in Penn State’s world-renowned, week-long Ice Cream Short Course; Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are among its many notable graduates. In the hours between their regular jobs—Angevine did administrative work at the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Brown did similar work at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and Ziga worked for concert promoter Sean Agnew’s R5 Productions—the trio refined their ice cream-making skills and flavor development at a commissary on North Broad St., where they hand-crafted all of their product (production now occurs in the kitchen of their new Frankford Avenue shop). Following their successful debut at the Trenton Avenue Fest, they began treating the company like it was a band.
“That was the frame of reference we had,” Ziga explains. “We were booking ourselves [at events], there’s the gear we’re bringing, you basically have to perform, and you hope there’s enough people there to make it worthwhile.”
Worthwhile it was. Weekend business was so profitable that the three quit their jobs at the end of last year (and have largely stopped playing music as well) to make Little Baby’s their full-time endeavor. Though they all consider themselves hardwired for risk-taking, two of the three founders have endured near-death experiences that reinforced the idea of pursuing a promising opportunity: In 2007, Angevine underwent a liver transplant after acute liver failure put him in a coma for a week. And last November, Gods and Queens were touring Europe when their tour van crashed—Ziga shattered his collarbone and bruised some ribs, and he still can’t believe none of them were killed. “Life is short,” says Ziga, “so I’m just gonna make ice cream.”