Sandra Tran, co-founder of Nicecream Factory, scoops chocolate-cherry ice cream out of a mixer. / USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Cold vapor clouds the air and then quickly evaporates over the edges of the silver bowl of a KitchenAid mixer whipping together milk and cocoa powder. At a table set up with two mixers on the side of The Diner, a restaurant in Adams Morgan, Sandra Tran stops the whirring beater and scoops out perfect spheres of chocolate-cherry ice cream, which froze on the spot in the last 60 seconds, after she poured in liquid nitrogen.
Tran, 24, is co-founder of Nicecream Factory, the company she started with her boyfriend, Gil Welsford, less than a year ago with an eye toward local ingredients, with a cool twist. She was invited by The Diner to help host a Cherry Blossom Festival ice cream social, celebrating D.C.'s anticipated pink blooms each April with the chocolate-cherry ice cream and a Diner-inspired French toast flavor.
While customers wait - the entire process takes only about three minutes - Tran explains to them what she's putting into the mixer.
Ingredients are locally sourced as much as possible - the ice cream base comes from a farm in Pennsylvania. Lemons are difficult to get locally, but Tran explains that Nicecream works with fair trade providers. Each flavor is made on the spot for customers and served immediately.
"We don't make it and put it in the freezer and serve it," Tran says. Each KitchenAid mixer the company bought with some of its Kickstarter funds holds enough ingredients for about eight servings. A serving of two scoops sells for $4.
Tired of cupcakes and discouraged by the amount of processed, unnatural ingredients in so many of the desserts that crowd grocery aisles, Tran and Welsford combined their entrepreneurial fervor with their love for the kitchen when they launched Nicecream Factory last May.
The couple met while students at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Tran had started a program allowing students to apply to teach their own classes on topics they were passionate about. Welsford, who started two other companies while in school, applied to teach one about entrepreneurship.
Within a year of graduating in 2012, Tran and Welsford launched Nicecream Factory with $10,000, raised through Kickstarter. The idea was born of one of Welsford's other businesses, a supplier of valves and other industrial instruments. A man in California asked Welsford for parts to help build a liquid nitrogen system for his own ice cream company.
The idea of using a gas to make ice cream piqued their entrepreneurial interest. That's when Tran and Welsford started experimenting.
"This way of making food was so unique, and no one was putting it at the forefront of their restaurant," Tran says. "We were like, this could succeed. It met all of the things we were passionate about." That includes fresh and local ingredients, Tran's love for dessert and the duo's dedication to innovation.
"If we want to inspire people, we have to constantly be innovating and finding that new thing," Tran says.
Nicecream initially started last May as a pop-up shop, partnering with area farmers markets and restaurants. It also caters events and has a home delivery business, called Pints Please. Customers can sign up for a subscription of up to four pints a month or place single orders for flavors like strawberry basil, honey lavender and chocolate bacon. Nicecream also takes requests.
"We get a lot of ideas from our customers," Tran says. "When we started out, we probably had a base of 20 flavors we just thought would be really cool."
This May, Nicecream will open as a retail shop at the Market Common complex in Arlington, Va., a business move Tran calls "amazing."
"I did not anticipate opening a brick-and-mortar location this soon," she says. "It's been doing well enough that we can do that."
Let's Eat! With Hadley Malcolm is a video franchise about how we source, cook, and eat our food in a time of growing appreciation for local ingredients and sustainable practices in the kitchen.
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