Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, which launched 12 years ago in Manhattan by selling scoops out of a former postal truck the founders had bought on eBay, has signed a lease for the northeast corner of 13th and Sansom Streets in Center City. The location was the Capogiro flagship store, which closed two years ago as the gelato company collapsed.
It is expected to open in April.
Van Leeuwen — say it “Van Lewin” — is a darling of vegan customers, because about half of the available flavors are dairy-free and, frankly, taste and dish out like real ice cream. The brand is also known for its dairy flavors such as honeycomb and Earl Grey tea.
This will be the first location outside of New York and Los Angeles for Van Leeuwen, founded by brothers Peter and Ben Van Leeuwen and Ben’s former wife, Laura O’Neill, with $60,000 in cash from friends and family.
Van Leeuwen has five stores plus trucks in LA, where O’Neill, one-half of the garage-pop duo Laura & Greg, lives. There are 18 locations scattered through Manhattan and Brooklyn, where the ice cream is made. The New York trucks are now used only for events and catering. Besides the scoop shops, the ice cream is sold in pints in retail stores across the country. The founders also operated Selamat Pagi, an Indonesian restaurant in Brooklyn, from 2012 till early 2020.
The shops maintain a menu of 20 flavors and four monthly specials, typically a 50/50 split between classic (dairy) and vegan (cashew or oat). Top-selling classic flavors are honeycomb, chocolate fudge brownie, and cookies and cream, while the top vegan flavors are cookies & cream caramel swirl, cookie crumble strawberry jam, and chocolate cookie dough. A special Philadelphia-theme flavor will be introduced.
They didn’t set out to open an ice cream company, said Ben Van Leeuwen, whose experience in ice cream was driving a Good Humor truck in high school and college. It grew out of “an excitement about food, good-tasting food, but more than that, a passion for accessibly good food,” he said. “Making good food is super easy ... but making it physically accessible and priced accessibly is really exciting to us.”
There was plenty of mediocre ice cream on the street in 2008. They decided to bring premium ice cream to the masses. Lower overhead, at least initially, allowed them to buy quality ingredients, such as pistachios, chocolate, and strawberries, and create tasty ice cream without gums or stabilizers. Ice cream doesn’t necessarily lose quality as you scale up production, Van Leeuwen said.
They initially had their ice cream produced in upstate New York. About two years in, they built a factory in Brooklyn. “It sounds really cool,” said Ben Van Leeuwen. “It’s really hard. This is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world and we’re doing low-margin food production here. But we do it because we truly, genuinely haven’t found another way to make the product as good as we can make it ourselves.”
Jacob Cooper and Brittany Goldberg represented the landlord, Goldman Properties, on the lease, and Jason Kastner of Dochter & Alexander Retail Advisors represented Van Leeuwen.