Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
For any type of business, establishing your first brick-and-mortar shop is a big deal. For Julian Plyter of Melt Bakery, it's been two years in the making. Since 2010, Julian and his business partner Kareem have been slinging homemade ice cream sandwiches everywhere from the Hester Street Fair to the High Line. This year, they're finally securing a space to call their own.
The kitchen looks typical of any small food establishment in the city, with florescent lighting, big mixers, and industrial refrigerators. But Julian's pride beamed as he took me through his brand new kitchen that he and Kareem put together mostly on their own.
"This is all us. I'm so proud of us because we haven't taken any investors. We have no loans. This is all ice cream sandwiches," he gushed. "I feel like this is going to be our year. We have our storefront, though it took a lot longer than we thought it would mostly because we wanted to do as much of it ourselves as we could. It's made me closer to the business—it's really my baby." Still hesitant to declare an official opening date, Julian told me all about the roots of his soon-to-be brick-and-mortar business.
How did you come to bootstrap your own ice cream sandwich business? I started Melt Bakery with a little bit of money from my retirement fund. I changed careers in '06—I used to work in the arts. I worked for the Orchestra of St. Luke's as their personnel manager for eight years. But I really wanted to do food. So I changed careers, and went back to culinary school at ICE. I had flirted with the idea of going to culinary school for years and years, and I finally was like "I have to just do this."
I went because I really wanted to be a food writer; I always loved writing and kept a blog through school. I wanted my writing to have a certain grit that you can only get from doing time on the ground. I still have works in progress that I'm writing right now, but I sort of lost myself in the actual business of just working in a kitchen. I forgot for years that I actually wanted to write because I was having so much fun in the kitchen.
I was fortunate enough to get an externship at Le Bernardin, where I got to work under Michael Laiskonis, the pastry chef at the time, who is a genius. As introductions to the real food world go, you can't really do better. My style has always leaned more toward Classic American than constructed French, but the principles that I learned there were so important. I still think about things Michael taught me every day.
From there I went to Lever House, where I ended up as pastry sous chef. By the time the restaurant had closed, I was sort of running that kitchen and I had a great relationship with the chefs that I worked with.
How did you become interested in the pastry side of the kitchen? I was always a baker. I baked my great grandmother's birthday cake when I was four. My mom is a great baker, and I learned so much about it as a craft from her. There was always something baking in our kitchen. She would bake 40 pies over Christmas.
How did the idea come about for Melt Bakery? Back in the Lever House days, we had 16 different kinds of ice creams and a cookie plate that had all of our cookies on it, and I was always the opener. When 11 AM rolled around and I needed a midmorning snack, it was like, "what ice cream sandwich and I going to make today?"
I had written that into my business plan for a full-service bakery in Inwood, and my business partner Kareem pointed out one sentence in my 65-page business plan that talked about creating your own ice cream sandwich, and said nobody is doing that.
We then had a conversation one day in the spring of 2010, and Kareem pointed out that if you're starting up an ice cream sandwich company, all you need to do is rent a kitchen for baking. We didn't make our ice cream in the beginning; we were buying it from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. (I love the ice cream, but to me it's really all about the cookies.) But anyway, I realized that in starting a bakery, you need a sheeter for your croissants, a proofer to do your baguettes, this kind of mixer for that, that kind of mixer for this. You can't start a business like that on a shoestring. So I took some money out of my retirement fund to secure a space at the Hester Street Fair, pay for a rental kitchen, buy a freezer, pay for my first round of ingredients, and cross my fingers.
What a leap of faith. How was the reception? We were really well received. We got amazing press in our first few weeks, like Daily Candy, which went out to 3 million subscribers. We got in Time Out in our first summer. The Hester Street Fair is a great incubator for people who just wanted to dip their toes in something. If you dip your toes in and the water's not right, you can pull your foot back out. But we're still at Hester Street Fair today and will stay loyal to them.
The High Line is just amazing. There are a lot of niche food vendors now doing one little product really well. I went into the vendor community there (which includes other frozen treat companies) thinking, "they're selling a frozen treat, I'm selling a frozen treat—it's a competition." But all I have gotten from everyone is this mutual support because we're all in the same game. It's a friendly competition and everyone wants to see everyone else do well, which is so encouraging.
What are your most popular flavors? The first summer at Hester, we would do three completely different flavors every week. And we quickly realized that people were going to be pissed off if we didn't have the Classic, which is chocolate chip walnut cookies with vanilla ice cream, every week. We also have the Belle, which got a beautiful swimsuit edition photo in Time Out New York. It's a brown butter bourbon shortbread cookie with peach ice cream. But I won't use peaches out of season, so it's only available in the summer.
We really want to keep the flavors dynamic and seasonal, but there are also flavors like the Cinnamax—a Snickerdoodle cookie with cinnamon ice cream—which we have all the time. The Lovelet is another one people love, which is like a giant whoopie pie with red velvet cake and cream cheese ice cream.We're going to toy with bacon in the near future. All I can say is there will be spice and sultry sweetness involved. We're also working on a brownie-type cookie with a peanut butter ice cream. And we're working with avocado a little bit.
The store is not yet open. Where else can we find your lovely products until then? We're at the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop selling a vanilla sugar cookie with banana pudding ice cream. People really like it and I can't wait to roll it out this summer. Cowgirl in the West Village has carried our sandwiches for at least a year, and right now they're carrying a brown sugar and cornmeal cookie with Maker's Mark bourbon ice cream. We're also at Indian Road Café up on 218th St, and Symphony Space has a little café on the Upper West Side that carries us.
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