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Alec’s Ice Cream takes over Three Twins production facility in Petaluma

Launching an ice cream company in the middle of winter may not seem ideal, but then again, the same could be said for launching a food product during a global pandemic. As consumer tastes would have it, ice cream is considered a comfort food by many, and so along with other “necessities” like beer and toilet paper, ice cream has actually seen a surge in sales over the past year.

This is the world that Alec’s Ice Cream was born into when Alec Jaffe leased Three Twins Ice Cream’s vacated Petaluma production facility early last summer. This month, he unveiled his brand and its first five flavors: Tahitian vanilla bean, chocolate, mint chocolate chip, salted caramel latte and honey blueberry lavender.

Jaffe has been developing his business plan for several years, but the timing and location seemed to fall into place this year. By early 2020, he had perfected several of his flavors on a small scale and was looking for an opportunity to launch his ice cream. His first idea was to open a dessert-bar style scoop shop offering everything from scoops to custom ice cream sandwiches. However, opening up such a shop would be expensive and fraught with pandemic-related risks. As luck would have it, the Three Twins space had just become available after the longtime local ice cream producer shuttered in late 2019. The factory was about the same entry cost as setting up the fancy scoop shop that Jaffe envisioned.

“This also gave me the opportunity to relocate to Petaluma,” said the Southern California native. “If I had done this back home, I would have had to ship in my milk, which can cause quality issues, among other concerns.”

Jaffe wanted to be close to where he sourced his primary ingredients, which he buys from just a dozen blocks away at the Petaluma Creamery.

“There is also a wealth of dairy-related knowledge here that I wouldn’t be able to find in Southern California. Although we are looking to innovate wherever we can, there are certain things that just don’t make sense to reinvent and that is where that knowledge base comes into play,” he said.

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Laguna Beach, he has loved ice cream. He’s clearly not alone. The International Dairy Foods Association reports that each American consumes roughly 23 pounds of ice cream a year, with California coming in above the national average. However, Jaffe took it a step further than most kids.

When a school assignment called for students to bring something homemade to class, he decided it was time to try his hand at making ice cream. He was 12 years old at the time and with the help of his mom’s Cuisinart, he whipped up a batch of ice cream to share with the class. As expected, it was a huge hit.

He continued to dabble in homemade ice cream while attended high school, and then transferred to USC, where he played football as a running back until a shoulder injury sidelined him.

After college, he worked in sales for Anschutz Corporation (also known as AEG), whose major holding is the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (AEG also owns shares of several sports teams, including the L.A. Kings, Lakers and Sparks, plus several more sports franchises in Europe.) Alec worked with a lot of food accounts, include Southern California’s popular Tapatio Hot Sauce, which introduced him to the ins and outs of the food production business.

When the opportunity arose, Alec joined a business-to-business start-up, but the company did not last.

“I learned a valuable lesson,” he said. “To have the best chance at success, you really do need to start with a superior product. That was something that they lacked but is something that we feel we have at Alec’s Ice Cream.”

With some free time on his hands, Jaffe went back into his parents’ kitchen to explore the idea of making ice cream full time. He started with the same Cuisinart he had used for his class project when he was 12 years old, but it was only a few weeks before it broke and he had to upgrade.

From idea to ice cream

After a few months in the kitchen fine-tuning his recipes, Jaffe started to sell ice cream to friends, family and from a cooler directly to beachgoers. By January, he made the decision to go professional. With a limited background in food, he recruited his brother Zach, who was a chef at the well-respected Hippie Kitchen in Jefferson Parish, just up the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.

“Finding this turn-key facility was pure luck,” said Jaffe. “And Zach has taken over ownership of the production side. We wouldn’t be here without his hard work.”

The switch from making 1.5 gallons at home to 450-gallon batches in a factory was not easy for the team.

“It definitely took some flavor tweaks,” he said. “A 1.5-gallon recipe doesn’t necessarily scale up to our 5 gallon then 75 gallon then 450 gallon batches. All the experiments tasted great, but we wanted to make sure that this was the best possible ice cream we could make. Using quality ingredients certainly helps.”

The right ingredients

Alec’s Ice Cream is certified organic and contains just the bare essential. They start with local organic pasture-raised dairy and egg yolks, with cane sugar sourced from the Native Green Cane Project, one of the world’s largest sustainable agriculture organizations. The addition of organic plant-based stabilizers keeps the ice cream from frosting over and from losing consistency when going through the temperature changes that can occur as it travels from the factory to the home freezer.

Having tasted all five flavors, I can attest that they are not only excellent examples of high-quality ice cream, but stay true to their flavor. The Tahitian vanilla bean is a stalwart and even with more interesting flavors to choose from, was the first pint to go empty in our kitchen. The chocolate is rich and creamy and the chips in the mint chocolate chip have a nice crunch, where other brands often have chunks that are too hard to enjoy from a flavor and a texture standpoint.

“We wanted to create simple flavors that make sense,” said Jaffe. “There shouldn’t be any mystery to what you are getting.”

Alec’s salted caramel latte taste exactly how it sounds and will make coffee lovers quite happy. And finally, there is the honey blueberry lavender. At this point, lavender ice cream has proven itself, although some can smell a bit too much like soap. Alec’s is perfectly balanced and is packed so full of honey that it oozes out as the ice cream is scooped from the container.

Conscientious production

Jaffe is part of a new generation of business owners who grew up on the idea of sustainability. It was part of his upbringing and so is more than just a marketing afterthought.

“Food has always been a big part of our family,” he said. “I remember spending Thanksgivings out at my aunt and uncle’s dry-farmed vineyard and learning about the importance of knowing where your food comes. We need to give credence to those that go out of their way to create as healthy a product as possible both for us and for the planet.”

Robbie Jaffe and Steve Gleisman are his aunt and uncle and certainly helped set a great example. Robbie Jaffe started Life Lab, a nonprofit that helps schools develop garden programs. Gleisman is a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, where he started the agroecology program and currently edits the Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Journal. Together, the couple founded the Community Agroecology Network to assist rural communities in North and Central America in developing more sustainable food systems.

“Everyone has role to play in the sustainability effort,” Alec Jaffe said.

His website mirrors this principle: “At AIC, our mission is to create outstanding experiences that enhance our world through making elevated versions of everyday goods. As a food manufacturer, we not only have an impact on our customers’ experience, but we also seek to have an impact in creating a healthier food system altogether.”

The new Three Twins?

Offering organic ice cream from the Three Twins Ice Cream facility, one might wonder what Alec’s Ice Cream plans to do different. From my initial impressions, the first difference is the ice cream. Although Three Twins had some great flavors, I never looked to them for the fundamentals, and to be frank, Alec’s Ice Cream is quite a bit creamier. Additionally, Alec’s is priced slightly higher than was Three Twins, which should help with profitability. However, Jaffe believes it is still within a price range that makes organic ice cream accessible to the masses.

“We love the look on people’s faces when they enjoy our ice cream and that comes from making the best ice cream possible,” he said

What’s in a label?

When it comes to labeling, Jaffe wanted to keep things simple and straight forward.

“We have the flavor drawn right onto the packaging,” he pointed out.

This reminds me of a recent comment I read from a beer journalist who was complaining that he should not have to pull the can from the cooler and spin it around in order to know what brand and what style of beer it is. The ice cream industry often has the same issue.

Although there are a lot fewer brands of ice cream than beer, often the cartoon-laden labels make it difficult to know what flavor you are looking at until you pull it out of the cooler and inspect it by hand. To that point, each of Alec’s five pints is clearly labeled and is colored to match the flavor, making it quite easy to spot from down the grocery store aisle. From beige with vanilla beans to brown with cocoa beans to green with mint leaves, you subconsciously know what you are picking up even before you read the clearly labeled containers of Alec’s Ice Cream.

The only cartoon on Alec’s labels is a small winking scoop of ice cream, affectionately, although not officially, known as “Winky Scoop.”

In the community

On the label, just beneath the brand’s name, it reads “Made in Petaluma, California.” The town, Jaffe said, is part of the consumer appeal.

“Petaluma has a respected dairy culture and tradition,” he said, with a genuine sense of excitement. “We feel very lucky to be making ice cream here and look forward to getting more involved in the community.”

With all our major local events canceled during 2020, there have been few opportunities for community outreach since Jaffe joined the Petaluma community. However, that did not deter him. When I inquired what he did with all the test batches of ice cream leading up to the final launch, he said they were donated to a local nonprofit. So far, Alec’s has donated somewhere between 2,500-3,000 pints.

Lynne Gordon Moquette, founder of Una-Vida, thanking Alec’s for donating pints to her organization so that even those who are struggling to fill their fridge can have a special treat waiting in the freezer. For a parent, this may seem extravagant, but no kid should grow up without the pleasures of ice cream.

Pearl restaurant is just down 1st Street from Alec’s facility and has already used his ice creams in some of their desserts. And through the ice cream crew’s many visits to Charley’s Wine Country Deli, Jaffe got to know the owners, who hope to carry his brand in the New Year.

Where to find it

Alec’s Ice Cream has just last week been picked up, literally, by Wild Oak Dairy and Gold Rush Distribution and should start hitting stores from Monterey to Mendocino soon. Locally, look for pints at Petaluma Market as of Dec. 28. According to the website, pints can also currently be found along our coastline from Diekmann’s in Bodega Bay, to Dillon Beach General Store, to Point Reyes Station’s Palace Market and Stinson Beach Market. Visit the "Store Finder" tab online for an updated list and map of retail locations.

Alec’s is also available through the website (alecsicecream.com) for mail delivery anywhere in the nation. However, in order to make sure the pints arrive in good condition, delivery pricing is higher than in stores and requires a five-pint purchase. As luck would have it, Alec’s just so happens to offer five different flavors, making this a perfect gift for friends or family who are stuck in areas of the country without high-quality ice cream. And these are more prevalent than one might think, especially if you grew up in Petaluma.

We are blessed to live in an area that seems to worship the frozen treat we call ice cream. In the Petaluma-area alone, it takes two hands to count our local ice cream makers, which includes small batch producers like Lala’s Ice Cream, Mariposa Ice Creamery, Petaluma Creamery, Double 8 Dairy and Fru-ta alongside more major producers like Straus Family Creamery and Clover Sonoma. Alec’s Ice Cream has added another delicious option, which fits comfortably between our local scoop shops and our high-quality handmade home deliveries.

What is the definition of ice cream?

For the uninitiated, the FDA regulates food labels in the US and has a strict requirement when it comes to what is labeled as “ice cream.” It must contain “not less than 10% milkfat…,” which is why lower fat options are labeled as “soft serve” or the ever misleading “frozen dairy treat.” Not one to trade cream calories for fruit or yogurt calories, I usually stick to either ice cream, frozen custard or gelato. Both ice cream and custard are made with at least 10 percent milkfat, but ice cream contains less than 1.4 percent egg yolk while custard contains more. Gelato has less than 10% milkfat but contains less air than American ice creams, so it stays dense and creamy.

In all my ice cream research, I have always judged an ice cream maker by their vanilla and sure enough, that too is the country’s favorite flavor, followed by chocolate, cookies ‘n’ cream, mint chip and chocolate chip cookie dough. Alec’s best seller is also vanilla.

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