If you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and take Highway 1 out to Tomales Bay, eventually you will come to the Straus Dairy. And you will come across a not-insignificant number of cows. Hanging out. Eating grass. Doing what cows do, which is to say: not much.
These cows are intimately connected to the unlikeliest food renaissance in recent memory. The Neopolitan pizza renaissance — that made sense. It’s cold here, and pizza makes you warm. The offal renaissance made sense too: Mission residents have been eating brains and necks and tongue for years and not even getting applauded for it. But the idea that there was an ardent ice cream market above and beyond the hardcore crowd that has gathered and shivered outside of Mitchell’s since 1953 — that’s a shock.
So these are the cattle behind the half-hour wait in line at the Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th and Dolores streets, and the cattle responsible for the many flavors of vanilla ice cream at Xanath on Valencia, and the Government Cheese flavor of ice cream at Humphry Slocombe on Harrison off 24th Street. They are the source of the 1,800 gallons of ice cream base that leave Straus every week, most of it bound for the Mission District.
Without Straus, says the Bi-Rite Creamery’s Anne Walker, Bi-Rite would never have gone into the ice cream business. “We’ve never used anything else. There are a lot of products out there, but they don’t have clean ingredients. They aren’t organic, and they aren’t local.”
Straus is ubiquitous in the local ice cream market in part because until recently it was the only organic ice cream base available here. (The San Rafael-based Three Twins began making its own base in March, but as of yet is only selling to two start-up customers, one of which is getting into the packaged ice cream business and the other of which is opening an ice cream shop in San Francisco.)
Ice cream base is not rocket science. It’s basically an anglaise: cream, milk and sugar. But California health code is strict when it comes to dairy and to foods that are adored by small children, and so only high-end restaurants risk making their own. They do this either by proving that they sell less than 2,500 gallons a year or via the more expedient method of stashing their ice cream maker in the back of a cupboard when they see the health inspector coming.
Working from a premade base has its drawbacks, says Walker, who is a pastry chef by training. It’s more difficult to adjust texture. Flavor needs to be infused into the base without using heat as a catalyst, since it’s already been heated once and can’t be again. Straus doesn’t sell an unflavored frozen yogurt base yet, so every yogurt flavor needs to be able to handle a vanilla undertone. But, says Walker, “we’re selling about 360 gallons a week now. We don’t want to be making our own base.”
Meanwhile, Straus has its own reasons for selling to people like Walker. The company has been active in efforts to re-create the local food system that once existed around the Bay Area. It was the first local dairy to switch back to organic production. It was critical to the development of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which has helped keep land near San Francisco in agricultural production instead of being turned into housing developments or parkland. And so, when Straus began to produce more milk than it could sell, the company looked for a way to create more products to sell locally, instead of expanding its range.
The organic dairy market has gone through boom and bust cycles in the last decade, and Straus was looking for a way to sidestep that. It was already making and selling its own ice cream, so it began selling the base as well. From an inventory standpoint it made sense: Fresh milk goes bad quickly. Fresh yogurt goes bad after about 60 days. Ice cream base, once it’s frozen, keeps for up to six months. Ice cream base is a way, in essence, to bank dairy.
The Bi-Rite and Bi-Rite Creamery are more intertwined than they might initially seem: Cases of fruit that fail to sell quickly enough cross the street and become ice cream, for example. Walker, who is married to Bi-Rite’s owner, Sam Mogannam, had been baking pastries for Bi-Rite for years in rented kitchen space at D’Alessio, on Market Street. She was looking for a kitchen closer to Bi-Rite itself, and the space, when she found it, had a storefront attached.
The first thought was to sell pastries and baked goods out of the storefront, but, as Walker says, “Tartine is right around the corner.” And so the decision was made: ice cream. “We had no idea it was going to be like this,” she says. “This is a cold town. We didn’t think there was this much of a market.”
They were proved wrong — which was as much of a surprise to Straus as to the Bi-Rite owners. Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. “We’re selling [ice cream base] so fast that we’re beginning to think that maybe we shouldn’t even bother freezing it,” says Rich Martin, who runs sales for Straus. The company just put in a private ice cream bar at its headquarters and is preparing to introduce a few new flavors to its own ice cream line.
“Once in a while life just gives you a win-win situation,” Martin says, his voice full of the contentment of a man who is moving a lot of product in the middle of a dismal recession. “This is one of them. We’re going to enjoy it.”
This piece first ran on August 24, 2010