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The Technology Behind How Smitten Has Seduced San Francisco

If you haven’t looked at the list of ingredients on a carton of ice cream from the grocery store lately, you might be surprised by the number of sweeteners, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives geared more to packing and preservation of the product than its taste.

Locally produced Smitten Ice Cream changes all that. Every scoop is made from fresh mostly organic, locally harvested ingredients right before your eyes.

Those ingredients are joined in a special mixer using liquid nitrogen (which is basically liquid air, since air is 78 percent nitrogen) to blend them at -321 degrees Fahrenheit. This process gives off a fine fog as it reduces the ice crystals to such a miniscule size that the result is the smoothest ice cream I have ever seen – anywhere past or present.

We spoke with founder Robyn Sue Fisher earlier this week at the tiny Smitten store in Hayes Valley, and she explained that it has been a six-year process to get to where she is today.

The journey included research while she was a student at Stanford Business School, then on to a basement in Boston where for two years she spent her life savings working with a retired engineer to prototype the liquid nitrogen mixer.

Then back to San Francisco, where she made and sold ice cream to her earliest customers off a wagon she hauled around the streets.

She got a break when Google asked her to cater an event, and then she opened her store on Octavia Street two years ago.

“It’s all been for the love of ice cream,” Fisher says. “Ice cream makes people happy. Our approach is to use local, seasonal, organic ingredients as much as possible.

“So there is one seasonal flavor each month -- this month it is olive oil and lavender, using local olive oil and the lavender that is in full bloom right now. We also use the fewest ingredients we can – we keep it simple.”

There are four flavors each month, one variety of each of the basics – vanilla and chocolate, plus the seasonal flavor and another special option – this month a salted caramel.

The limit to four is due to having only four machines to make the ice cream at present.

These patented machines are called Brrrs and the staff serving the hand-made cones and dishes are called Brrristas.

Word about Smitten has spread quickly both locally and beyond. Gourmet food tours stop by and locals brings visiting F&F by to see one ofthe city's truly unique food establishments.

As the news about this ice cream has spread, Smitten also has catered events at numerous big tech firms, including Yahoo, Tivo, AOL, IDEO, Apple, as well as at banks and other companies. The catering process involves taking a Brrr to the venue, of course, and demonstrating this low-tech/high-tech way to make fresh ice cream to what is invariably a receptive audience.

Fisher says volume is now running at 17,000 servings a month, but that will soon expand as she readies to open two more local shops, each with six Brrrs, thus allowing more flavors as well.

One of Smitten’s partners is TCHO, which we’ve profiled at 7x7, after Smitten determined that the chocolate company’s 60.5 percent bar is the best tasting chocolate for its ice creams.

The seasonality of favors reflects the times when the fruits and vegetables are harvested locally.

“Over summer, we’ll have flavors based on nectarine and sweet corn,” says Fisher. “In the fall there will be apples and squash. In winter we rely on dried fruits. Then soon will be citrus, like lemons and blood oranges.”

One thing you cannot do is take away a package of Smitten. It doesn’t contain any of those nasty chemicals to preserve it over time, so it is strictly an in-the-moment culinary experience.

"We will never compete on the grocery shelves,” says Fisher. “We compete in the way we win – by making better ice cream than anyone else.”

According to my two young research assistants, Julia and Paloma, who accompanied me on this interview, Smitten is indeed the “best ice cream ever.” And, so, they say, are the hand-made cones it is served in.