Robyn Sue Fisher has gone from churning ice cream in a Radio Flyer on Valencia Street to living the sweet, sweet dream: The founder of Smitten, and everyone's favorite ice cream lady, is expanding her empire: On the heels of recent openings in San Francisco's Mission and the Marina, as well as the brand's first in Southern California (in El Segundo), the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake is soon to be smitten, too.
As many people in the food industry do, Fisher began by selling her product out of the back of a truck—well, a little red wagon to be precise. In 2009, with the help of a retired NASA engineer, Fisher built Brrr, an innovative ice cream machine that runs on liquid nitrogen. She placed it on a Radio Flyer and she spent two years pedaling Valencia Street before opening her first shop, Smitten's flagship shipping container in Hayes Valley. Now, Smitten Ice Cream has eight locations around the Bay Area and is beginning to charm SoCal as well.
Want to follow in her footsteps? We asked the 37-year-old ex-Strategic Management Consultant what it takes to succeed in the food world.
Smitten founder Robyn Sue Fisher.(Courtesy of Smitten Ice Cream)
What made you decide to jump into the ice cream business?
Ice cream has always been my favorite food, ever since I was a kid. When I started looking at ingredient labels on the back of ice cream cartons, I was really bothered by all of the unpronounceable ingredients that were in there. I decided to jump into the ice cream business because I really felt there was a need to use technology to make ice cream pure again. I knew that by including only the ingredients that should be in ice cream, we could make it taste better.
What were you doing before Smitten?
I was a Strategic Management Consultant in Boston, New York and Paris. I am still trying to figure out what that means.
Where does the name “Smitten" come from?
I associate ice cream with joy and I wanted everyone who tried Smitten to experience that joy.
What's so special about Brrr?
I like to call Brrr™ my first child! I literally spent many years and my life's savings creating a machine that could make the best ice cream possible. The basic idea behind the Brrr machine is that it perfects the art of using liquid nitrogen to freeze the ice cream in a way that creates exceptionally small ice crystals. (The smaller the ice crystals, the smoother the ice cream). Brrr can actually sense and respond to the viscosity of the ice cream and knows when to stop churning when the ice cream is done.
Do you miss hitting the road with your Radio Flyer wagon?
I make sure to get into our shops and interact with guests all the time. Because I'm out and about all the time, I'm still able to have that on-the-ground experience with people that I loved when I had my wagon.
Favorite spot to park the wagon:
I used to hang out right near the Mission Pool, just off Valencia Street. We're opening a shop on Valencia Street and 20th Street this summer, so I'm excited to come full circle.
Where do you go to buy your ingredients?
Using top-quality ingredients is paramount for us. We actually have a position at Smitten called the “Hunter & Gatherer." Our Hunter & Gatherer is responsible for all of our ingredient sourcing and ensures that we are proud of everything that goes into our scoops. We care immensely about sourcing locally, so we work with local purveyors and local farms. We use all organic milk and cream from Northern California and specifically choose dairies that have the highest standards in the industry. We also source organic fruits from local farms, such as strawberries from Swanton Berry Farm and nectarines from Blossom Bluff. And, we're also thrilled and proud to work with TCHO chocolate, a forward-thinking chocolatier based in Berkeley that goes beyond Fair Trade and actually supports and partners with local growers.
Favorite Smitten flavor:
Gosh, I love it all. But, if I had to choose, I would say our seasonal blood orange with pistachio cookies – available select months of the year. I also love the maple brown sugar pumpkin that we serve in the fall. And I challenge anyone in the world to find a better chocolate ice cream than our TCHO chocolate.
My favorite places usually have some kind of sentimental value. My husband and I will go on super long walking dates where we end up over the Golden Gate Bridge at Farley Bar at Cavallo Point, which is where we got engaged. We also had our first date ever on tax day at Gamine, a cozy neighborhood French bistro, so that place is pretty special to me as well. And, to tell the truth, one of my favorite meals is just a darn good Mission burrito.
Favorite dessert (besides ice cream):
Pie … a la mode, of course!
An indulgence that you would never give up?
Being outside is really important to me, so even if it's a weekday and my to-do list is crazy long, I'll indulge with time outside.
What is the most important thing you need to have to be successful in this business?
Knowing how to make someone's day.
If you weren't making ice cream, what would you be doing?
A special agent in the FBI (wink, wink).
This article has been updated since it was originally published in March 2016.