Business of the Month: Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, 125 East 7th Street & 61 Grove Street
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Who doesn’t love a good success story? Our June 2019 Business of the Month is now an internationally recognized name that started ten years ago as a fresh and daring idea for a food business run out of a single truck in our neighborhood! Now they have both an East and West Village location, and some others too. Since June is LGBT Pride Month, and summer is the time for ice cream, we couldn’t help but pick Big Gay Ice Cream Shop as our latest Business of the Month.
Things moved quickly for what was originally Big Gay Ice Cream Truck after their 2009 beginning. By 2011 the business was really blowing up and lines were long at their truck when it parked in Union Square, and they looked to open an actual storefront. The vibrancy of the East Village beckoned, particularly East 7th Street.
Co-owner/founder Doug Quint says “East 7th Street between 1st Ave and Ave A was/is a phenomenal block for street food. There are nook food shops like Caracas– you could sit inside, but most folks get their empanada to go and nosh out on the sidewalk. This struck a chord with us. People stood outside our ice cream truck, and with the teeny shop location we chose it ensured that the truck ethos would somehow continue.” (The late Anthony Bourdain christened the shop when it opened, and there is video of the opening as well, complete with a bassoon performance!)
“Our West Village shop at 61 Grove Street came about quite by accident,” Quint added. “There was a frozen yogurt shop in the location and the owners wanted out. The opportunity came to us sort of by accident and we quickly realized that this could be a sort of mothership Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. There are numerous good restaurants right around that shop- now, more than ever, with Via Carota right next door. Great restaurants mean diners looking for a great dessert. We hoped to fill that niche and it worked.” Today you can actually rent one of their shops for a birthday or graduation or another special occasion.
Both of Big Gay Ice Cream’s locations in our neighborhood are in historic districts (the Grove Street location is in the Greenwich Village Historic District, the East 7th shop is in the Lower East Side/East Village Historic District), and Doug said that they’ve never been interested in opening in an area that’s not a “neighborhood.” “There’s no way we’d open in personality-free zone.”
Big Gay Ice Cream was founded by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint. The pair released their first cookbook. Big Gay Ice Cream: Saucy Stories & Frozen Treats: Going All the Way with Ice Cream in April 2015, published by Clarkson Potter. In spring 2017 they launched seven packaged ice cream flavors that are both re-creations of some of the most popular flavors at the Big Gay Ice Cream shop and concoctions that were created just for the pints.
Here’s more from our interview with Doug:
What is unique or special about the neighborhood/s?
“The East Village is where I fell in love with NYC. I moved to NYC (from Maine) in mid-1989. Tompkins Square Park was (figuratively) still smouldering, Pyramid Club was the place to be every Friday night, and Dick’s Bar… Dick’s was the best gay dive bar that will ever be. May it rest in… not peace. Brownie’s was a great place for new bands, and Joey Ramone was still lumbering around. Of course, it’s not the same now, but change is inevitable. I can still have sense memories of the smoke in The Phoenix. There is a vibrancy in the East Village, at a rumble so low that you can’t hear it. You feel it if yourself.
The West Village is a place I love for the secrets. Walking by a space that 25 years ago was a restaurant with a drag waitstaff… knowing that Courtney Love is (was) living in that particular brownstone. I love showing people how buildings along 7th Ave South are chopped into weird angles, the result of the city extending Seventh Avenue below its terminus at 14th street by widening a carriage path. That the dripping in the West 4th Street station is because the remains of Minetta Creek are trying to find their way home. The West Village is a wonderful place, but it becomes magical when you start to learn where it’s heartbeat hides.”
Who visits the stores? Is it different in each location?
“We always say “our customers are people who like ice cream” and that’s really the only way to sum it up. From pediatric to geriatric, we have customers of every shape, color, and demeanor. Our West Village shop probably has more family visits but I think part of that is because of our exact location, we are less than 15 yards from the 1 train so tourists can easily pop in. The East Village shop is a little further from mass transit. Our clientele on East 7th is probably a little funkier, which is about what you’d expect from the location.”
What is the most popular item/s?
“Ice cream! People are sometimes surprised that our shops feature soft-serve, but when that happens I always think “you didn’t do your homework, this is what we are known for.”
How have things changed over the years?
“When we started this whole thing we didn’t set out to run a business. We wanted to have a fun summer with an ice cream truck but somehow it took over our lives. Becoming business owners has been a steep learning curve and unfamiliar territory. It’s sometimes intimidating (and Manhattan rents are downright terrifying) but hey, I’m not looking back!”
To what do you attribute your success?
“The initial success of Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was almost entirely due to NYC. The city saw that we were a weird and fun thing, run by two people who wanted nothing more than to take a strange and new adventure. The city rallied behind us and our army began growing. Naturally, our product is terrific- I stand 100% behind everything we make and it’s world-class ice cream, anyone who says otherwise is… well, they are wrong. We wouldn’t be where we are if our ice cream wasn’t winning. Beyond that, I place much of our success upon our initial army of New York loyalists. Big Gay Ice Cream Truck would never, ever, ever have been such a success in any other city, and our truck’s former corner at Union Square West will always feel like an old home.”
And finally, like many, you may wonder about the name. Here is an essay Doug wrote that tells the story:
“Big Gay WHAT? How we started.
Here’s the story on the genesis of the name Big Gay Ice Cream.
People frequently say that we “did market research” or “decided to target gay ice cream eaters” or we’re “flaunting our sexuality” with the name.
Boy, that’s not how the name came about. Not at all.
I (Doug, on the right in that photo) am a trained classical musician. I studied the bassoon at Juilliard, and then played with groups such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Boston Pops, American Ballet Theater and with numerous Broadways shows. Back in the winter of 2009 I decided I would do “something else” that coming summer. I had just completed the comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. and wanted to take a few months off from music. I didn’t know what job I was looking for, I just knew that it needed to be experiential. I was feeling inspired by the great David Sedaris essay “The Santaland Diaries,” in which Sedaris took a job as an elf at Macy’s just to see what being an elf at Macy’s was like. I was *not* going to work a counter job. I wanted something more like… assistant to an exterminator, perhaps. It was only going to be for one summer and of course I wanted to do something successful- but honestly if the whole thing went totally wrong, so be it- it would be fun to tell people about the summer job that blew up in my face. I kept an open mind and spent a few weeks watching “help wanted” on Craigslist. Nothing was catching my eye.
Then something DID catch my eye. My friend Andrea (a Juilliard-trained flutist) had spent the previous few summers working an ice cream truck. A detail- the majority of ice cream trucks in NYC are owned by very few people. Bosses own small fleets and use what amounts to “day labor” to run them. You show up, you sign out a truck, you give up a cut to the owner. The end. The overhead is nil- someone else owns the truck and your supplies come out of your earnings. Basic, simple, and so so cheap to get running. Andrea was great at the ice cream truck game so the guy she worked for asked her to find some new drivers for the upcoming summer. One evening I looked at Facebook and her status message was “if any of you are looking for work this summer and want to drive an ice cream truck, let me know.”
So there it was. I would have an ice cream truck that summer.
I decided right away that I would be the happiest damned ice cream man that ever drove the streets of New York City. No Bluetooth headset. Smile at customers. Earn their $3. Make them happy. Bryan went a little deeper and brought up the idea of updating the ice cream truck menu. It’s been the same sprinkles and dips for 50 years… all good stuff, but let’s do a little sprucing-up. So there was our two-fold mission. I’d be delirious and we’d come up with some fun new treats for an otherwise stale menu.
I decided to write a diary about the project; really to tell my friends what it took to get this ice cream truck concept on the road. We wanted to name the truck but had no idea what to go with. Certainly not a vanity name, no simple “Doug’s Ice Cream.” I started a Facebook page for my ongoing diary and invited my friends to “like” it. Because we didn’t know what we would be calling the truck I named the page “The big gay ice cream truck.” This was back in the day of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and we sort of felt like we were queer-eyeing an ice cream truck. We figured eventually we’d come up with a permanent name for our big gay ice cream truck but that’s not how it played out. The name of the page made people laugh, and folks starting joining the Facebook page purely so that their feed would say “John Doe is a fan of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.” The name was just a goof. When we actually GOT a truck people realized this was no joke, and we realized that it was decided for us by all the Facebook “likes.” We were The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.
The name has nothing to do with anything in particular. Yeah, the founders are gay. We’ve been “accused” of being straight and trying to cash in on… whatever. It’s all probably more “gay” in the old “happy” definition. Like I said, my first part of the truck’s mission was for me to go out there and be a grinning fool; to make every customer feel better about their lives for the time it took to eat an ice cream. Mission accomplished: GOURMET magazine called me “the happiest street food vendor in the history of street food” or something like that. The second part of our mission was to update the menu and create some great treats. I think we’ve done pretty well with that, too.
There you go. No research, no planning, no anything. The name found us and we kept it.”
So check out one of their two shops in our neighborhood, or one of their other spots if you are nearby. The ice cream is year round and so is the rainbow at Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, our June Business of the Month.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
And here is a handy map of all of our Businesses of the Month: