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Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Spicing Up Dessert

In the current market for gourmet ice cream, the days of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla may be 20th-century nostalgia. At the April 30 launch of Los Angeles Times’ Food Bowl, the longest line of the evening led to Tarzana-based Wanderlust Creamery. At the foodie festival, the flavors that Wanderlust co-founders Adrienne Borlongan and Jon-Patrick Lopez offered took their cues from Asian cuisine – namely Japan, with Sakura, a grass-fed cream infused with cherry blossoms; Thailand with dairy-free Sticky Rice and Mango; and the founders’ Filipino heritage with Ube Malted Crunch featuring purple yams. Borlongan serves as Wanderlust’s chef and creative partner while Lopez manages business and marketing. The couple, partners in business and in life, with son Sebastian, 1, have spun their enterprise into a budding local chain. On any given day, their flagship Wanderlust store at 18511 Ventura Blvd. carries 10 permanent flavors and six on a monthly rotation. The core menu is global, including the Icelandic-inspired Pretzel + Rugbraud; British-themed Earl Grey; and a Pacific Northwest twist on traditional Rocky Road called Smoky Road, with dark chocolate, marshmallow cream, almonds and smoked sea salt. Since its startup in 2015, Wanderlust Creamery has opened a second store in Atwater Village in 2017 and a Venice location last month. The company is presently scouting for a fourth location. “I love these Asian Americans taking traditional Asian items and doing new fusion things with them,” said L.A.-based food and travel journalist Kristie Hang. As an example, she notes bo lo buns (ice cream-stuffed Hong Kong pineapple buns) or “doing weird flavors with bubble waffles.” “Fusion is something their parents’ generation would have never thought to do,” Hang continued. “And with these entrepreneurs having small businesses in the food industry and that being more accepted … as a desirable career has come all these unique connotations that are a real mix of East meets West. For non-Asians, seeing something exotic, yet familiar, is a big draw.” Worldly thinking Borlongan had never met her paternal grandfather so she was stunned when, shortly after her decision to become a professional ice cream maker, relatives informed her that she was following in his footsteps. It was only then when she had learned that her ancestor had a hand in creating the first ube ice cream in the Philippines. “They made ice cream for the American military, for the Navy,” she said. The name Wanderlust reflects the chain’s menu, with each ice cream representing a different country. Borlongan does extensive research and development to create her flavors. Ironically, the couple find themselves tailoring the menus to consumer patterns at each store. “The Eastside (Atwater Village) is more adventurous, significantly more open-minded,” Borlongan said, while in Venice, the mix of techies, tourists and transplants tend to skew toward the classic chocolate-vanilla-strawberry axis. Atwater customers devour Nopal Sherbet (Mexican cactus, lime and sea salt). Westsiders, on the other hand, prefer the closer-to-traditional Smoky Road, Honey Lavender, and the glorified vanilla of Tonka Bean. In Tarzana, “it’s like a 50-50 blend,” Lopez said, characterizing the customer base as a mix of traditional older families and spirited college kids. “That’s why we really like the Valley because there’s quite a cross-section.” According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., ice cream and sherbet sales, for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 8, 2017, have increased year-over-year 2.7 percent to $6.8 billion while unit sales climbed 1 percent to 1.8 billion. And if the greater L.A. is an indicator, Asian-accented confections are going mainstream. “Americans are being more cultured and open-minded about trying new flavors and cuisines,” said Hang, the food journalist. “Gone are the days when Panda Express was the most authentic Asian restaurant in town. With so many influencers, food gurus, and entertainers in the mainstream media being Asian or Asian-American, Asian food has really become mainstream and cool.” The specialty ice cream business is not without its competition. Coolhaus operators and married couple Natasha Case and Freya Estreller (who is Filipina) expanded on their food truck success with a brick-and-mortar foothold in Culver City in 2011 and an Old Town Pasadena kiosk two years later. There’s also Scoops, Tai Kim’s local chain which grew out of L.A. in 2005. In September 2015, Santa Monica restauranteurs Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, in partnership with confectioner Shiho Yoshikawa, opened the Sweet Rose Creamery chain, which has five locations including one in Studio City. According to Hang, one of the industry’s most substantial Asian-American success stories is ice cream donut purveyor Afters Ice Cream. The Orange County business has 21 shops from Riverside to San Diego and just opened their newest one at Westfield Topanga in Woodland Hills. “They have by far done the most expansion of any Asian-American dessert shop and taken social media by storm,” said Hang. Hang, a West Hills native who attended El Camino High School in Woodland Hills, believes that the local Asian-American confectioners have been savvy when it comes to promoting product. “With the rise of venues, night markets, and pop-ups to showcase these creations, it has really given Asian Americans a platform to create new things,” Hang said. Of course, one of the largest Asian-American dessert-maker success stories came out of L.A.’s Korean-American community over a dozen years ago — Pinkberry, which launched a nationwide frozen yogurt craze. Outside of local Asian-American businesses, there is also Portland, Ore.-based Salt and Straw, the 2011-started artisan chain, which has led an aggressive campaign to sway Angeleno taste buds with their Larchmont Village, Venice and downtown L.A. Arts District locations. Utah-based nitro shop Sub Zero Ice Cream, through a Simi Valley franchisee, has expanded to Southern California while Santa Barbara-born McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams has a Studio City outlet. Closer to home, there’s Magpies Softserve in Tarzana; Sloan’s and Carmela Ice Cream in Woodland Hills; Chill Rollz’ rolled ice cream in North Hollywood; and Owl’s Handcrafted Ice Cream of Porter Ranch, which sells such niche flavors as Himalayan Salted Caramel, Honey Rosemary and Wasabi. Sweet odyssey Back in Tarzana, Lopez, who grew up in Granada Hills, said the Valley has been good to him and his college sweetheart, Chatsworth native Borlongan. Both attended California State University – Northridge, where Borlongan studied food science. They also worked two years at the Westfield Topanga location of P.F. Chang’s at 21821 Oxnard St., where Borlongan tended bar and Lopez worked as a server. Lopez said it was the greatest opportunity as it taught him how to deal with every type of personality and grow a tough skin. “They understand the difficulties of the day-to-day customer interactions of food service having experienced it firsthand,” Wanderlust Area Manager Tessa Barber said. “That plays a big role in how they run their business and how they treat their employees.” In 2015, Borlongan purchased a commercial gelato maker, bought textbooks and embarked on a sweet business odyssey. Lopez quit his profession as an attorney at the Agoura Hills office of worker’s compensation firm D’Andre Peterson Bobus & Rosenberg LLP, to join Borlongan on the Wanderlust venture. In 2015, Lopez and Borlongan originally set their sights on a Studio City site. However, their prospective landlord rejected their offer. That’s when their broker Brett Mero at Central Business Management found them a former Cold Stone Creamery storefront in Tarzana which had sat idle for eight years. The site came equipped with walk-in freezer, walk-in fridge and a gelato machine which Borlongan calls “the Ferrari of ice cream makers.” “It had everything we needed,” Lopez said. “We’re familiar with the Valley.” The Wanderlust couple went all in on their dessert concept, financing the store 100 percent out-of-pocket with no outside partners. Distribution will become the new frontier for Lopez and Borlongan going forward. Having gone trial and error in delivering containers from flagship to satellite shops, Lopez has been wary of scaling up too fast and diminishing product. However, he has since come to realize that this is unavoidable as the couple explores the most tasteful way to expand distribution with a minimum compromise of quality. “It’s becoming a real business, from manufacturing to distribution,” said Lopez, speculating that their growth plan may have to stop with the fifth store before requiring outside help. “It’s beyond what Adrienne and I can do for ourselves and we may need to take on a (distribution) partner.”

Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk is a managing editor at the Los Angeles Business Journal and the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. She previously covered real estate for the Los Angeles Business Journal. She has done work with publications including The Orange County Register, The Real Deal and doityourself.com.

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