Sweet Phoenix: How the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory Survived 9/11 and Became a Success Story
Published on February 22nd, 2012 | by Charu Suri
4 Sweet Phoenix: How the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory Survived 9/11 and Became a Success Story
If you were to ask Mark Thompson about the grand opening of his store, the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, he would have envisioned it completely different from what actually transpired.
He took a chance on where he opened the store, for starters. The former fireboat house building needed a fresh coat of paint, and complete renovations from tail to toe. “For years, this part of New York was considered the rock bottom,” he told a group of bloggers who visited the store on a trip. “From Red Hook all the way to Greenpoint, this was not the place people wanted to visit.”
The fact that Thompson took a chance on the old ferry terminal says a lot about his vision and chutzpah. As Brooklyn’s DUMBO area transitioned over time, it became well known for its water purification system. In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration started the water purification laws in the country, and New York “was really the last port to develop its water,” says Thompson.
But today, DUMBO is well known for the quality of its water. So well known, in fact, that it’s what sets apart Thompson’s ice cream from the pack (among technique, excellent freezers and impeccable maintenance). This space was landmarked in the late 1970s and when it became available they were starting to unite the waterfront property in New York City. It was originally a fireboat house station, and then a firehouse. Since the city was in dire financial straits in the 1970s, they chose to close the fire station and that particular building was scheduled to be knocked down. “It was the same people who sought to build in the middle of Brooklyn Heights that kept this open,” says Townsend.
So he purchased the building but did not open it to customers until 2001 since it took him four years to go through the permitting process to get a landmark for the business. “There were a lot of people who were upset that someone was going to open a business and make money on –God forbid –a city property,” he says.
Thompson’s grand opening was supposed to be on Sept. 12, 2001. “I gave away ice cream that Labor Day, we put a card outside, I said just give me two or three days to call it a grand opening on Sept. 12th.”
After the September 11 tragedy, Thompson’s dream seemed to fizzle into thin air. That particular area had so many Red Cross workers and the office of Emergency Management –which was in the Trade Center–set up in a building there (this has now been knocked down). “It’s hard to explain…business wise, I was a nervous wreck,” says Thompson. “But when such a tragedy happens it puts everything into perspective. Here I am selling ice cream.”
So he did the right thing to do. He started giving away ice cream to those who wanted it. “I saw the strangest thing that happened to my business,” he says. After 9/11, no media outlet was writing anything good about the area. It was- -understandably–such drastic news. Because of his sweet spot story, Thompson had a slew of media attention, from The New York Times to Food & Wine Magazine who all wanted news stories.
The fact that Thompson had a sweet spot and a sweet story in the middle of all this mess helped him rather than hindered him. While he couldn’t “officially” open in September, he kept thinking that he should still go ahead with the store opening in October. “From October 15, 2011 till today, it’s been on an uphill swing ever since.” It was a nice little “engine that could” story in a bad time and I’m so thrilled it all worked out for him.
It ended up working out for Thompson and today the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is well known and well loved, serving eight varieties of Ice Cream that don’t pretend to be anything fancy. So you won’t see any Chunky Monkey or Rocky Road combinations but the friendly staff can create anything you want out of their staples of strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan and other flavors.
Thompson’s goal was never to do anything too fancy. He wanted to make “Classic American-style flavor” ice cream, and he chose the eight flavors and has not had to change them once since the opening. 60 percent of his sales come from vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (70 percent of ice cream sales in the U.S. are vanilla ice cream—-if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). “If you can’t make vanilla right, don’t try to make 50 or 60 other flavors,” he says. He’s got a point. If the foundation is solid, people will come.
His vision was of creating a place that was classic and tried and true, using the best ingredients and techniques. I tried the Chocolate Ice Cream on a Waffle Cone and I was taken by the real, genuine creaminess and the lack of any preservative or artificial sugar taste at all. This was genuinely good stuff.
A true “phoenix rising from the ashes” story.
The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory has two locations:
Brooklyn Heights (718) 246-3963
Greenpoint (718) 349-2506
The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory was a former firehouse
The group of bloggers who went to the Ice Cream Factory
The very hip, very retro entrance
Mark Thompson, owner of the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, originally scheduled the store to open on 9/12/2001
I so want this sign in my house!
“As Healthy as Chocolate Gets” sounds good to me
Who doesn’t love hot chocolate and waffle cones?
Everything is better with chocolate ice cream!
Even Maria from The Culturist thinks so…