Doug Quint doubts he'll ever pull out the stops for another grand store opening. It could only be anticlimactic. The 2011 launch of the first Big Gay Ice Cream shop, in New York City's East Village, "was so horrendous and perfect that there is no way we could come close to topping it," says Quint, as he reminisced about the roller-derby girl security team working the line; drag queen Ari Kiki pretending to filch a customer's baby; eight contrabassoonists performing the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Anthony Bourdain in priest's garb delivering a benediction.
"One little girl got into the store and was so excited that she peed herself," Quint says. "But everyone was in such good spirits. They were like, 'Oh honey, if you've got to go, go. Guys, can we get some paper towels?' It was clear that we had somehow developed an army."
June is Pride Month. It is also the 10th anniversary of Big Gay Ice Cream, a four-store chain in New York and Philadelphia with an unspecified number of new outlets in the hopper and pints available through major retailers up and down both coasts. (The company does not release its revenue. In summer it employs about 50 people.) Birthed in a food truck by Quint and Bryan Petroff (then a couple, now not), Big Gay Ice Cream was meant to be a lark, a bit of performance art, and a brief respite for Quint, who was coming off comprehensive exams for his doctorate of musical arts. To its founders' delight and bafflement, it has grown into one of the most distinctive and engaging ice cream companies since Ben & Jerry rode a cow to nationwide prominence.
From the beginning, Petroff shaped and fiercely guarded the company's brand, the source of much of its popularity. Colors pop; music bops. Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's wrote and performs the company's earworm theme song. The menu is awash in whimsy, like Ben & Jerry's but a titch naughtier. Half the fun is saying to the counterperson, "I'd like a Salty Pimp." (Injected with dulce du leche and enrobed with chocolate, that cone is named for the TV show Pimp My Ride, although the reference isn't obvious.)
Quint says Big Gay Ice Cream is not an LGBTQ brand so much as a brand that celebrates the humor, camp, and kitsch embraced by gay culture. The word "gay," he points out, refers to orientation but also to joy. Most people would describe the bold-colored stripes swirling up the company's cone logo as a rainbow. But technically speaking, it's not because the colors are--intentionally--in the wrong order. And yes, the flavor Dorothy--a mash-up of vanilla soft serve, dulce de leche, and crushed Nilla Wafers--nods to the coded term gay men used 60 years ago to privately identify themselves to one another. But other flavor names riff off a Neil Gaiman novel (Quint and Petroff created the pretzel-studded American Globs for the author when he visited their truck) and a Patrick Swayze movie (Rocky Roadhouse). So there's something for everyone.
"Our sensibility is much more Janis Joplin meets Duran Duran than it is gay bar," Quint says. "People come into our store and say, 'I can't believe I heard [the 1982 dance hit] "I Eat Cannibals" on your playlist!' That is where we find ourselves anchored."
At a time when companies wear their beliefs on their sleeves, Big Gay Ice Cream is pointedly nonpolitical. Its name is a chortle, not a challenge, although the occasional hater doesn't see it that way. Quint says that Westboro Baptist Church, a group that likes to use the word "sodomite" in press releases, once sent him a tweet asking if he'd make a giant ice cream cake with the message that marriage is between a man and a woman. "And I tweeted back, 'Sure I will. And we will give all the money to a human rights campaign,'" Quint says. "They never got back to me."
A small fraction of the LGBTQ community also has been critical. Quint says he occasionally hears from people who think the brand is a cynical marketing ploy. "That is completely kooky," Quint says. "There have been a couple of times when people have said, 'Oh, the owners aren't even gay.'"
But those are just a few sour notes in what is an overwhelmingly rapturous chorus. Amanda Spurlock, a senior content strategist at Google, has been talking up the brand since first visiting the truck 10 years ago. This year she celebrated Valentine's Day with her husband at a Big Gay Ice Cream store. Kathleen McGivney's husband loved the ice cream so much that for his 30th birthday, in 2009, she hired the truck to park outside their building and serve cones to party guests, whom she'd decked out in paper beards made by inverting the Big Gay Ice Cream logo. "I love their inclusiveness. It's all 'We love life and everyone is welcome here,'" says McGivney, a marketing professional. "The subtle sprinkling of Golden Girls references also appeals to me."
The happiest ice cream man
Quint and Petroff met in 2007 at an appearance by Charlotte Rae of The Facts of Life fame at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. Quint was a Julliard-trained freelance bassoonist. Petroff's education at the Art Institute of Chicago had naturally led him into corporate HR.
Winter: two years later. Quint was dreaming about the summer job he'd take if he survived exams at the City University of New York. Over the holidays he'd been inspired by "Santaland Diaries," David Sedaris's gaspingly funny account of his stint as an elf at Macy's. "I thought, I am not going to do a counter job," Quint says. "I am going to find something that will be a story that later I can laugh at."
Quint knew that a flautist friend had driven an ice cream truck part-time, a gig that seemed rich in comic-life-story potential. "I really liked the idea of being the happiest ice cream man I could possibly be," he says. The friend hooked him up with a company that rented out its ice cream trucks by the day for a cut of the proceeds. It also had a commissary selling soft-serve mix and cones.
It was Petroff who suggested sprucing up the menu. With virtually no food experience, the pair dove into kitchen table R&D. They bought vanilla ice cream, whipped it up a bit to simulate soft-serve, and experimented with toppings: extra virgin olive oil, wasabi pea dust, Sriracha. Bacon didn't work on cones, but it did in ice cream sandwiches.
Quint created a Facebook group so friends could follow their adventures. He decided to call it "Big Gay Ice Cream Truck" until he thought of something better--and soon realized there was nothing better. "People we didn't know started joining the group just because they laughed at the name," he says. Out on the street people took pictures of the truck and posted them to social media, sharing the joke.
The combination of social media, the relative novelty of specialty food trucks, the emergence of geolocation apps like Foursquare, and the recession (cones cost an affordable $3 to $6) kept business lively. Quint's people skills--Petroff was still largely occupied by his day job and so spent less time in the truck--also helped.
With the truck parked in Manhattan's Union Square, Quint bantered with all comers. For those addicted to heroin who were visiting a nearby methadone clinic, he would recommend butterscotch sundaes. ("When you use junk, you become hypoglycemic at a certain point in the high. A butterscotch sundae is the sweetest thing.") For those who chain smoked, he'd recommend chocolate with cayenne pepper, "because their taste buds were a little bit blown out."
Pints across America
Summer ended and with it, Quint and Petroff assumed, their careers as ice cream men. But Big Gay Ice Cream's social accounts kept attracting followers. "I remember saying on Twitter, 'Do you guys want me to keep tweeting during the winter while there is no truck, or would you rather that I just shut up?'" Quint says. "And there was a resounding 'No, no, no! Stay with us!'"
So in June 2010, the truck was back. A few months later Rachael Ray featured it on her show. "The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was about so much more than a cool and delicious dairy product," says Ray, who is still a customer. "It was about introducing people to totally new flavors in ice cream and changing a mindset about the LGBTQ community."
After the Rachael Ray appearance, Quint says, "things started getting absurd." Lines became almost unmanageable, and social media performed its usual multiplier effect. At the same time they were becoming local celebrities, the founders worried that food trucks, overall, might become a tired scene. Big Gay Ice Cream went in search of a home.
By New York City standards, the company's first store--in a former juice bar in the East Village--was cheap. It was small, so rent was low. Once Quint literally kicked down a counter and cut a sink out of the wall, the layout was good to go. Quint and Petroff bought a couple of ice cream machines for $20,000 each and upgraded the wiring for around $15,000. With rent and licensing, total costs barely exceeded $100,000. Savings plumped with loans from a few friends covered it.
The store was profitable from the start. Since then, the co-founders--together with third partner Jon Chapski, who joined in 2015 and actually knows something about the food business--have expanded into two more New York locations and one in Philadelphia. On hot days, lines still form down the block. Only one future location--on the Upper West Side--is definite, but Quint also anticipates planting outlets on the West Coast and in Boston and Chicago.
The founders aren't yet ready to franchise, which would stoke growth but also risk homogenization. "We try to make it feel like every shop we open belongs in that neighborhood and we didn't just drop in another Big Gay Ice Cream," Quint says. So for now the company--which, unlike such competitors as diet-minded Halo Top and New York neighbor Ample Hills Creamery, has never raised VC money--is taking a measured approach.
The company is more aggressive with its pre-packaged business, launched in 2017. Big Gay Ice Cream pints have colonized freezers in CVS, Vons, Safeway, Albertsons, Shaw's, and many other retailers. Pints cost around $5.99, which is slightly higher than premium ice creams like Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs but a frosty bargain compared with super-premiums like Van Leeuwen Artisan and Jeni's Splendid, which retail for more than $12.
The return of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck to Manhattan's streets is also possible. This time, though, Quint's face won't be the one behind the window. He has relocated to Illinois with his husband, although he still commutes to New York every other week.
That's OK by Quint, who can't imagine recreating the "sheer blinding magic" of that first summer in the truck. "For the rest of my life, I will have memories of that weird fantasy I lived out," he says. "I don't think a lot of people can say that."