New Orleans is the birthplace of a cocktail named for deadly tropical storms -- the hurricane; a sandwich named for customers too broke to afford a more elaborate lunch -- the po-boy; and, most recently, an ice cream flavor that takes its name from the incendiary public comments of a local politician.
That last one would be "Chocolate City," a rich chocolate ice cream complete with white chocolate flakes and available in your local grocer's freezer. The name, of course, is a reference to Mayor Ray Nagin's much ballyhooed speech about the racial makeup of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But in the hands of the two entrepreneurs behind New Orleans Ice Cream Co., it is also a marketing tool that leaves no question as to the provenance of their product.
Formed last year, New Orleans Ice Cream Co. makes ice cream with New Orleans attitude -- products that appeal to the palate with strong flavors but also pack a strong sense of local identity, a cultural terroir of something that could only come from New Orleans. The company's bestselling variety is Creole Cream Cheese, a flavor like sour vanilla that is practically unknown outside the New Orleans area. The coffee ice cream is made with chicory, just like a good cup of caf au lait.
"We're not exactly the people who invented ice cream," says Adrian Simpson, who formed the company with business partner Alan Dugas. "Our idea was to come out with some unique flavors and make them better than anyone else."
Simpson and Dugas got together before Katrina with the idea of making their own ice cream. But it was only after the disaster -- and the surge of consumer interest it produced for distinctively local products -- that they saw the potential for a brand and a line of flavors revolving around New Orleans.
Simpson, who is originally from Liverpool, England, comes to the business with a marketing background, including work with New Orleans Coffee Co., the makers of Cool Brew coffee concentrate. Dugas is a New Orleans native who has worked in the commercial food business for three decades, most recently as the regional sales manager for Borden Dairy. But they both sound like microbrewers when they start discussing their process of testing and tinkering with recipes, going through batch after batch at their small Tchoupitoulas Street plant to fine-tune the flavors.
Usually, the recipe development process comes down to doubling or tripling the initial amount of key ingredients, like the crushed pralines frozen into their Praline Crunch or the Northshore-grown strawberries in their Ponchatoula Strawberry. The recipes are straightforward, with only a handful of different ingredients, and each variety screams of the promised flavor. Try the Coffee & Chicory ice cream and you don't just taste the coffee, you feel it as a minor caffeinated jolt.
"We're a New Orleans company and people will support that and give you a shot, it's a great culture like that, but if it's not good they're not going to buy it again," says Simpson.
Still, the name of the company, its stylized fleur de lis/ice cream cone logo and the local theme of its flavors have proven powerful tools for getting the new venture off the ground. Dugas says local grocers embraced the product right away, agreeing to stock it based on the appeal of the brand name alone.
"We didn't even have any ice cream to let them sample at first, we just brought in the packages to show them what we were doing," he says. "They liked it because no one was giving them new local products."
When ice cream was ready in October, the first batch went to Langenstein's grocery store. Without any initial promotion beyond the products' own packaging -- designed locally by Lon Toncrey and Dylan Wagner -- shoppers cleared the freezer out of the stuff in a weekend.
"That was the sign we needed that this could work," says Dugas.
Other local grocers responded quickly and the ice cream was soon being stocked in large locally owned outlets like Dorignac's and Breaux Mart in Jefferson Parish and corner stores like Terranova Bros. Superette in Faubourg St. John. Dugas and Simpson have recently struck deals with national supermarkets, and now New Orleans Ice Cream is available in area locations of Sav-A-Center and Whole Foods Market, which has also begun stocking the products in some of its Texas stores. Simpson and Dugas are also hitting the local festival trail and will have booths at the Chase Zoo-to-Do and the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience in May and the Voodoo Music Festival in October.
The company makes six flavors now, but the partners say plenty more are on the way. Next up will be White Chocolate Bread Pudding and Bananas Foster. This summer they plan to roll out their first sorbets, including one made from local satsuma oranges. By the next holiday season, they hope to introduce flavors inspired by local cocktails, with ice cream versions of the hurricane and Sazerac.
"We want our flavors to have a local connection, something that says New Orleans to people," says Simpson "And we're lucky because where else can you have this many possibilities?"
Even the packaging for New Orleans Ice Cream has a local appeal. Dugas and Simpson contracted Giacona Corp., the Jefferson-based maker of plastic Mardi Gras cups, to manufacture its 18-oz. ice cream tubs. Anyone who has used and reused a cup caught on a parade route will recognize a familiar durability.
"We wanted people to be able to recycle these little pots, and now we hear people are putting their jambalaya and left over portions of gumbo in them," says Simpson. "Whenever they open their fridge they're seeing New Orleans Ice Cream in there."
In New Orleans kitchens, at least, that might just count as supreme product placement.
You can find them online at www.neworleansicecream.com.