As customers walk up to the counter and peer through a glass window, they watch as an ice cream crafter fills a silver bowl with cream, sugar and fresh ingredients like strawberries and real vanilla beans. They pour the liquid nitrogen into the machine as they turn it on and the misty vapor spills out over the edges, spreading past the customers eagerly awaiting a taste.
For Gilbert Welsford and Sandra Tran, their involvement with liquid nitrogen ice cream started off like most businesses do — with just an idea. Nicecream, an ice cream shop founded by the two JMU graduates and college sweethearts, cranks out liquid nitrogen ice cream with locally sourced ingredients.
While at JMU, Welsford, a business management major, and Tran, who studied marketing, both managed to start new clubs at the university: Tran started the Madison Advising Peers, and Welsford started the Society of Entrepreneurs. After they graduated in 2012, Tran went on to work in Washington, D.C., while Welsford worked in Philadelphia at his startup company, Genetic Production. During their long-distance relationship, Welsford visited Tran on weekends and enjoyed going to new restaurants in the area. With food being a big part of their lives, they’d frequently share different places they found.
“One night, we were talking on the phone, and she was telling me about this ice cream truck that she had been to in California that was made with liquid nitrogen,” Welsford said. “It just so happened, that same week, I also learned about making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.”
Since she was young, Tran dreamed of opening her own dessert bar, and one of her favorite hobbies has been making ice cream from different recipes. Welsford, whose company deals with liquid nitrogen, suggested they try to create her ice cream recipes with liquid nitrogen instead.
“We made it in her parents’ kitchen,” Welsford said. “We [thought] it was cool and created a really great product. We had a friend ask us to see if we could make a big ice cream batch at an event of theirs, and we said sure.”
After making their new recipe for a friends’ event, the two decided they could create a business out of it and began to research other ice cream companies’ methods. One of the things they noticed was that each company used a paste extract to develop its flavors. But after they tested it out themselves, Welsford and Tran decided they wanted to do it their way.
The couple started off by making strawberry ice cream with paste, but the end product wasn’t ideal. They decided to try the same recipe but with real strawberries.
“We tried it, and it was like night and day — it was the best thing,” Welsford said. “We threw away all the sample paste that we had ordered, and from that day forward, we decided that we would make our ice cream with real and fresh ingredients.”
The duo created their perfect recipe and went on to sell their product at more events. Tran quit her job to spend more time with the ice cream business. Their product was showcased at seven farmers markets, several pop-up shops and 50 retail locations. They hoped it would catch the eyes of potential retail landlords.
While branching out, someone asked them if they wanted to sign a one-year lease in a frozen yogurt shop that went out of business. With this being their only opportunity to get into retail space, they took the offer. It soon became the home of their first store in Clarendon, Virginia. On their menu, available flavors range from salted caramel to milk chocolate chunk. The couple had to find a way to turn small batches of ice cream into large ones. Once they built their operations and processes, they found a way to make the ice cream on the spot.
The recipe begins with locally sourced milk, cream and cane sugar base from a small family creamery which blend with natural ingredients such as strawberries or basil. Once mixed, they pour in liquid nitrogen and it freezes the ice cream right in front of customers.
Laura Nockett, the director of operations, came to the company after being attracted to the idea of nitrogen ice cream. At the time, she was looking for a more creative job and ended up applying to be a crafter — a worker who makes and serves the ice cream.
“I went there the first weekend they opened, and it was the best ice cream I’d ever had,” Nockett said. “The whole process of making the ice cream in the mixers with liquid nitrogen and how fresh the ingredients were — it was really cool to me, and I could see why people loved it.”
Nicecream now has three additional locations; one in Old Town, Alexandria, and two in D.C. It’s been featured on the news for National Ice Cream Day and on USA Today for their different take on ice cream.
“Nicecream is something that we don’t even know that people recognize our emblem and recognize who we are,” Welsford said. “It’s super rewarding because we’re able to go on vacation together and to see that we created this life together — literally out of an idea — that’s something that we’re so lucky to be able to say.”
Contact Talia Davis at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.