While most ice cream eaters find themselves simply choosing between mint chocolate chip or French vanilla, rainbow sprinkles or melted caramel, Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff spend their days wondering if steak would work as a topping and how to best recreate the taste of Cheetos on an ice cream cone.
The pair are the men behind Big Gay Ice Cream, the popular truck-turned-shop that has taken the country by storm with three locations between New York and Philadelphia, and retailers from Maine to California.
And on Oct. 25, Quint and Petroff opened their fourth store at 207 Front St. in the South Street Seaport District.
A Juilliard-trained classical bassoonist, Quint found himself in May 2009 with yet another summer off during music’s slow season. Rather than gallivant between different festivals or spend the warmer months sweltering in the New York City heat, he decided that he would get a summer job — nay, a summer experience. “I love talking to people, and I love oversharing, and I love food,” Quint says, so when a friend offered him the chance to drive and operate an ice cream truck, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“I wanted to put a sign on it that said ‘Big Gay Ice Cream Truck,’” he says, explaining that the name came from a Facebook group he and Petroff had started years earlier. To Quint’s surprise and delight, the truck’s owners were completely on board.
The truck began by selling traditional soft-serve ice cream, akin to Mister Softee or New York Ice Cream. It wasn’t until Petroff suggested they do something interesting with the menu that Big Gay started experimenting with unexpected toppings.
In the beginning, the ice cream truck business was just for fun, and the partners simply “wanted to make ice cream as happy as possible again.” But with flavors like “Salty Pimp” — vanilla ice cream with dulce de leche, sea salt and a chocolate-dipped shell — and the “Golden Girls”-inspired “Bea Arthur” (now called the “Dorothy”)— vanilla soft serve topped with dulce de leche and crushed vanilla wafers — the truck quickly attracted a huge following. “After the first summer, I realized I better learn a hell of a lot about ice cream!” Quint laughs.
Dairy Queen in Drag
“The food truck really took the place of music for a while,” the co-owner explains, and by 2011, Big Gay Ice Cream was opening its first brick-and-mortar store in the East Village. It was here that the shop stopped using commercial ice cream and began making its own. They now have a catalog of about 30 flavors that cycle in and out, including seasonal flavors like this week’s “Candy Corn” and “Pumpkin.”
Despite interesting ice cream options, though, Big Gay is focused on toppings, many of which are used in tandem with the creative flavors to create treats like “American Globs” — a Neil Gaiman-inspired cone of vanilla soft serve topped with dark chocolate pretzels and a chocolate dip that freezes before your very eyes.
Quint, who admittedly handles much of the experimentation, even developed a Cheetos flavor over the summer. “Cheat-Oh’s,” as the shop went on to call it, “was done as a goof,” he says. “The idea was an exercise to see if I could make something that tasted like Cheetos” (a snack that he doesn’t even particularly like), “but I never intended for it to go beyond my kitchen.” When friends sampled the new treat, though, they loved it and encouraged Quint and Petroff to sell it at their stores, which by then included West Village and Philadelphia shops, in addition to its original East Village location. The flavor was a big hit, and the rest is yummy history.
Quint explains that most of Big Gay’s menu items start as challenges to himself, noting that he has a whole notebook of failed experimentations. “Sometimes, you need the failures,” he says.
As for the ice cream company’s signature Big Gay branding and unicorn mascot, Petroff is the visionary behind the rainbow cone. With a background and training in art, the “intellectual” half of the business, as the partners see it, has been in charge of the visuals from day one. “He’s always known what the look of Big Gay Ice Cream should be,” says Quint. “The success of our branding is all Bryan’s fault.”
Big Gay problem?
Despite its continued success, the business has not been without its detractors. From the sparkling unicorn that graces its West Village shop’s window to its very name, Big Gay Ice Cream is undeniably linked to queer identity. Unsurprisingly, New York embraced the brand, but as they expanded to the grocery store aisles of rural New England and the Midwest, the partners would occasionally hear from some who took issue with the ice cream company. After almost 10 years in the biz, though, “What could you possibly say to throw us off?” Quint says.
But the Big Gay team has often been nicely surprised by the reactions they’ve received from pint customers, including those in areas with almost nonexistent gay populations. The ice cream brand has also used its gay embrace to aid the LGBTQ community. A pillar during Pride Month events around the country, the shop has also collaborated with brands like Gap and has held clothing drives for the Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth.
Because Big Gay began as a fun hobby, it was never intended to be a political statement, the co-owner explains. “We were just going to spend one summer doing what we want.” Now that the ice cream brand is their business, though, Quint and Petroff are aware of the power and responsibility they hold and don’t just do every little thing that occurs to them. “We’d probably be out of business if we did,” says Quint, “because we’re pretty crazy!”
South S(w)eet Seaport
Big Gay Ice Cream had a grand opening Thursday, Oct. 25, at its Front Street outlet.
“I’ve lived in New York since 1989, and I remember going to South Seaport and hating it,” says Quint, referring to the strip mall that occupied the area before it was destroyed by superstorm Sandy. Upon returning to the district in recent years, though, Quint discovered that it was “really happening.” Big Gay hosted a pop-up shop in the seaport in 2017 and saw great success, so a third New York location in the area seemed fitting.
It has long been a trend for Big Gay to give each store a unique vibe. “We don’t like for our shops to look the same,” says Quint. “We like to reflect their surroundings.” So, for the harbor-adjacent South Street Seaport location, it was a given to follow a seaside theme. “It feels like ice cream right off the boardwalk,” the co-owner notes of the considerably large new space. The shop even has its own mascot, a very happy narwhal who’s painted on the back wall.
The location will have special flavors all the time, like “The Mermaid” — vanilla soft serve topped with key lime curd, pie crumble and whipped cream.