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Eat and Drink

At iconic Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, it's about (40 years of) history

The beloved shop, powered by a customer base loyal to flavors from lychee to durian, has recently expanded.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been serving its

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been serving its Asian-inspired flavors - here, Edward Chen of Fort Lee, holds a cup of taro - since 1978. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

This is part of a summer series spotlighting NYC’s ice cream parlors and other cold treats specialists.

Christina Seid, who runs New York’s iconic Chinatown Ice Cream Factory with her father, Philip, says ice cream was just getting big in the U.S. when he decided to establish a place for it in his neighborhood in 1978.   

Now, the business has expanded to two new locations: the Lower East Side and Flushing. 

“The late '70s, Häagen-Dazs claims that’s when it created cookies and cream, so you can imagine how novel flavors like mango and green tea were.”

Seid explains the expansions were a careful decision. She never wants her family’s business to become so big that they aren’t personally involved and says she wants to preserve what her father built.

“No one at that time was doing flavored ice creams,” she says of the company's origins. “The late '70s, Häagen-Dazs claims that’s when it created cookies and cream, so you can imagine how novel flavors like mango and green tea were.”

Over the next 40 years, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory built a customer base that Seid says she doesn’t think is too common in New York City these days. 

“Our customers know us," she says. "There’s not a lot of places where you can say, ‘My grandma’s 100 now and when she was 60, we got her cake here. We’ve been around for so many memories for people, making those relationships, and it’s something very special.”

Those customer relationships come into play with CICF’s flavors. In addition to the varieties her father developed and Seid's own ideas, the family listens to customer suggestions. 

“That’s how the durian came about. We were very hesitant about the durian because it smells so bad," Seid says. "But because so many people love durian, we were forced to make it and it was a natural hit because so many people wanted it.”

The most popular flavors at the Chinatown location, she says, are the Asian flavors — lychee, green tea and sesame, to name a few. 

“On our menu board, we say the regular flavors are the lychee and the exotic flavors are the vanilla. It’s supposed to be a joke — people take pictures of the board all the time.”

Seid says recent opportunities to expand felt right. The Essex Market location came along first, and was a small, manageable location that Seid identified with.

“It was instant family with the vendors. They’ve all been there really long, like 35, 40 years … We didn’t want to go somewhere where we didn’t have that community.”

While waiting for the Essex Market to open, her friend bought a building in Flushing and was developing a food court. She encouraged Seid to bring CICF to Queens. 

“A lot of our customers are from the outer boroughs, so Flushing was an instant win,” she says. 

In Flushing, where the business is called the Flushing Ice Cream Factory, Asian flavors are also popular. On the Lower East Side, customers love the squid ink ice cream (born out of Seid's idea to interpret the black ice cream trend without using coconut ash, which can have adverse health effects) as well as the horchata and ube flavors. 

“My father taught me you can’t just make weird flavors; you have to make flavors that are unique but delicious," she says. "Even if it’s not your thing — like if you’re not into squid ink, it’s still delicious … We want to encourage people to expand outside of [their] palate.”

COOL FACTS

  • There are 40 flavors at the Chinatown location, a combination of staple flavors, seasonal flavors and specials.
  • The Essex Market and Flushing locations have the same specialty flavors as Chinatown, along with unique flavors made just for each of these new outposts.
  • Fans of old school ice cream, take note: CICF is planning to revive flavors developed at the Chinatown location that they no longer carry (due to limited space), as a fun throwback. Think cherry pistachio and coffee brandy.
  • Many of CICF’s toppings are candies the business sold back when it was half candy store. Seid says most customers don’t feel the need to go crazy with toppings because the ice cream is so good on its own, but these candies are a fun little kick of nostalgia.
  • Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is located at 65 Bayard St. in Chinatown, 135-15 40th Rd. in Flushing, and 115 Delancey St. on the Lower East Side. For more info, visit chinatownicecreamfactory.com.

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