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Brooklyn Eats features women ice cream makers, their stories and the flavors they inspired

Pooja Bavishi, founder of the artisanal ice cream company Malai, likes to compare the struggles of launching her business with those of navigating New York City in the rain.

Getting rejection after rejection, "it’s like you’re walking through these puddles, you can’t get a simple errand done, and you can’t get a cab," she said. Then you score a win, or a Lyft, "and you're driving across a bridge and you see this amazing city. There's something about that that makes it all worthwhile."

Bavishi is one of at least three women ice cream makers and entrepreneurs promoting their sweet wares Friday at Brooklyn Eats, the borough's largest food and drink trade show.

Like the borough that incubates their growing businesses, Bavishi, Hannah Bae of Noona's Ice Cream and Shelly Marshall of Island Pops offer diverse flavors. Their frozen desserts tap vastly different heritages and memories for inspiration — from a childhood in Trinidad's capital to post-college years in a Korean-American household in Queens — but they all transcend cultural boundaries, they said.

The themes of their working lives also align: the centrality of family, the chance to pivot the course of the careers and the hustle that transformation entails.

Here are their stories and their flavors:

Hannah Bae: Noona's Ice Cream

Her story: Hannah Bae, 29, was a manager
Photo Credit: Janice Chung

Her story: Hannah Bae, 29, was a manager at an electrical contracting business with plans of getting a master's degree in social work before she launched her ice cream business at the Hester Street Fair last summer.

Noona's Ice Cream takes its name from the Korean word for "big sister," a role that Bae has always taken seriously. The Korean-American Queens native prepared most of her family's traditional meals at home since high school, and she grew passionate about cooking after college.

"I noticed that I loved it so much because it was just making my family closer and making them happy, and especially my younger brother," Jonathan, she said. Jonathan, who is 10 years her junior, would rush home from his friends' homes when she called to tell him she was frying up his favorite pork katsu, she recalled.

Bae ultimately focused her enthusiasm for food on ice cream because, she said, "People always get happy when there's good food, but ice cream brings out a different kind of joy in people."

At Hot Bread Kitchen, a culinary incubator, Bae began crafting flavors that tapped into her Korean heritage while speaking to customers' own taste memories. Her most popular, a toasted rice flavor, takes its inspiration from a crunchy Korean rice snack called nooroongji, but customers say its sweet, nutty and slightly salty savor reminds them of everything from their mom's rice pudding to burnt marshmallows.

"That's the thing that I love when I share it with other people -- that they can connect it to something they grew up with, even though it's a dish that I grew up with in my Korean-American household," said Bae, who prepares her ice cream with sustainable grass-fed dairy from Pennsylvania.

After completing her program this spring, the newly minted confectioner graduated from hawking scoops at fairs and pop-up events around the city to handing out samples at Brooklyn stores, like Union Market, that stock and sell pints of Noona's for anywhere from $8 to $12.

"It's pretty much a one-woman operation right now," said Bae, who currently works out of another ice cream producer's facility and makes deliveries with her own car.

Her next steps: expanding into stores in Queens and exploring long-distance shipping. Eventually, she hopes to establish a mentorship program for employees looking to launch their own food businesses.

Her flavors: toasted rice; black sesame; golden sesame; "Sweet as Bae," a cinnamon-ginger ice cream with Anjou pear sauce, which takes after a traditional Korean punch; strawberry perilla, a strawberry flavor into which crystallized Korean mint leaves are folded; and "Little Miss Sunshine," turmeric ice cream with Korean-style honeycomb.

Shelly Marshall's (and Khalid Hamid's) Island Pops

Her story: When Shelly Marshall caught the chikungunya
Photo Credit: Shelly Marshall

Her story: When Shelly Marshall caught the chikungunya virus from a mosquito bite on a trip to her native Trinidad, all she craved from her sick bed in Bed-Stuy was some soursop fruit ice cream -- just like the rich, creamy stuff her favorite vendor in Port of Spain sold.

So Hamid did the only thing he could do: he bought an ice cream machine and a pound of fresh soursop and made his frozen dessert.

The result wasn't exceptional, but it did inspired Marshall to enroll in a 7-day ice cream manufacturing course at Penn State. If Brooklyn was void of Caribbean ice cream, she would fill that gap.

Marshall and Hamid, both 35 now, started buying Caribbean fruits from a local supplier who shipped them frozen from Grenada, Barbados and Trinidad on a weekly basis and making ice cream for friends and family members.

Their soursop flavor, which some say tastes like a fusion of strawberries, pineapple and banana, was a crowd favorite. "People love it because it reminds them of everything we eat in Trinadad, from soursop punch to soursop lollies," Marshall said.

The couple's venture into the ice-cream making business accelerated after it won the Brooklyn Public Library's PowerUP Business Plan competition in 2015, bagging $15,000 in capital.

"We didn't expect to get as much exposure, and because of that the hardest part has been scaling up," said Marshall of the victory. The senior consultant at Deloitte and her husband prepare their products -- ice cream, ice pops and snow cones -- on weeknights from 8 p.m. to as late as 1:30 a.m. at Brooklyn FoodWorks kitchen. They use an industrial ice cream maker, but they make and package their pops by hand.

Island Pops currently has two main revenue streams: local sales and deliveries and carnival catering. Hamid, who quit his job as a social worker to run the company full-time, bikes around Brooklyn to make free deliveries of pints ($9) and pops ($3 to $5). (The company charges $8 for out-of-borough deliveries.) The husband-and-wife team also produces alcoholic popsicles for carnivals in several East Coast cities and Trinidad, where the six brothers between their two families help out with deliveries.

"We're quite a big family of Hamids and Marshalls working together to build up this brand," said Marshall, who described her husband as the face of Island Pops. "People just see my husband and they never really see me, because I'm in the back end, and we just had a baby," the new mom said. ("Trust me, you do not want to be pregnant in the summer while building an ice cream business.")

Marshall has a lot on her plate for the coming months, on top of raising seven-month-old Eli. Island Pops is changing its packaging and launching deliveries in platforms like UberEATS and Goldbely, to expand its reach beyond the Caribbean community in Brooklyn and city foodies in search of the next exotic edible. A deal with Angostura Bitters, to produce an alcoholic pop with their proprietary rum is on the horizon, too, and Marshall hopes to establish her company's very own kitchen by next summer.

Her flavors: soursop; coconut; molasses; passion fruit cake; and sapodilla fruit, which tastes like a mix of brown sugar and root beer

Pooja Bavishi's Malai

Her story: Pooja Bavishi, 33, almost scrapped the
Photo Credit: Pooja Bavishi

Her story: Pooja Bavishi, 33, almost scrapped the flavor that would become her customers' favorite before she launched her small-batch artisanal ice cream company.

"I didn't think people would be receptive to a rose-flavored ice cream," said Bavishi, who created her rose with cinnamon roasted almonds flavor based on the Indian desserts she ate as a child.

It now sells out at Smorgasburg every week.

"I think Brooklyn is a great place to try those flavors out. I think the Brooklyn crowds are really, really adventurous -- they're game to try anything," Bavishi said.

Bavishi is ready to test their boundaries as she works to level up ice cream on the dessert playing field.

As a student at the NYU Stern School of Business, the former urban planner saw an opportunity in the dessert market: as donuts and Belgian wafels were migrating into high-end markets, ice cream had remained relatively convention.

Bavishi believed in the frozen dessert's star quality: "It doesn't have to be the sidekick," she said.

Encouraged by her parents to launch the dessert company she'd been dreaming about since her childhood days in North Carolina, she launched Malai in 2015. Figuratively, the name translates from a Northern Indian language to "cream of the crop."

While Bavishi sells one authentically Indian flavor her parents adore, sweet milk, the rest are "higher-end twists on all of these global flavors that haven't been tapped into the ice cream sense yet," she said.

Like Bae, she says they reach across cultural boundaries.

"What I think is so cool is that ...a lot of people when they try our ice cream, they have their own reference point," said Bavishi, who remembers one customer comparing Malai's orange fennel flavor -- inspired by an Indian palate cleanser -- to a dish her grandmother used to prepare in Italy.

While the frozen confectioner, who makes her product by hand at the same Brooklyn kitchen as Marshall, loves selling her product to customers directly for $5 a cup at fairs like Smorgasburg, she's moving into the brick-and-mortar and online retail sector, charging $11 a pint. Bavishi also has a summer pop-up in the works, she said.

Her mom is determined to lend a scooping hand in that endeavor, though her parents still live in North Carolina.

"With these new opportunities coming, my mom asks me every single day, so when should I book my ticket, because you're going to need extra help," Bavishi said.

Her flavors: masala chia; rose with cinnamon-roasted almonds; sea salt vanilla; orange fennel; masala chai; salted browned butter pecan; Turkish coffee


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