June 29, 2022



How New York’s Van Leeuwen ice cream is blending into Houston’s local food scene

4 min read

Over the years, Houston has rightfully become a dining destination. The city has plenty of homegrown talent, but companies from thousands of miles away are starting to call it a second home, including a New York cult favorite ice cream shop.

Van Leeuwen started in 2008 in New York City with just one truck—a 1988 mail truck that co-founder and CEO Ben Van Leeuwen and his brother, Pete Van Leeuwen, found on eBay, painted yellow and converted to an ice cream truck. Along with co-founder Laura O’Neill, they began selling to the streets of New York, touting a product “with no unnecessary ingredients,” Ben said. It was certainly different from the strawberry shortcake bars he and Pete were slinging from Good Humor trucks during summers in Connecticut growing up. 

Now, 14 years later, the company has scoop shops in New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Connecticut and Texas. Houston was its first foray into Texas, starting with the Rice Village location that opened in May 2021. 

But how does a New York-based brand integrate itself into a place that doesn’t really pay mind to the trends up north? It’s simple, Ben says: You spend a lot of time getting to know that place and its producers, chefs and people over weeks before opening. 

“We want the new markets we go into to really understand that we’re not just throwing stores into a new market in an unthoughtful way,” Ben said. “We’re going into these new markets because we really, really like them.”

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Houston was an obvious choice for expansion. When Ben first visited the city in May 2020, one thing became immediately clear: “People like food here, and they have very good taste.” The Van Leeuwen team learned more about one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the U.S., and was attracted to its booming, ever-evolving energy, particularly in the food scene.

Chef Christine Ha's collaboration with Van Leeuwen, a Bananas for Cheese ice cream, is inspired by a childhood snack of hers.

Chef Christine Ha’s collaboration with Van Leeuwen, a Bananas for Cheese ice cream, is inspired by a childhood snack of hers.

Van Leeuwen Ice Cream

To better blend into Houston’s fabric, Van Leeuwen has brought some of the city’s most famous food personalities into the fold. Each time the brand opens a new shop in a city, it creates an exclusive scoop, highlighting a local producer or flavor—an easy task for Houston’s locations.

Van Leeuwen partnered with Houston’s Yellow Rose Distilling for a Yellow Rose Bourbon Pecan Pie ice cream when it opened its Rice Village location, and tapped local artist Donkeeboy to create a live mural at the grand opening celebration. Not long after, it was followed by a Hugo Ortega-created flavor—Horchata Dulce de Leche Swirl—for the opening of the Uptown Park shop in August 2021.

To commemorate the opening of its Montrose outpost in February, Van Leeuwen worked with chef Christine Ha of Xin Chao and The Blind Goat to create the flavor Bananas for Cheese, based on one of her favorite childhood snacks: Laughing Cow cheese and banana slices. Featuring a gouda and mascarpone base with banana jam and milk chocolate chips, it’s currently available at both of Ha’s restaurants. Ben says it’s one of the more unique flavors they’ve ever made.

Besides the chef partnerships and the weeks of research and visits, Ben also knows it’s important to come to a new place with humility, especially in a city like Houston. After all, there’s good food on every corner and Houstonians can sniff out inauthenticity quickly.

“There’s definitely fear [of]: Are we just gonna be seen as this bigger New York brand who’s swooping into this city that isn’t New York and just thinking that we’ll be great because we’re from New York? We never want it to seem that way,” Ben said.

Despite opening its first Houston shop during the pandemic, Ben says business is going great. Van Leeuwen is currently scoping out locations for two more scoop shops in Houston, where Ben is excited to continue exploring the growing dining scene. He’s gotten to sample many of Ortega’s restaurants, loves Candente, and recently celebrated his birthday at Bludorn. 

“There was this old mentality of: The only good food is in New York, the only good restaurants are in New York,” Ben said. “I think if any city right now proves that to be completely untrue, it’s Houston.”

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