Lots of people graduate from college unsure about what they should do next. Should they go to grad school? Get a job? What kind of job should they get? Should they intern at a few places to get a feel for different jobs or industries? For many people—particularly those that don’t graduate with majors that point to clear career paths—figuring out what they want to do after school can be a matter of trial and error as they find the path they want to ultimately take.
But Tori Wentworth isn’t most people. When she wasn’t sure what to do with herself after graduating from UC Berkeley with a philosophy degree, she decided she’d just start her own business and make a job for herself.
That kind of gumption might seem like a lot for someone who’s just three years out of out school, but in a way, she’s following in her family’s footsteps. Tori says that on her father’s side of the family, there are a lot of small business owners, and her father owned his own pharmacy for 25 years. So, whereas, starting a small business might not be the first thing that would occur to most people who aren’t sure what to do after school, it was for her.
The idea to start her own business also came in part from a trip Tori took to New York while she was still in school. The friend she was visiting happened to be a vegan, and he took her to a place called Lula’s Sweet Apothecary for non-dairy ice cream.
“It was such a cute little place, and he was like, ‘Isn’t it such a great idea?’ They had soft serve that they served with sprinkles, and it was so fun,” she said. “So then later when I graduated from college, and I wasn’t really sure what to do and I was like ‘what am I gonna do?’ and for some reason, I thought of [Lula’s] and thought ‘I should do that.’ So the day after my graduation ceremony, I went and got this silly, tiny 10-oz. ice cream maker and this book on non-dairy ice cream (which wasn’t very good)…and just starting going through this mad scientist project of figuring out how to make cashew milk-based ice cream.”
Over the past three years, Tori’s been putting together Curbside Creamery, which consists of both an ice-cream, which she takes to local food events and farmer’s markets, and now a small brick-and-mortar shop in Temescal Alley. She spent most of her first year researching ice cream flavors and the best ways to make both non-dairy and regular ice cream, she says. She also attended a 12-week business planning course at the Women’s Initiative to put together a business plan. Because building out a commercial kitchen is fairly cost prohibitive, she decided to rent commercial diary-specific kitchen space at Uptown Kitchen and then get a vending trike so she could sell ice cream sandwiches. (The cookies for her sandwiches are made by a woman she met at her Woman’s Initiative course.)
About a year ago, Tori put together a Kickstarter campaign to get a commercial grade ice cream machine. At the same time, she had been looking into trying to permanently park her vending trike at Temescal Alley, but that would have required a fast food vending license, which is a long and expensive process to get, she said. Then a space opened up in the Alley. She submitted a business plan for it, and got a space. Since she was still in the midst of her Kickstarter campaign, she redid her video to ask for funds for the shop space, which she’s been prepping to open since last summer. Between Kickstarter, loans and money she’s borrowed from her family, she’s been able to fund the shop, which she expects to open by the beginning of August.
In the meantime, Tori has been using taking the vending trike to events (like Bites Off Broadway), festivals and local farmer’s markets—she makes weekly appearances at both the Grand Lake and Temescal markets—and selling ice cream sandwiches. Legally only pre-packaged food can be sold from vending trikes, so the sandwiches are her staple item until the shop opens, at which time she’ll also be selling ice cream scoops, she says.
“The laws surrounding mobile vending here are extremely prohibitive,” she said.
Tori says part of what drew her to starting a food business is that she’d been working as a food server and barista for the past seven years. Since she had some experience and she’d been inspired by that ice cream shop, she thought an ice cream business was something she could do.
“It was just going to that shop, and it seemed like a fun thing to do and something that I was able to understand,” she said. “It was similar enough that it wasn’t something that would I would feel alien to how it would function, it’s actually extremely similar to a café, so I just decided to do it.”
Although she had originally planned to concentrate on the vegan ice cream, due to her cookie partnership with Little Ladybug Bakery, she decided to try dairy ice cream as well, which she says is far easier to make than vegan ice cream. However, since both types of ice cream can be made with very similar flavorings, it’s been easy to cross over and do both.
“It was a very easy transition for me from non-dairy. That was the big challenge for me was figuring out these vegan recipes from scratch. There’s a lot of good information about making dairy ice cream, but there’s not a lot of good information about making non-dairy,” she said.
For her vegan ice cream, Tori uses a cashew milk, which she makes herself, soaking the nuts for at least 8 hours then breaking them down and blending them using a Vitamix blender. She experimented with things like coconut milk, but says that when you use coconut milk, the flavor is so strong, it overpowers everything else you try to use. Cashew milk works, she says, because most other alternatives require thickeners or other additives to achieve an ice-cream like texture because the fat content isn’t high enough.
“Raw cashews have a mild flavor so you can kind of disguise the flavor underneath whatever else you put on top of it. It’s just a neutral flavor, so you can do things like coffee or chocolate. My goal is mimic actual ice cream so it’s giving the same experience,” Tori says. Again, the New York ice cream shop inspired her in this regard as well—she says that they don’t necessarily even advertise that their ice cream is non-dairy and it’s difficult to tell that it’s not.
She says that providing the vegan option has been very much appreciated by the local vegan community.
“As the word’s getting out that I have a good vegan option, which are really hard to find, I’ve been getting a higher and higher increase in people who are specifically interested in that,” she said. As a result, she’s gotten to do some vegan food events, where she tends to sell more than usual. As the shop gets up and running, Tori would like to get a soft-serve machine as well, where she can offer vegan soft serve.
Tori plans to offer approximately 12 flavors at one time at the shop, but currently is making 20 flavor varieties between the vegan and dairy offerings. Tori makes classic flavors because she prefers them to crazy ones—her most exotic flavors are tea-based (Earl Grey, chai, Thai iced tea), she says, and she offers a bourbon vanilla ice cream. She uses Straus dairy products for the dairy ice cream, cashews from Pacific Gourmet and then gets fruit from the farmer’s markets.
Tori’s family couldn’t be more proud that she’s also become an entrepreneur. Her dad, she says, helps her out with a lot of questions she has, such as deciding how to structure the business from a legal standpoint or for taxation.
“They’ve been really supportive,” she said. “They’ve been really excited. They like to come see what I’m working on and check up on it all the time,” she said.
What drew you to food?
I think it’s more just a matter of that’s what I’ve been working in for a long time. When it comes to businesses, I’ve spent so much time working in cafes as a barista that’s kind of what I know, so when I saw an idea for a shop, I was like ‘hey this is something I could do and something I understand.’ So I started making ice cream, and I did well at it and I’ve having a good time. Also, as far as food businesses go, ice cream seemed like a fun one. It’s dessert, so it’s kind of a happy themed thing, the hours are really friendly compared to cafes, I’m going to be open probably from 12-8, so it’s not a super early morning thing. And it’s fun. I spend a lot of time selling to kids and getting to interact with them and people’s families, and it’s a good, happy thing that people do together, so in that way it feels positive a lot of the time. I think it’s a lot less stressful than a full-scale restaurant. It’s a thing that people come to when they’re having a good time—it’s a treat.
Why ice cream?
Like I said, when I went to the place in New York, I thought it was cool and thought it was a good idea and thought it was something that would do really well in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of really good vegan ice cream options, and a lot of my friends in the Bay Area have been vegan, and I thought somebody should really do this, it would do well and people would really like it. That’s why I started with that. And serving people who are vegan is always fun because they’re always excited about new options that they can get, so they’re fun people to sell to. I already knew that from working in cafes for a long time, so I thought this would be good in Oakland and thought something like this would do really well. It just seemed like the right fit for the neighborhood, so I got started on it and thought I would give it a try. And, I’m a cyclist—for the last two years I’ve done bike racing in the fall, so doing it from the trike initially seemed like an obvious way to go. It was a lot easier and simpler and way more mobile. It strikes a good balance because it’s a lot easier than say a push-cart, like the ones that go around with the bells, but it’s also a lot easier to fit it anywhere, and it’s a lot cheaper than a food truck. So I started with the trike because it just seemed easier and then the shop just sort of was something I didn’t even think I’d be doing for a while, but it was just an opportunity that came up that seemed too good to pass up, so I decided to do the shop.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I’m into doing classic flavors. That’s personally my preference in ice cream—I’m kind of unimpressed with the savory flavor, crazy flavor things that we’ve been having going on in the Bay Area for a long time. I think it has a lot of novelty value, but personally I didn’t find that I enjoyed it that much, so my whole plan has been to do a very childhood, nostalgia, feel like you could walk up to [place], like a beach boardwalk. I really wanted to do an old-fashioned thing that was very kid friendly and all about having a good time and was a child-like enjoyment even if you’re not a kid anymore. I wanted to take the lessons of quality from the recent gourmet ice cream, but apply it to classic flavors and do the best of the basics, the classic ones that everybody really loves. I do strawberry and chocolate, and I also do tea flavors because I’m a big tea person, so I do Earl Grey, chai-type tea, and I’m going to do things like a malt with malt ball pieces. Just classic ones like coffee. I’ll probably do a cookies and cream. And I’ll probably do one sorbet at a time so there’s a seasonal fruit that someone can have. I also do cinnamon. The most unusual one that I’m going to do at the shop is a bourbon whiskey vanilla, which actually sounds a lot crazier than it really tastes. That’s my only super adult flavor right now. I just kind of do ones that everybody enjoys. I also do mint chip—that’s definitely one of my big sellers. I do it stratiacella style where I pour melted chocolate in as the ice cream’s coming out of the ice cream maker so it’s broken into little pieces. That’s been really good. I do the same thing with my double chocolate chip vegan. That’s definitely going to be one of my standbys.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten along the way in building the business and what advice would you have for others?
A lot of it, as far as building a brick and mortar shop like this, a lot of it’s just persistence with being organized because with food, it’s a lot of dealing with government. There’s a lot of permitting. I’ve had to deal with the state, county and city level, so it’s a lot of just going in day after day. If you need to get something done, show up the minute the office opens, so you don’t get stuck behind a big line. It’s just a lot of going in and asking questions over and over and over again and trying to get it all straight and get it all organized and try to do it right. Because I do see that if you mess up on stuff like that, it really comes after you as far as your permitting…it’s a lot of being on top of your permits and renewing things when you need to and getting your tax stuff in and keeping track of your expenses and making sure that you’ve got all your ducks in a row with all the different departments and things that you deal with so that you don’t end up dealing with thing like unexpected closures or delays due to those things. You really have to be willing to ask everything and go in over and over again.
Sometimes it’s hard—there’s just a lot of stuff you have to juggle. I usually have two different lists of things I have to do that I write out by hand that I have going at all times. I currently have a list of any given thing I’m trying to get done during the week and also a list of things that I still need for the shop. Before I can get the shop open I have to have every little thing so you can pass your health department check. So there’s a whole list of items I have to get like sanitizing buckets and dish soaps and chemicals and water cups for people to get water from and a cash register stand. All sorts of stuff like that are things I’m just checking off, down to the napkins and paper towels. I have to make sure I have all of that in order for my health department approval, so that’s the big thing that I’ve been working on recently, just making sure there’s nothing that I’m overlooking.
I think comparatively to a lot of people that start businesses, I’m a little different because I was someone who came more easily to it from the business side of it and then got into it and learned the food. I think in some ways that’s made it harder for me, but in a lot of ways it’s make it a lot easier for me because I see a lot of people that I’ve met along the way that are passionate about food, but they don’t have a mind for business. That makes it extremely difficult and very frustrating because the reality of it is that you spend a lot of time sitting in waiting areas in government buildings waiting to talk to people. If your dream is just to be in the kitchen that’s really going to frustrate you.
One of the first things that I’m going to be handing off is the ice cream production. It’s the thing that I’ve been doing the longest at this point, and I’ve already trained an employee that’s been working with me for a while, and he’s going to potentially take that over for me when unexpected things come up at the shop and I have to be here. I can’t always be in the kitchen, there’s just a lot of other things I have to watch out for and take care of. So I see people along the way, like in my Women’s Initiative class and working in a commercial kitchen, that sort of have a hard time with it if all they’ve every wanted to do is make food. Running a business, [food] becomes less than half of it. But that stuff doesn’t bother me. My strongest point is the organization and the motivation on getting things done and making sure I have everything lined up.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I would definitely say getting the shop open and all the organization that I’ve had to do on that. The landlords have been working on the building at the same time, so I’ve been trying to juggle building schedules between what they’re doing and what we’re doing. You run into every possible problem. Like there didn’t end up being as much power available as I expected, so I had to scrap the kind of water heater that I was going to use and find a different one—there’s just constant things like that that cause a lot of stress and a lot of delay and you just have to constantly be on top of it and be coming up with creative solutions. There’s just this hitch that you hit incessantly, and I’m trying to do this on a budget and in a really small space, so all of that stuff has been extremely challenging and there’s times that you just start losing hope and are like, ‘is this actually going to happen?’
I think that’s definitely been the hardest part. My part that I’ve always been feeling the most nervous about and that my job is never done at is flavors and making things. There’s always more flavors I could learn. I haven’t spent five years working in a fancy kitchen, I don’t come from a background of fine dining or anything. A lot of stuff with ice cream is really simple, but sometimes I do wonder ‘do I really know what I’m doing?’ It’s self-taught, so there’s always this insecurity of being self-taught, and it’s variable—there’s always a different way you that can do something so being willing to say ‘this is the way I’m going settle on and stick to it’ can be a bit hard sometimes. I spend a lot of time second-guessing myself, and I always change things if I find a better way to do it. It was ambitious of me to try to do this without a background in it!
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
A lot of it’s—the thing I’ve told myself along the way when I’ve been the most discouraged—everywhere that I’ve ever worked, no matter how much I like or don’t like my job, I always work extremely hard. I’m just one of those people. On days that I was working at cafes, just working my butt off, exhausted for $10 an hour, I was always just muttering to myself, ‘if I’m going to work this hard, I need to do it for myself.’ It’s sort of building your own thing, and really actually getting the rewards of your labor. Working hourly for someone, you don’t get anything extra for working harder—you might get a little bit, but in the end, working harder than someone else doesn’t really get you anything. At least that’s what I found is, your rewards are being reaped by someone else in the end. If you work really hard, you’re still making your hourly wage, so it’s nice to put all this effort in and all the stress, but now it’s my stress and it’s my effort and it’s my outcome. And you have some control over it. I get to set my hours, and I get to do the fun stuff like decide what my light fixtures are going to look like and what kind of people I want to work with and where I want it to be. So just getting to be the master of what you want to be and make decisions and see your effort see something that actually belongs to you rather than it just coming back in a paycheck week after week and not really more than that. I always ended up putting a lot of effort and care into where I worked and not really seeing an equal return on it.
Also, I never really wanted to work in an office, and I couldn’t really figure out what to do with myself. I think just the example with my family—‘oh, I don’t know what do with myself, I should just think of a business to start. I can do this, I work hard, I’m organized.’ That’s what I joke with my boyfriend about—‘I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to take the hardest possible route for myself.’ As far as effort and stress, I have a lot hanging over me. I have money that I have to pay back, I have people that I personally owe, a lot of decisions to make. And you’re constantly getting both helpful and extremely unhelpful feedback from people whether or not you ask for it, so it’s a lot of personal stress and feelings of failure and success constantly. It’s all falling on you, so if you do something bad it’s sort of feels really personal.
I guess I’ll do my two favorites that I’m selling from the trike—my favorite is I make cinnamon ice cream on snickerdoodle cookies, if there’s one that I personally end up eating, it’s that one. And also there’s one that I recently came up with, that I’m super happy with and it’s been extremely popular, is I make a double chocolate chocolate chip vegan ice cream on peanut butter cookies, and people are so excited about it, so that’s been really neat.
As far as selling in the shop, I really love the bourbon whiskey vanilla. It doesn’t actually have alcohol in it, you have to boil the alcohol out of the whiskey anyways because it keeps the ice cream from freezing. It’s kind of funny because people are like “can my kid have it?’ There’s more alcohol in vanilla extract. You have to boil it down, because it just doesn’t freeze—you could leave it in the ice cream maker as long as you want and it’s just liquid. That one is a little bit more of an interesting flavor, a little something extra, it’s a bit buttery and smoky tasting, and it’s not to me—as someone who doesn’t like really crazy flavors—it’s not crazy tasting at all. So, I’ve been really excited about that flavor, and it’s just one of the ones that I really like to eat. It’s like vanilla with a little something extra that’s really fun. And then my other favorite one as a scoop is I make a malted vanilla that I put bunch of malt powder in and I’m going to crush up malted milk balls in it, so it will be a malt with a crunch and that’s good.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
Oh, yeah, my place that I look up to and hold as the gold-star standard is Bi-Rite. Out of all of the nicer ice cream places, they’re not only not prohibitively expensive, which I appreciate, and they do a good product that’s not going to turn a lot of people away by just being out of their budget and also on the same note, they do some interesting flavors, but they don’t get any crazier than I think their honey lavender. A lot of the stuff they do is very classic, so it’s very approachable and people can come with their kid,s and it’s a lot of fun and their product is just spot on. They’re the only one in the Bay Area that I feel like has towed that line between being so gourmet that it feels exclusive or inaccessible to people—same with the price, you’re selling at a high enough price to cover the quality you’re putting into it but not making it inaccessibly expensive. And I feel like not a lot of places have pulled that balance as well as they have. I really respect that. And at one point when I had a lot of questions about stuff and I was trying to research ice cream makers, I just went to their info email and said ‘hey, I’m hoping to talk to one of the owners, I have a bunch of questions about stuff about ice cream makers and when things sell and how much things sell and some technical questions’ when I was in my Women’s Initiative class, and like five minutes later I got an email back from one of the owners and they were like ‘Fire away.’ I ended up asking her questions a number of times, and sometimes questions that I felt like were maybe a little too obvious, but she was always super nice about it and helpful, so that makes me like them even more that they were just so accessible and helpful about it.
I have their book, and then the David Liebovitz book, ‘The Perfect Scoop’ are my two favorite ice cream books. That’s one of the reasons I emailed them was in the intro of their book, it said that when they got their ice cream maker and they were going to open really soon and they didn’t know how to use it, they tried to get in touch with some other ice cream makers and they wouldn’t help them. They were like, ‘you’re competition now, we’re not going to help you.’ And I just thought that was ridiculous that they had to figure it out on their own, and that people were so competitive and unfriendly about it. As soon as I read that I was like, ‘I’ll bet they’ll help me.’ So sure enough, and they definitely stuck to what they wrote on that and were super helpful.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be
Actually that’s really easy. I would get Ethiopian food from Ensarro, the restaurant that’s by my house, I live near Lake Merritt. Not only am I completely obsessed with their food, I’m vegetarian, and Ethiopian is so great for vegetarians. The people that run it are my neighbors, and they’re super nice and I talk to them all the time, and I love going there. So I would definitely go straight for some gommen and ata-kilt from Ensarro. I just love that place—they people that own it and run it, they’re super nice to talk to. The same with La Bonita Taqueria, which is right by my kitchen, the people working their own it and I talk to them and they’re super nice and I talk to them about my business and I trade them ice cream for burritos and they’re always asking me how things are going –they’re some of my other favorites.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
As far as the food goes, I’m loyal to my Ethiopian food—I’m a big proponent of it!
Curbside Creamery’s Temescal Alley shop is slated to open August 1.
Photos courtesy of Tori Wentworth, Curbside Creamery.