Neal Gottlieb doesn’t understand why people like mint ice cream.
“It’s like eating toothpaste,” he says.
That might be one of the few things Gottlieb doesn’t get about ice cream, though. After all, as the founder of Three Twins, he’s pretty much a self-made expert.
We recently sat down with Gottlieb over a couple of pints (beer, not ice cream) at Mad Dog in the Fog to discuss San Francisco’s exploding ice cream scene, his decision to open a scoop shop in the Lower Haight, and his company’s sweet, sweet plans for the future.
Gottlieb, a New Jersey native, didn’t exactly set out to become a California ice cream mogul.
He earned his undergraduate degree in Consumer Economics and Housing from Cornell University in 1999, then moved to San Francisco to work at GAP. He spent a couple of years at the company, working his way into a role in finance, but eventually realized that he wanted to strike out on his own.
So, he quit.
An eight-month stint at the Peace Corps in Morocco followed, after which Gottlieb returned to California with the goal of starting some sort of green business.
He considered going to business school – even taking the GMATs and applying to several schools — but ultimately decided instead to devote the money he would have spent on tuition to launching a company.
Initially, Gottlieb didn’t have a specific business idea in mind. But he knew he wanted to accomplish three specific goals.
“One, to not go broke,” he laughs. “Two, to make good, organic stuff accessible to people. And three, to build a major national brand.”
Note: no mention of a lifelong passion for ice cream.
“I had never made ice cream in my life before starting Three Twins,” he says.
It just so happened that an organic food business, and specifically ice cream, fit all of Gottlieb’s criteria.
So he began fleshing out the idea while staying in San Rafael with this twin brother Carl and Carl’s fiancé Liz (who herself is, coincidentally, a twin). With the help of a business planning class, he wrote a plan for an organic ice cream company. Gottlieb dubbed it “Three Twins” after his supportive household.
Despite the tribute, though, he’s the only one actually involved in the company.
The Early Days of Three Twins
The first Three Twins scoop shop opened in August of 2005 in San Rafael – “a terrible location,” Gottlieb says.
He calls the location “terrible” because it’s on a relatively quiet street far from the 101. Not to mention the fact that between the freeway and Three Twins lies Silbermann’s – a beloved ice cream shop that’s been in the neighborhood since 1966.
So, why’d Gottlieb choose the location?
“I had looked around the Bay area for a retail space for over six months, but considering my limited financial resources and complete lack of ice cream experience, I wasn’t exactly a hot commodity for landlords to rent to,” he says.
“I ultimately found the space by offering friends a year of free ice cream for finding a space for me. When presented with the space in April 2005, I felt that it was more important to get into the business than to wait around and hope that a better space would become available.”
At first, Gottlieb was the shop’s only employee. As such, he was responsible for the shop’s entire operation – scooping the scoops, mixing flavors, cleaning the toilet – everything. Not to mention marketing, seeking investment, etc.
But a one-man operation can only last for so long.
“The first hire came because I had to go to a friend’s wedding in October 2005,” he says, explaining how he ended up with his first employee, Lara.
“It was only in the Presidio, and only for the last few hours that the shop was open, but I felt like a nervous parent stepping away from the store for the first time; leaving my life savings in the hand of a 16 year-old.”
But in the end, hiring Lara proved to be the right move.
“She was great; one of my best part-time employees ever.”
And from that moment, Three Twins was no longer a one-man show.
The company was able to begin expanding. They started selling scoops at farmers markets, pints in supermarkets, and tubs in restaurants. They also got organic certification, and opened a second shop at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa.
Then, in 2008, Gottlieb decided Three Twins needed a physical presence in San Francisco.
The Lower Haight Shop
Gottlieb himself lives on a sailboat in Sausalito. But fortunately for us, he has a long-standing affection for the Lower Haight.
“The Lower Haight was one of the first neighborhoods that I discovered when I moved to San Francisco, mainly because of Toronado. I’ve been going there since the second month that I moved to the city – the day after Thanksgiving 1999,” he says.
So when he started looking for potential shop locations in San Francisco, a vacant storefront at 254 Fillmore was a natural choice.
“I found the space in 2005 when I was looking for my first space, as Urban Forage had recently closed. I loved the fact that it was in the Lower Haight, was a small intimate space and that there was absolutely no other ice cream in the neighborhood.”
The address may be great, but the space itself isn’t completely ideal. It’s small, meaning there’s no room for seating, and only has space for eight tubs of flavors instead of the more standard twelve. Additionally, Gottlieb was unable to secure the space back in 2005. It wasn’t until four years later, when he was ready to open his third shop, that everything fell into place.
The third Three Twins scoop shop, at 254 Fillmore Street, opened its doors on May 22, 2009.
Ramping Up Production
Scoop shops are important, Gottlieb says, but costly. “The overhead is huge.” Thus, he has no concrete plans to open new scoop shops any time soon.
Instead, he’s focusing on ramping up production and distribution.
Earlier this year, Three Twins opened a factory in Petaluma. According to Gottlieb, that’s a real differentiator. Other artisanal ice cream shops in San Francisco – Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe, and the like – all make their flavors in-house, and are thus limited in their output.
Meanwhile, the Petaluma facility lets Three Twins do a few things no other Bay Area ice cream maker can do.
For one thing, it’s currently producing upwards of 1,500 gallons per week, with the ability to crank that up to 7,000 eventually – quantities which it can then distribute through hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of retail channels around the country.
In April, Three Twins began distributing pints to many Whole Foods stores throughout the West Coast. You can also find their flavors in a growing number of corner stores, markets, and restaurants in San Francisco, with a larger nationwide presence in the works. And they’re starting to make inroads in the New York City area, where the market for such products seems to be ripe.
“In a lot of these bodegas, we’re completely replacing non-organic ice cream,” Gottlieb says gleefully.
Pints aside, the Petaluma factory means Three Twins can make its own “mix” – the sugar, cream, and egg combination that serves as the base of all ice cream. It’s a luxury that other ice cream shops in San Francisco can’t afford. Instead, they have to buy their mix from third parties.
To celebrate their homemade mix, Three Twins now offers “mixshakes” – milkshakes using mix instead of milk. You can even order “shots” of the stuff – just be sure to pack your sweet tooth.
Oh, and Three Twins will soon be selling the mix to other ice cream makers in the Bay Area.
But wait, these folks are supposed to compete, not cooperate — right?
Gottlieb insists there’s no rivalry between the different ice cream makers. After all, when Three Twins arrived on the scene five years ago, the Bay Area artisanal ice cream scene was pretty lonely. Ici didn’t open in Berkeley until September of 2006, Bi-Rite Creamery opened three months later, and Humphry Slocombe in January 2009.
“I would be happy to comment on those other fellows if I knew who they were or what they do, but I do not,” he jokes.
In reality, Gottlieb is happy to have more players in the game. It’s a sign of growing ice cream enthusiasm in the Bay Area which benefits everyone, at least in theory.
Oh, one more thing setting Three Twins apart? This summer, to achieve true ice-cream-man cred, Gottlieb located an old ice cream truck in Connecticut, bought it, drove it back across the country to California, painted it Three Twins green, and named it Carl, after his brother.
He plans to park the truck at events and street food festivals, and spread visibility for the brand. Operating it as an actual neighborhood-trolling ice cream truck would be virtually impossible due to San Francisco’s arcane permitting laws, Gottlieb says. Not exactly the most progressive city, at least in some respects.
“I mean, Double Rainbow is still the official ice cream of San Francisco,” he chuckles, referring to the local brand given the title by Mayor Willie Brown in 1996.
With all this success and growth — 40-plus employees now and counting — how’s he feeling?
“I am more excited and optimistic about the future of the company than ever. In the last 8 months, we’ve gone from being a rather localized brand selling our ice cream to a handful of restaurants and groceries in the Bay area to selling to over 300 stores throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and New York. And this is just the beginning.”
You’d think he might celebrate with the occasional hot fudge sundae or banana split — but for someone who seemingly lives, breathes, and drives ice cream, Neal Gottlieb surprisingly doesn’t eat it very often.
“I haven’t bought ice cream for myself in maybe two years,” he says.
“Two reasons. I don’t want to get sick of it, and I don’t want to become fat because of it.”
So far, becoming fat doesn’t seem to be a problem.
And if he’s getting sick of it, it sure doesn’t show.