Cornell University has a world-renown dairy science department. But alumnus Neal Gottlieb, the founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, graduated from the College of Human Ecology with a degree in consumer economics and housing. He did enroll in a milk quality course — for a day. He dropped the class because it conflicted with his rowing schedule. As for Cornell’s famed creamery, Gottlieb admits he was not a huge consumer of its dairy products, but he fondly remembers the 99-cent ice cream sandwiches.
These days, Gottlieb is building the brand of Three Twins Ice Cream, a processor of organic ice cream located in Petaluma, Calif. But don’t let that “organic” label pigeonhole the company. Gottlieb said Three Twins makes “inconceivably delicious ice cream” that happens to be made with organic milk, cream and other ingredients. He buys milk from eight family farmers in northern California. Wallaby Organic Yogurt, American Canyon, Calif., supplies the cream.
A pint of the 14% milk fat and 50% overrun ice cream sells for about $4.49. Gottlieb said he is aiming for the premium market occupied by the likes of Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs.
After college, Gottlieb volunteered in the Peace Corps and worked for The Gap and Levi Strauss. In 2005, at age 28, he founded Three Twins. He was looking to start a business and for an opportunity to build a brand. One of his requirements was for the business to be green. That led him to organics. As he looked at food, he realized that ice cream is a minimally processed food. To Gottlieb, it made sense to create a sustainable organic ice cream company.
There was also a low cost of entry to starting an ice cream business, he said. With his life savings and a loan from his parents, Gottlieb opened a scoop shop and taught himself to make ice cream. Today, he operates four stores in northern California (Lakespur, Napa, San Francisco and San Rafael). Three Twins also sells packaged ice cream to retailers, supplies ice cream mix to other processors and services restaurant accounts.
A national distributor has made Three Twins Ice Cream available to stores coast to coast. Another distributor sells the product in China, Singapore and Thailand. Three Twins exhibits at the Natural Products Expo (east and west editions) and the Fancy Food show in San Francisco. This summer he’ll exhibit at the New York edition of the Fancy Food show for the first time.
As any ice cream processor can attest, flavors and flavor profiles are critical. Gottlieb calls them “hugely important.” He takes special care in creating ice cream bases. Gottlieb adds pulverized cookies to the vanilla base for his Cookies and Cream. The Mint Confetti flavor uses organic dark chocolate. A proprietary stracciattellaprocess creates thin ribbons of chocolate which are churned into small pieces. (“Stracciattella” means little shreds in Italian, and also refers to an egg drop soup.) The best-selling flavor is Sea Salt Caramel, but the most-Tweeted flavor is Lemon Cookie, Gottlieb said.
Three Twins has the capacity to make 3 million pints a year from its continuous freezer. Currently, the company runs one production shift. Formats include single-serve cups, pints, 1.5 quart packages, 2.5 gallon bulk containers and 5 liter gelato-size pans. A co-packer will be producing chocolate cookie and vanilla bean ice cream sandwiches for the brand later this year. They will retail for about $2 a piece and will be sold individually and in packages of four.
Ingredient prices are a challenge to any dairy processor, but especially to a small start-up. Gottlieb says his company is now large enough to receive competitive terms, and suppliers are paying attention. They have begun to create ingredients for Three Twins, like miniature organic chocolate peanut butter cup inclusions.
Like any good entrepreneur, Gottlieb never stops working, even on vacation. At base camp for a climb to the peak of Mount Kilamanjaro, he made ice cream with glacial ice, rock salt, powdered milk, canned cream and other ingredients. Should he ever be invited to lecture at his alma mater, he can talk about how he is taking ice cream to new heights.