When the coronavirus pandemic hit and Pennsylvania ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses, 1-900-Ice-Cream founder Ryan Fitzgerald rented a Penske van and turned his two-year-old company into the social-distancing version of an ice cream truck. The pivot worked: Revenue went up 132 percent from February to April.
“Sales have been insane,” Fitzgerald says.
Up until a couple months ago, five Philly cafes and shops sold pints of Fitzgerald’s cult-favorite ice cream. 1-900 also occasionally offered online ordering and direct shipping to individual customers. But since mid-March, Fitzgerald has been selling his ice cream exclusively online. About once a week, he posts new flavors on 1-900’s website — and they sell out in two or three minutes.
Some batches he ships. For the others, he parks the van at a pre-announced location and hands out ice cream orders to customers, who have each been given a five-minute window to stop by so there are never lines. Fitzgerald keeps a safe distance from behind the driver’s side window, which he cracks just enough.
The van setup draws some strange looks from passersby, Fitzgerald says, but he’s used to it. When he first started selling ice cream, the whole operation was out of his apartment and customers would line up outside. “It’s always looked like drugs,” he jokes.
Fitzgerald started out in finance, working at a venture capital firm after graduating from Villanova. He entered the food world in 2014, hosting a series of pop-up dinners through a supper club he named Boku. The ice cream he served at Boku was such a hit that he eventually shifted gears, launching 1-900-Ice-Cream in 2018.
The company operates out of a Kensington production facility, usually with two employees but one is staying home during the pandemic. The ice cream is made with local dairy, a bit of extra salt to create a savory counterpoint to the sweetness, and ingredients that range from Madagascar vanilla beans to Lucky Charms cereal and Ruffles potato chips. The result is an exceptionally fresh-tasting ice cream with crunchy, silky, and chewy textures in every bite of flavors, like Crunchicles of Gnarnia: Nutter Butter cookie ice cream, potato chips coated in chocolate to prevent sogginess, and dark fudge swirl.
The pints are sold in four packs for $48. Eight-inch ice cream pies dubbed Freeze Queens were just added to the menu too — the first pies were $45 a pop and included a cooler and dry ice. They sold out.
It’s a high price tag for dessert, but the exclusivity, heightened by the scramble to order before they sell out, is likely part of the appeal. Fitzgerald has even upped the price of pints a few times, giving the extra profits — a few hundred dollars total — to the cafes and shops that stocked his ice cream before the pandemic, including Bower Cafe, Herman’s Coffee, Kurant Cider, Liberty Kitchen, and Parlour Ice Cream. With one ice cream batch release, he set up a virtual tip jar and matched customers’ donations; the money went to the 16 employees employed by those businesses.
Customers can also donate money to 1-900 to support the delivering of ice cream pints to first responders and hospital workers on the night shift. Fitzgerald includes an incentive: Those who donate get a 15-minute heads up on future ice cream drops and a 15 percent discount on orders.
The ice cream maker uses Instagram as his main marketing tool, posting dozens of videos of the process every single day. He estimates he’s gotten 1,000 new Instagram followers every week since social distancing rules went into effect. “We’ve been one of Philly’s best-kept secrets for a long time,” he says. “[Now] more people are getting exposed.”
With the boom in sales, Fitzgerald and his employee, who goes by Cuzzy, have been working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, to source ingredients, make the ice cream, package the pints and pies, and set up shipment and drop-offs. But Fitzgerald says he doesn’t mind: “This is what I was born to do. I absolutely love it.”