“Better Than Ice Cream”: Frozen Custard Comes To the Bay Area

Guittard chocolate and Four Barrel White Coffee frozen custard from the Frozen Kuhsterd truck.  (Shelby Pope)

Us Bay Area residents can be a proud bunch when it comes to food. And justifiably so! With a climate that guarantees us picture perfect produce year round, we live in a veritable Eden of fresh, delicious food, far, far away from places with canned vegetables and bizarre obsessions with egg sandwiches--places like the Midwest or the East Coast.

Yet, there’s one area that they’ve got us beat: frozen custard, a frozen Midwest and East Coast treat that’s rich, creamy and definitely better than ice cream.

At least, that’s what you’ll hear from the collection of Midwest and East Coast transplants bringing frozen custard to the Bay Area, a growing group that includes Flavor Brigade in Oakland, The Velvet Scoop in San Francisco, Rita’s in Castro Valley, and food trucks like Lexie's Frozen Custard, Frozen Kuhsterd and IzzyA's. Armed with patient explanations and lots of egg yolks, they’re introducing the ice cream lovers of the Bay Area to the pleasures of custards, concretes and gelati. And they’re not the only ones who’ve recognized custard’s potential in the Bay Area. In February, East Coast custard and Italian ice chain Rita’s announced their plans to open 60 stores in Northern California over the next few years. And later that month, Oakland-born Dreyer's introduced a line of packaged frozen custards coming to a freezer aisle near you.

So, what is this beloved treat? Frozen custard is a form of ice cream that's denser and richer than your typical pint, and is governed by the FDA’s strict rules, which ensure that custard is always made with at least 1.4 egg yolk solids by weight, giving it a silky richness.

A cone at the Velvet Scoop in the Mission.
A cone at the Velvet Scoop in the Mission. (Velvet Scoop)

It also has less air whipped into it than ice cream. When making ice cream, the percent of volume increase due to the air added is referred to as overrun. While ice cream can have up to 100% overrun (meaning that half the volume of your pint of butter pecan is air), frozen custard typically has much less (around 20-25%), making it dense smoothness. Since it’s typically made to order and never frozen, it also has the easier to eat texture of soft serve.

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Frozen custard was invented in 1919 when Coney Island ice cream sellers Archie and Elton Kohr added egg to their ice cream to keep their product from melting too quickly. It was successful and the dessert got a boost in 1933 when it was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. The dessert spread around the country, becoming especially popular in Milwaukee, where it has become a regional treat aided by the state’s robust dairy industry.

Flavor Brigade's slogan: "Philly's Best Now Available in the West"
Flavor Brigade's slogan: "Philly's Best Now Available in the West" (Shelby Pope)

Most of the Bay Area custard shops have Midwestern roots. Oakland’s Flavor Brigade, the Bay Area’s first custard shop, was started in 2010 by childhood friends Braedon Galloway and Justin Mruskovic from Philadelphia who couldn’t find any good custard options after moving to the area. Their venture proved so successful that they opened a second shop in Pleasanton earlier this month. Velvet Scoop owner Zoe Madigan grew up making frozen custard with her grandparents in Illinois and eventually left her tech job to open up her shop in the Mission last year. And after Milwaukee native Tom Tankka introduced his wife Tina to the city’s famous Kopp’s Frozen Custard, she fell in love with the dessert, and the two decided to start a frozen custard food truck last year, where they offer flavors more unusual than the typical chocolate and vanilla: mojito lime rickey custard, strawberry apricot sorbet, and boba frozen custard floats.

And the new shops aren’t just offering custard. Frozen custard has a whole entourage of desserts that go with it. There’s the concrete, which the Velvet Scoop specializes in: a generous amount of creamy soft serve combined with toppings like Nutella, cornflakes or butterscotch, that’s thick enough to be served upside down. Then there’s the gelati-- fruit flavored Italian ice topped with custard, typically vanilla, custard--that the chain Rita’s, which has a location in Castro Valley, offers. Flavor Brigade has something similar called the Mummers Mix, named for Philadelphia's colorful New Year’s Day parade.

It’s been easy for the Bay Area shops to gain momentum: there’s a built-in audience of Midwestern transplants eager for their cherished custard: “A long-running joke at The Velvet Scoop is that we’ve met every San Franciscan with roots in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Chicago, the modern-day frozen custard capital cities,”  Velvet Scoop’s Zoe Madigan said in an email.

It’s the natives that take a little more convincing. “Some people come and say, ‘Is this custard, like pudding?’” said Tina Tankka. But while bringing custard to the Bay may require a little more explanation, the shop owners say it’s quickly converting us locals.

A 2nd Street from Oakland's Flavor Brigade.
A 2nd Street from Oakland's Flavor Brigade. (Shelby Pope)

“We serve frozen custard to everyone from giggly youth soccer teams, to chatty book clubs, people who’ve lived in The Mission for generations, newcomers, business people, artists, musicians, families, friends, tourists, techies, and everyone in between. Collectively, our staff speaks English, Spanish, Chinese, and French; we’ve served customers in each of those languages,” Madigan said.

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“Some of them ask, is it ice cream? No, we say. It’s better than ice cream,” Tankka said. “Then we give them a taste. We insist on the tasting. And once they have a taste, they’re hooked.”

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