Tara Esperanza spends her days dreaming up and dishing out small batch ice creams with names like beet balsamic, chocolate tarragon and goat cheese blueberry. By choosing her locations, supplies and partners as carefully as she does her local, organic ingredients, Esperanza’s eponymous ice cream company is creating innovative foods and a culture of sustainability. Today the bustling ice cream business produces more than 150 unique and sophisticated flavors – and an ever-shrinking carbon footprint.
What led you to become an ice cream entrepreneur? Was there a certain flavor that helped you make the transition from enthusiast to business owner?
“Not a certain flavor, but many flavors and people. After years of encouragement from loved ones, I decided to figure out how to turn my organic ice cream passion into a business.”
You’re from Santa Fe but have now set up shop in Berkeley. What inspired the move?
“I started the business in Santa Fe in 2005, and moved the business to Berkeley in 2008 to reduce our carbon footprint and get closer to our resources. I was purchasing dairy from Marin and several other ingredients and materials from SF. Being a green business it made better sense to move closer to our resources.”
Your small batch ice creams and sorbets range from savory to sweet to spicy. How do you dream up these unique – and sometimes unusual – flavors?
“I do literally dream up my flavors. This is the effortless part of business. I am inspired every day by the foods I eat and the places I have been. I have traveled a lot and I am inspired by ethnic foods as well.
“When I started making ice cream in the late 1990s the variety was very slim – especially for organic ice cream. I started making ice cream myself because I wanted organic and I was dreaming up flavors I couldn’t buy. So, I decided to figure out how to make it the way I wanted to eat it.
“I don’t believe ice cream has to be junk food. I strive to honor the flavor, not just the sweetness, and create a new ice cream experience for people. I find savory and spiced flavors very satisfying and they pair well with so many things, especially fresh fruit, fruit pie, fruit crisp or other fruity ice creams.”
Are there any new ingredients or combinations you’ve been experimenting with recently?
“Well, I don’t really label it experimenting. To me it’s creativity/art with food as my medium. Right now my love is for stone fruit. I think it’s the best part of summer. As well as lemon verbena. I recently made a white nectarine agave sorbet and white nectarine ice cream. Both made me giddy with delight and the color was amazing – like bubblegum pink. In addition, I have a new flavor on the horizon called Beso de Angel (angel kiss). I had it last fall in Oaxaca, Mexico and I am excited to introduce it to my repertoire soon.”
Can you recommend any unexpectedly delicious flavor pairings?
“There are so many! It’s hard to choose. A few favorite combos are sage & molasses, sunflower seed butter & raspberry, bay laurel & burnt caramel, and camote & banana.”
Ice cream by nature is not generally considered a health food, but can ice cream done right still offer some nutritional value?
“Absolutely! I started making ice cream because I wanted a more healthful alternative. In addition to organic, I also wanted less sugar and more flavor. If you deconstruct ice cream the ingredients are actually good for you. If it’s made from organic food and not artificial flavorings, or pumped up with emulsifiers and stabilizers, it is good for you. I love making superfood flavors, and flavors with healing herbs and spices and added nutritional benefits.”
You’ve said that you prefer to only sell your ice creams to natural foods stores and like-minded shops. Do you have any set criteria or standards when considering potential partners?
“I believe small business keeps small business alive. I keep my attention on locally owned markets and specialty shops that have careful attention to the products that they stock. They also tend to have a stronger sense of community and loyalty from their customers.”
Would people be surprised to learn what ingredients other “natural” ice cream companies are using?
“Most definitely. I read in a Vegetarian Times magazine years back that Ben & Jerry’s (now owned by Unilever) uses genetically modified fish blood as a stabilizer to eliminate natural crystallization that can occur. It is a trace ingredient and they believe it’s healthy/safe.”
Major grocery stores generally stock ice cream, and some ice cream-like variety referred to as “frozen dairy dessert.” What is the difference, and what sets Tara’s Organic Ice Cream apart?
“Tara’s Organic Ice Cream does not add emulsifiers and stabilizers. They are unnecessary and have been added by big ice cream producers to extend the shelf-life and eliminate natural crystallization that can occur.
“Tara’s is certified organic and makes all of the ice creams in small batches. We use fresh organic ingredients to create the flavors and often they are very local ingredients. It is a labor of love. We make it by hand, hand label and hand pack our containers.
“They are delivered fresh and made to order, unlike other products that are typically made in a factory, get stored in a warehouse, then travel to a distributor to be stored in another warehouse before the product is ordered and distributed. When a store places an order, we make it specifically for that store and delivery as soon as it’s ready. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!”
Tara’s Organic Ice Cream also values sustainability, and offers both reusable and compostable containers and utensils. Are there any other ways you try to maintain a sustainable environment in both your shops and in production?
“We’re a Bay Area Certified Green Business. Everything we do is to maintain a sustainable environment. In our shops everything is compostable (except for labels, because of the glue it’s impossible). We use energy efficient equipment and all our cleaning supplies are eco-friendly, too. We don’t create any trash, but have trash containers for what the public carries into the shop.”
Obviously great milk is key for making great ice cream. How did you select Straus Family Creamery for this crucial ingredient?
“When I started thinking about making my passion for ice cream a business I was consuming all Straus products. I was a dedicated consumer because their quality is unsurpassable and had been making ice cream at home with their dairy. I contacted them about purchasing ingredients to make my ice cream.”
Are you able to source any other ingredients locally?
“Yes. I purchase fresh herbs locally, obviously the dairy, seasonal fruits, etc.”
What are your ultimate goals for the company in terms of balancing growth and sustainability?
“That’s always a question that I have struggled with. I do want to grow the business, but in a healthy and conscientious way. It is about creating growth and change in a responsible manner. In order to progress we need change, but I think the focus is to not compromise your beliefs or integrity for fortune.
“The owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has been an inspiration to me, and is a true example of what is possible. He has said that when he makes decisions that are best for the planet he makes money. I guess the universe will support you when you do the right thing. I just have to work a little harder to change the way people think about ice cream, or how they perceive ice cream in general. I hope that people continue to make better choices for themselves. Not just in terms of ice cream, but if the ice cream can be one tool to get people to think about what they put into their bodies, or how they treat the environment, then we are succeeding.
“One of the greatest rewards to me is when someone tells me that they can never go back to eating conventional ice cream and I changed their whole relationship to ice cream. When someone truly tastes the difference and realizes quality over quantity, I’m happy.”
photo credit: Tom James