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A Girl, a Radio Flyer, Some Engineering, and a Dream
Caitlin Harrington | Photo: Brian Flaherty | December 14, 2016
The out-of-nowhere success story of Smitten Ice Cream.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that our sister magazine, San Francisco, is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Robyn Sue Fisher doesn’t look like someone who eats a lot of ice cream. The slim, 5-foot-10 former college softball and basketball player is sitting inside her shop in the Marina, watching me devour a cone of rum-and-spearmint-leaf-infused mojito ice cream and listing the sports she played as a hypercompetitive kid growing up in Wayland, Massachusetts. “Anything I could get my hands on,” she says. “I played boys’ baseball until I was in my teens. I probably would have played football if my parents had let me.”
Fisher, 37, sits on a wooden bench by the picture windows framing her Chestnut Street shop. She launches into a story she’s told countless times by now—to reporters, to podcasters, on the TED stage—about how she took a motorcycle-battery-powered, liquid-nitrogen-fed ice cream churner, strapped it to a Radio Flyer wagon she carted through the streets of San Francisco, and turned it into one of the most successful boutique ice cream businesses in California. Smitten ships its pints nationwide and has a catering arm and eight stores throughout California, with two more (and counting) on the way.
Fisher brings an athlete’s competitive fire to her business. “I’m not doing this to be mediocre,” she says. “At Smitten we don’t do it unless we can do it better than anyone.”
That’s a tall order in a town full of scoop shops as lauded as Bi-Rite Creamery (currently ranked first in the city by Zagat) and Humphry Slocombe (whose Secret Breakfast flavor appeared on the Food Network’s list of the top five ice creams in America). But Fisher welcomes the challenge. She wanted to grow Smitten in the Bay Area precisely because the food scene here is so demanding. The presence of that other homegrown specialty, technology, didn’t hurt either. Smitten’s killer app is a Stanford-engineered, –321-degree liquid nitrogen machine—the big brother of the primitive device she lugged around in her wagon—which lets Smitten flash-freeze its ice cream and serve it made to order, without having to use shelf-life-extending emulsifiers or stabilizers. The flash freezing also produces denser, creamier ice cream.
For Fisher, becoming an entrepreneur was a psychic jailbreak. After graduating from Williams College with a psychology degree in 2001, she worked as a management consultant—a job she says felt like “a straitjacket.” After four and a half years, she enrolled in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, hoping to find a career that made her excited to be an adult again. (She was also accepted as an FBI agent, but turned them down.) In an entrepreneurship class, she focused on ice cream, and found a “stale” industry ripe for innovation.
After discovering that an ice cream base could be frozen on the spot using liquid nitrogen, Fisher began building a prototype machine in her backyard. She rented a nitrogen tank from a local welding shop and duct-taped together filters and old mixing parts she bought off Craigslist. She soon learned that making ice cream with liquid nitrogen was relatively easy, but hard to do well. Left uncontrolled, the nitrogen disperses unevenly, forming ice balls and a lumpy consistency.
Solving that problem wasn’t easy. Postgraduation, Fisher began making monthly trips to Massachusetts to work in a basement workshop with a retired aerospace engineer she’d met through her Stanford network. After experimenting with every frozen technology from cryogenics to snowplows, they finally found inspiration in a simple screw. A screw, they noticed, has a downward spiral pattern. So they twisted up two clothes hangers and plunked them side by side, forming a double-helix shape. When turned together in a mixing bowl, the hangers scraped both each other and every surface of the bowl. “We realized we had something,” Fisher says, “because the trick to not allowing the ice cream to freeze inconsistently is keeping every single particle moving at all times.” The first “Brrr machine” was born.
Fisher emerged from the basement in 2009 in the depths of the recession, having blown through her savings but with a working machine. She found a cheap, durable vehicle that doubled as a nostalgic symbol of childhood—the Radio Flyer wagon—and strapped her 40-pound machine to its bed. “I felt like people could take what I was doing the wrong way if they just saw this stainless steel machine and liquid nitrogen,” she says.
The economic downturn had given rise to the modern food truck (and, to a lesser degree, cart) phenomenon, and Fisher linked up with a community of rolling restaurateurs who roamed the city dishing out street food and tweeting out their locations. Fisher’s first day selling out of the wagon was at a food truck gathering at Precita Park: The lines for her ice cream were 45 minutes long. This kicked off what Smitten’s pastry chef, Robyn Lenzi, calls the “food truck chasing” days when Fisher couldn’t afford a permit and would tweet, “Come and get it before I sell out or the cops come.”
On the catering circuit, Fisher took her wagon to companies like Salesforce and Yahoo and eventually met future angel investors. In 2011, after raising $300,000 from investors in her network, she opened her first shop off Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, housing it in a repurposed shipping container (among the first of the container complex there). In 2013, she opened her second store, in Los Altos, followed by five more Bay Area shops and her first Southern California store last December.
Did being a female entrepreneur make it harder to succeed? “I think it’s easier in a lot of ways,” Fisher says. “I think you have to claim it. I’m 5 foot 10. In meetings, I’m a fan of wearing high heels, being taller, being confident. And if you really believe in what you’re doing, then it’s good to act that way. If you can do that, then being a woman can be an advantage.”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco