My only instructions were to dress like a man (knife optional), dress warm, get some rest and be in front of the Bagelsmith in Williamsburg at 11pm. That’s where Adriane Stewart, founder of Lotus Scoop ice cream, would pick me up in a rental car. We were driving all the way to Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, the second-largest produce market in the world.
So, why were we going to Hunts Point? To get the fullest flavors in her ice cream, Stewart insists that overripe produce is what she needs, like black-speckled bananas and less-than-rock-hard sweet potatoes—but there is a fine line between ripe and rotten. When produce ripens, the enzymes released make it sweeter. But buying ripe produce isn’t that easy: Grocery stores don’t want to sell it and farmers markets can be inconsistent. The solution? Hunts Point.
It isn’t a place you would necessarily choose to visit alone—roughly 575,000 packages of produce move through here daily, it’s completely male-dominated and the activity is mostly at night. But Stewart treks there two or three times per week, by herself, with her dog, dressed like a man (self-described), ready to pick up heavy crates of “seconds” and “thirds” produce for her ice cream.
Food waste is clearly one of the biggest issues plaguing our modern food system. The facts are jarring: 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted, equaling almost $161 billion lost, with another $1 billion spent to dispose of it every year. Not to mention the detrimental effects that food waste has on the environment while it decomposes in the landfill. A huge portion of produce never leaves the field because it is cosmetically not up to par or is tossed once it arrives at the supermarket because it is too ripe.
Cue Lotus Scoop. Stewart is trying to sway consumers toward seed, veggie, herb and ripe fruit concoctions. She’s putting the flavor back into ice cream by using ripe fruit, otherwise perfect for consumption, that would have been sent to a landfill.
Stewart grew up making ice cream with her father in Moorestown, New Jersey, a wealthy suburb outside of Philadelphia. They used to make cherry vanilla, chocolate chip and vanilla ice cream every Fourth of July for a huge backyard picnic. “We licked the beater of the ice cream maker and my mother made the ice cream base—a delicious custard base,” Stewart recalls.
Stewart treks there two or three times per week, by herself, with her dog, dressed like a man (self-described), ready to pick up heavy crates of “seconds” and “thirds” produce for her ice cream.
She never imagined that she would turn her family hobby into a career. Her early professional years had nothing to do with ice cream: She owned three wedding gown factories in Brazil. When she closed her factories and moved back to the U.S., Stewart felt something was missing from our ice cream landscape: those South American flavors and fresh fruits. She started Lotus Scoop on the same kind of homestyle electric machine that her father had used—bought with a $50 gift certificate her boyfriend gave her. She was soon making ice cream with ingredients like blackberries, green tea, cayenne and plantains.
“Americans aren’t fruit people,” says Stewart, and they definitely don’t trust things like kale in ice cream. “People think it’s weird to put fruits and vegetables in ice cream. I think it’s weird that people think it’s weird.”
As we pull up to this semi-remote part of the Bronx, trucks are lined up outside of the 60-acre market with their drivers trying to catch some zzz’s before their shifts. Hunts Point comes alive from 10:00 p.m. until the early morning, because this is the time that produce needs to be purchased so it can reach restaurants in time for service.
We arrived at almost midnight and stayed until 2:30 a.m. Aside from Stewart, I spotted one other woman during our entire stay, and she was sitting in a glass box, answering phone calls and accepting money from the purchasers. Men stared at us—beanies and baggy pants couldn’t mask the fact that, yes, we’re women. One man stopped and asked us for ID, I stared blankly, almost stuttering, because the clerk at the car entrance had already taken it. He walked away laughing, saying, “Just kidding! I just wanted to scare you!” Thanks.
Stewart surveyed the produce, weaving in and out of ripening rooms and refrigerators, and bargained for crates of bananas in the happy medium of yellow and brown. She walked away when the prices were just too high and managed to haul boxes of yellow squash weighing over 50 pounds all the way back to the truck.
Each batch only makes 40 pints, but the number of batches Lotus Scoop produces per week varies due to sourcing. Once produce is procured, the ice cream has to be made right away or the produce will turn.
Everything that goes into the “plant-to-pint” ice cream is hand-chosen by Stewart or somebody on her small team, then transported to their production kitchen in New Jersey (except for the premium milk—that comes from the Hudson Valley). Prepping ingredients for the ice cream is the most laborious part: Everything is cut, squeezed, juiced and smashed immediately prior to production. Each batch only makes 40 pints, but the number of batches Lotus Scoop produces per week varies due to sourcing. Once produce is procured, the ice cream has to be made right away or the produce will turn.
With some of Lotus Scoops’ flavors, Stewart attempts to cater to Latinos and Southerners with flavors not typically found in ice cream, like mesquite and starfruit. Making ice cream à la Stewart is kind of a chemistry experiment, she says. She and her team have to endlessly add more juice or more milk, or start all over again. Her product is so artisanal that when she tried to outsource her production to a boutique co-packer, they gave up—they weren’t set up to handle how complex it was to work with unpredictable produce and intricate preparation. (Also, Stewart was looking over their shoulder the whole time, saying, “No, no, that’s not how you do it.”)
When making one of her most beloved flavors, the Pear Kale Banana “Puddle Jumper,” she thought to herself, “Well, this could either be the grossest thing in the world, or the best.” Based on the feedback I heard during a demo at the Brooklyn Whole Foods, it’s one of the best. The bright green color deterred some of the less adventurous, but for the most part, once people took the first bite, their faces looked pleasantly intrigued. It took some by surprise: One woman said, “Wow, this is good actually,” and proceeded down the aisle to take her own jar home to test her theory some more.
Stewart’s best-seller, by far, is the Yam-a-rama—sweet potato and sea salt banana caramel. My personal favorite was the Kingston: Caribbean cocoa, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and pan-roasted hemp. The tiny chunks of coffee beans in the rich chocolate gave a surge of lightness rather than that heavy “I’m so full” feeling. And rumor is that she is testing out a new Peaches and Bourbon flavor… stay tuned.
Despite having to jump through many hoops to rebrand herself, Stewart’s fledgling venture has seen an exploding interest— sales keep going up. You can find her product in Whole Foods and other upper-tier natural food stores around the city. And if you’re in Brooklyn, you can order three pints on the Lotus Scoop website and have them delivered right to your door, for $30. It’s a pretty sweet life, no?