Smitten Ice Cream Uses Liquid Nitrogen for New Take on Ice Cream

Imagine having the freshest, purest, creamiest ice cream on Earth, made-to-order and easily accessible. Smitten Ice Cream, located in the Whole Foods in Los Altos, prides itself in serving just that—ice cream made from “the best of the best local and seasonal ingredients,” according to founder Robyn Sue Fisher.

“I’ve always had a passion for ice cream—my mom used to say that I had one stomach solely reserved for ice cream,” Fisher said.

As she was getting a graduate degree in Business at Stanford University, Fisher decided to pursue her passion professionally and begin a self-proclaimed “ice cream adventure,” which led her to attend Penn State after graduating in 2007.

At Penn State, she took an introductory course about frozen desserts, which, according to the Penn State website, teaches “the basics of ice cream composition, formulation, and processing.” Fisher learned how “far from the cow” the process of making ice cream had become—conventional ice cream is full of preservatives and other unnatural ingredients in order to prolong shelf-life.

“I thought that if I could reduce the time between production and consumption of the ice cream, I wouldn’t have to include any of those artificial additives,” Fisher said.

Thus, Fisher decided to explore the world of made-to-order ice cream, and she began experimenting with a process that could fulfill her vision—freezing with liquid nitrogen.

“I…started tinkering…in basement engineering shops with the help of some talented engineers,” Fisher said. “My parents were secretly a little worried about me when I didn’t take a job [after graduate school] but instead started working in a basement shop on a custom ice cream machine, but they kept it to themselves and showed their support.”

While Fisher’s idea seemed viable, a challenge came in turning her idea into a reality.

“I needed to design something that could automate and perfect the process, and thus began the process of building Brrr, which continues today,” Fisher said.

In 2009, after spending a few years planning and developing the prototype Brrr machine, Fisher joined the street food movement in San Francisco. She would put the ice cream machine atop a Radio Flyer wagon (rigged with off-road wheels and a homemade battery pack) and walk around the city, making ice cream for customers.

“I’d tweet my location and hope that hungry ice cream eaters would show up…and they did,” Fisher said. “It was scary at first, as I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, but it was super exciting—exhilarating actually.”

Though Fisher was new to the world of ice cream and “the street food movement…was still very young” at the time, she was able to have truly valuable experiences.

“The community was super welcoming and quickly adopted me as one of their own,” Fisher said. “There were a few times that I had to smile and use my delicious ice cream to my advantage when not-too-pleased police officers were kicking us out of parks and public places not zoned for food trucks at the time.”

With developed knowledge and experiences in the world of ice cream, Fisher began the next stage of her adventure—she opened up an ice cream store named Smitten Ice Cream in San Francisco.

“It was a huge challenge,” Fisher said. “I had to learn how to create and manage a team, run a whole store, and not be the only face of the brand.”

Now, over seven years since she began her ice cream adventure, Fisher’s vision has become a successful reality, as she has established her brand.

“Since I do this all for the love of ice cream, ‘Smitten’ is a natural fit for our brand,” Fisher said. “It’s a slightly nostalgic word reminiscent of old times; we like to call our ice cream ‘new, old-fashioned ice cream.’”

With stores open in San Francisco and Los Altos and more opening in Oakland and Lafayette later this spring, Smitten Ice Cream has been able to spread throughout the Bay Area. However, Fisher still remains focused on refining the production process of her ice cream and being patient in expanding her business.

“I did, and still do, want to make many people ‘smitten,’ but I wanted to make sure we had really honed in on our menu and our internal operations before growing,” Fisher said. “We wanted some time to test things out, see what worked best and make sure we found the right place at the right time.”

Amid Smitten Ice Cream’s growth, Fisher and her team continue to improve their Brrr machine in order to perfect and standardize the freezing process in each location. Along with this, Fisher works on the ongoing patent process, which has proven to be very tedious and expensive, but it has gotten easier as Smitten has expanded.

“At first, I didn’t have a budget for intellectual property, so I read every patent book I could and wrote provisional patents myself,” Fisher said. “I now work with a patent attorney but it is still very hands-on.”

Though busy with this process and her expanding business, the results of Fisher’s ongoing ice cream adventure have “certainly [been] a dream come true,” and Fisher credits the people around her with her vision’s success and her own happiness. Ultimately, they have been crucial to her achievements.

“Having a team has made all of the difference in the world,” Fisher said. “They have helped to create the reality, and sharing the progress with each other creates the real joy.”