If you’re a vegan or just lactose intolerant, you’ve probably stood at your grocery store’s ice cream freezer choosing between french vanilla and chocolate yet again, as your milk-digesting compatriots gamely choose peanut butter cup or toasted marshmallow or some flavor explosion offered by Ben & Jerry’s.
If you can’t have milk, the ice cream pickins are slim, and if you’re looking to eat it out of a cone and not a carton, your options are even worse. But in recent years vegan ice cream retailers across the country have begun filling in that market gap with a variety of excellent ice cream in exciting flavors, thanks in large part to Sweet Ritual, an artisanal vegan ice creamery in Austin, Texas and their “Cool School” vegan ice cream making course.
Sweet Ritual initially opened in late 2011, after co-owners Valerie Ward and Amelia Raley conjured the idea while hanging out. Raley had just finished a masters in education and was struggling to find work when Texas cut 1,000 teaching jobs. She’d been developing vegan ice cream flavors in the kitchen at Austin’s Toy Joy. By coincidence, Ward had been a manager at Austin’s ever-popular Amy’s Ice Cream and already had a leg up on managing and marketing an ice cream business. When Raley lamented that maybe she’d just make ice cream for the rest of her life, Ward’s take was that sounded like an excellent plan. And soon, their nascent sweet life had a launching pad.
Within a year, they opened a small space in a portion of Austin chain Juiceland, offering only soft-serve vanilla and a rotating seasonal flavor. Soon enough, they purchased their first batch freezer and starting cooking up hard batch treats and testing out new flavors. By 2014, Ward and Raley had decided to step up their game, enrolling in the vegan course at Ice Cream University with Malcolm Stogo, who’s considered the godfather of modern ice cream. Stogo showed them a different way to think about making ice cream, to take what Ward calls a “deconstructed” point of view. “Dairy has fat, water, protein and sugar in it. So rather than just trying to replace cow milk with almond milk, we can replace parts of milk with other things and make a fuller profile,” she said. “It made us more into food scientists than home chefs and gave us a new equation for making ice cream.”
Photo courtesy of Sweet Ritual
When they returned to Austin, the pair experimented with new ingredients and ice cream bases (cashew! sunflower seed butter! —and my fave— peanut butter) and released new flavors from the grown-and-sexy gourmet end, like chocolate olive oil or fig and lavender blossom, to an unexpectedly popular kid favorite, unicorn poop, a candy mix which became a best-seller.
Sweet Ritual outgrew their modest space by 2015 with lines regularly out the door in the brutal Texas summers and a steady customer stream in the milder winters. After a large crowdfunding campaign, they opened their first brick-and-mortar shop in mid 2016. And if my first visit to the new space was any indication, they’re already gonna need a bigger a bigger boat. The storefront is regularly packed in the evenings. Even in January.
And as Sweet Ritual’s menu and customer base has grown, so has their outreach. Raley and Ward began mentoring and supporting other vegan ice creameries, coming up with their own week-long ice cream course, which they dubbed “Cool School.” They describe it as “like a crash course in deciding if you want to open a vegan ice cream parlor.” Students come from as nearby as Houston and as far as Australia to experiment with cashew, peanut butter and almond bases, learn Sweet Ritual’s theory of ice cream which is a chemistry crash course, and even try out creating some flavors of their own.
On top of teaching their students the foundations of dairy-free ice cream production, Cool School even gives them a lessons in running the business end, covering sales, management and raising capital in the initial launch stages. Their students take a turn running front of house in the actual shop and spend their evenings taking in the best of Austin’s vegan offerings alongside (non-vegan) artisanal ice cream across the city. The students walk away armed with recipes and a strong sense of the business, including information on suppliers and basic budgets. And Raley and Ward developed this portion of the course entirely on their own.
But running ice cream classes wasn’t part of Ward or Raley’s original plan. It came about after they received multiple requests for training from other ice cream-preneurs. Their first student, the owner of a Vancouver parlor, found them through their Instagram. Raley and Ward quickly recognized the opportunity to share and spread their knowledge by mentoring other artisanal ice cream shops and created a class syllabus.
But if Sweet Ritual has a popular parlor and a growing thumbprint, why are they training their very competitors? Ward and Raley are clear in that they have no interest in competition or jealousy. Rather than seeing the market as a zero sum game, they take the view of Austin’s wider philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships. As Raley explained, “We’ve been asked to franchise before, but we’re not interested in running an ice cream empire.” Ward elaborated, “We just want to operate a successful shop and support ourselves. We’d rather be seen as holders of knowledge that nurtured other businesses than as a national brand.” And sure, it also helps that the classes spread Sweet Ritual’s name as the foremost vegan ice cream shop and their Cool School students bring in new perspectives and ideas.
Mentoring others and encouraging the growth of artisanal and vegan ice cream, they explained, allows each shop that opens to take on a bit of its local flavor and influences, rather than offering a corporate behemoth that tastes the same no matter where you go. And while consistency can be comforting, Raley pointed out that various regions in the United States have different ice cream preferences and even access to differing ingredients. And experiencing local ice creams when she travels is a part of the joy of discovery.
The ladies of Sweet Ritual are happy to keep their shop with its eclectic Austin flavor a strictly-Austin endeavor with, as Raley calls it, “a scrappy, thrown together feel that’s more old-Austin.” Their walls are adorned by hand-painted unicorn portraits, which have become the shop’s unofficial motif.
“It started because of the unicorn poop flavor, but then it evolved because it’s hard to find dairy-free ice cream that’s both good with a variety of flavor,” Ward said. “So when vegans find Sweet Ritual, they call it their unicorn.” It makes sense. Sweet Ritual is a little bit fantastical and a little bit magical, just like a unicorn.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, TX. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, Splitsider, The Hairpin, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and National Lampoon.