"Doug Quint is a freelance classical bassoonist," begins the Wikipedia entry for one of the founders of Big Gay Ice Cream. And really, that's exactly the sort of whimsical bio you'd expect to be associated with the New York soft-serve brand so popular that it has its own theme song by the Go-Go's.
Big Gay Ice Cream has captured the hearts of America since 2009 with its rainbow-slashed Mister Softee truck, its pop culture soft-serve cones like the Bea Arthur, (vanilla topped with dulce de leche and crushed vanilla wafers, named for a Golden Girl), and for their unwavering commitment to not taking the food scene too seriously. For example, the time they hosted a talk with James Beard award-winning writer, John T. Edge, and "much to his surprise," according to Big Gay Ice Cream co-founder Bryan Petroff, "the event took place in an ornate viewing room at a local funeral parlour, with a seven-foot tall drag queen dressed like an ice-cream sundae on his arm."
The company started when Quint, who is in fact a Juilliard-trained classical bassoon player, and Petroff decided to spend the summer of 2009 food truckin' on a whim. They saw a post on Facebook calling for ice-cream drivers, signed up and never looked back.
At first all they had was a name (why Big Gay Ice Cream? Why not, became the real question when it gained them a huge following long before they stepped foot on the truck), and some big ideas. Namely, to update soft-serve with fancy toppings and take fun to the streets.
Petroff calls himself the intellectual of the duo. Doug is the gregarious one. In that first season, an ice-cream star was born. Petroff and Quint took the city by storm with their soft-serve cones dressed up with toppings like olive oil and sea salt, and breakfast cereal Trix, and their rigorous commitment to Good Times.
Later came floats and shakes and sundaes and their own soft-serve made in collaboration with a local dairy. There came the legendary Salty Pimp cone (vanilla, dulce de leche, sea salt and a chocolate shell) and the "Choinkwich", the chocolate and caramelised bacon ice-cream sandwich of your dreams.
And then a bricks-and-mortar shop opened to a great party featuring drag queens and Anthony Bourdain – everyone's favourite dirt-mouthed chef, author and travel show legend – dressed as a minister.
They now have stores in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. There's a Big Gay Ice Cream book designed like a high school yearbook complete with scrawled messages throughout, and filled with instructions on how to make a hot fudge sundae along with stories about their friends.
Big Gay Ice Cream may have started as a summer fling, but it became an inadvertent leader in a dessert revolution: the reclamation of ice-cream by adults.
Frozen dairy used to be parents' weapon of choice, the cone of silence, if you will. As an adult, you could like it, but post the soda fountain days of the 1950s, there was a dark age where ice-cream was considered the sole domain of the under-12s, the over-50s, and the Italians.
"I think for the longest time, people took an "it's only ice-cream" approach," says Petroff. "That it's just a kid's food. It's only milk, cream, and sugar. But that's akin to saying, soccer is just people kicking around a ball, or Yoda is just a Muppet."
But suddenly, there was Big Gay Ice Cream with an attitude and ice-cream that adults could claim as their own. "Kids love the bright colours, bubbly atmosphere and tasty treats," says Petroff, "but it's the adults who know where our dairy comes from, know who Bea Arthur was, and understand the lyrics of The Buzzcocks Orgasm Addict playing through the sound system."
Petroff and Quint rose to celebrity status on the wings of social media. And they weren't alone. Across the country in San Francisco, dairy legends Jake Godby and Sean Vahey of Humphry Slocombe had built an adult fan club with their bizarre flavours.
On home turf, it's Gelato Messina that's captured the big kid crowd – the artisan gelato company that breaks the internet every time they post their latest hotdog ice-cream or celebrity-themed mash-up, and whose multiple stores (they have 11 in Australia including their newest in Windsor, and one in Las Vegas, USA) are more like nightclubs than ice-cream parlours.
But did ice-cream grow up or was it us that changed? When did ice-cream go from sweet to socially sexy?
"If you want to get heady and academic," says Petroff, "I think it has more to do with the overall softening of adults. We are more comfortable accepting and embracing things that may have given the previous generation pause. Grown straight men dress up as My Little Pony characters and call themselves Bronies. More people are taking risks to do what they love instead of what pays the bills. The harsh realities we live in require any form of comfort we can find. Essentially, the world, more than ever, NEEDS ice-cream."
And so it is that lining up for three hours on a Saturday afternoon has not only become acceptable but cool. Consenting adults have business meetings over a scoop. Gelato Messina has replaced the humble bar as the preferred spot for initial Tinder dates – and Messina co-founder Declan Lee approves. "It's perfect," says Lee. "It's the least commitment place. There's just the right time to work out if someone's a loser."
Big Gay Ice Cream and Messina are vastly different in some ways. Their product for starters. Big Gay Ice Cream were all about the high end toppings and fun to begin with, developing a stronger range as the company grew. Messina was always about their gelato. There was far more talk about the organic ingredients; their process of making the gelato from scratch, daily. But what unites them in fame, what makes people queue longer, click more is that they never set out to please anyone but themselves.
"When we started out, we knew less of what we wanted to be than what we didn't want to be" says Petroff. "What we wanted to say was 'it's ice-cream. HAVE FUN!' It's OK to like both organic, non-homogenised milk from the local dairy as well as the cheap, fat-ladened Skippy peanut butter we ate as a kid. As products of the '80s, we love what comes out of those collisions. The intersection of childhood and mid-life crisis. Those are perfect storm moments that create truly unique experiences."
The same goes for Messina. "We have never targeted our stores at a particular audience, we just make stores that we like, and that are comfortable," says Lee, who used to be a DJ, and originally would compile all the house-heavy music mixes for the stores. "It's loud, but even if people don't like it, they won't leave after 10 minutes thinking 'that was horrible.'"
More often it's those beats at Messina and the Instagram posts by Big Gay Ice Cream into which they've Photoshopped the pope eating a Bea Arthur that attract the crowds, and keep them coming back; that have given adults everywhere the excuse, finally, to scream like a junior school soccer team for ice-cream.
Big Gay Ice Cream in Australia!
Ice-cream fans rejoice: Big Gay Ice Cream's Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff are coming to Melbourne for The Age Good Food Month presented by Citi. See them at:
Big Gay Ice Cream will be be demonstrating how to make boozy floats and shakes and their Choinkwich (the chocolate and bacon ice-cream sandwich of your dreams) at Sweetfest: a brand new two-day festival celebrating all things iced, baked, whipped and colourful. Sweetfest brings together Melbourne and Sydney's top sweet vendors including Black Star Pastry, Luxbite, N2 Gelato and Short Stop Coffee and Donuts in the sweet marketplace, while the likes of cake queen Katherine Sabbath will be on stage doing free masterclasses (limited seats) alongside Pierre Roelofs (Dessert Evenings) and dessert boss Philippa Sibley. The Black Pearl cocktail bar (recently voted number 10 bar in the world), will be creating cocktails and tickets include a free glass of Redbank Emily Brut Cuvée. Kids under 12 free.
November 28-29, Meat Markets, North Melbourne, $20, TICKETS
Ice Cream Social with Big Gay Ice Cream and Gelato Messina
Who doesn't like dancing and ice-cream? Only fools. Join Big Gay Ice Cream for an unbeatable ice-cream social on November 26 with Gelato Messina: a night of one-off ice-cream creations, drinks and sweet disco by DJ CC:Disco at Thousand Pound Bend. Meet both the teams, and get hold of signed copies of the Big Gay Ice Cream Book and Gelato Messina's all new ice-cream cake cookbook at a special discount.
November 26, Thousand Pound Bend, $30, TICKETS