Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

The Urban Environmentalist: Blue Marble Ice Cream Q&A

April 30th, 2008 · 6 Comments

Today, we inaugurate a new feature that we’re very happy about: interviews and reports from the Center for the Urban Environment. This feature is “Living Local Economies,” which will focus on local businesses that are green or focused on sustainability. The subject of the interview is Alexis Miesen Co-Proprietress of Blue Marble Ice Cream on Atlantic Avenue. Before we read it, we only knew that we loved their ice cream.

Ice Cream Photo

Q: Where are you from originally? A: Cleveland. [Insert favorite Cleveland joke here.]

Q: What is so funny about Cleveland? A: Oh, Cleveland seems to be the butt of so many jokes. The mistake on the lake, the city whose river caught on fire, the list goes on. Poor Cleveland, always picked on. But a very nice, decent place to grow up.

Q: What lead you to the ice cream business? A: A mix of desperation for a good scoop and recognition of a prime business opportunity. I live in Cobble Hill and had grown fed up with the lack of good ice cream options in the area. Plus, seeing that the neighborhood was teeming with both the conscientious stroller and hipster sets, I realized that not only was there a market for the kind of ice cream I wanted to offer but also the aesthetic and philosophy I had in mind. So I pulled my dear friend – and now business partner – Jennie into the idea and we were off.

Q: How did you choose the location of your business?

A: Initially the plan was to open in Cobble Hill, but the real estate options there were too few, too small and too expensive. So we ventured into Boerum Hill and discovered the space we now call home. We were really excited about the evolution of Atlantic Avenue and were anxious to be a part of its growth. Not only are there a variety of really great boutiques, restaurants, etc. along the Avenue, but many of them are owned by women, which is inspiring.

Q: There was recently a conference on minority and women entrepreneurship sponsored by the City Council, Small Business Services & HSBC Bank—from where you stand, has the borough seen is a rise in women and minority entrepreneurs?

A: Since I’m pretty new to all of the local business scene, I don’t have a sense yet of any trends afoot. I can say from my limited experience, though, that most of the area businesses we deal with are women-owned. These are retail and service businesses, though, not contractors, suppliers, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it seems that women are still found more commonly in some sectors than others.

Q: What do you like best about your neighborhood/customer base/community?

A: The diversity. That was another factor in the decision to venture outside of Cobble Hill. Because there is an educational component to our product, we wanted to reach audiences that were somewhat unfamiliar with the issues of environmentalism and how one’s choices as consumers can play a role in them. So it was important for us to be accessible not only to the Whole Foods crowd, but also to those who are just beginning to learn about the value of organic, locally grown and produced foods, the danger of plastics and other unnatural materials and why paying a little more for a product like ours is worth it.

Q: I think most entrepreneurs are educators or experts to a certain degree—would you agree?

A: Educators, but not necessarily experts. I certainly don’t feel like an expert. We are learning so much as we go along, undoubtedly making mistakes along the way. Education is definitely involved, though, especially when you’re trying to sell a product that has a lot more to it than initially meets the eye. What’s lucky for us, though, is that consumers are changing…they are much more curious now and want to buy into a story, not just a product. So we have to educate them on the meaning of the product choices we’ve made and convince them of the value this adds to their purchases.

Q: If you got together with other small business owners in your community—-what would the hot topics be?

A: The hot topic of the moment would be rising fuel costs and the impact this is having on our respective operations. No matter what kind of business you run, you are seeing an increase in your costs across the board, not only at the pump, but with delivery charges, food costs, utilities, everything. While we are making every effort to cut back and be smart where we can, there is no way to avoid passing some of this increased cost on to our customers. This is really unpleasant, for businesses and patrons alike. We would very much prefer not to do it, but we’re left with no choice. This is especially tough in a time of a slumping economy. So we are all trying to keep prices as low as possible, but we have to keep an eye on the bigger picture and make sure we’re charging enough to stay afloat.

Q: What are the other salient challenges that face your business?

A: When Jennie and I decided that we would “go green,” we realized that we would have to be consistent with this and make every effort to create as environmentally conscientious an establishment as we feasibly could. For example, we couldn’t use chemical-laden products in the build-out of our shop and then serve our ice cream in biodegradable bowls. While I’m proud of our commitment and wouldn’t back down on it, it does require considerably more education, research, time, effort and money than going the conventional route. And sometimes the inconvenience of our decision spreads to the customer’s side of the counter. There are still only a small handful of suppliers of biodegradable food service products, for example, so we are vulnerable to temporary outages and delays in the delivery of the products we need. Our ice cream itself, while always delicious, may vary from one visit to the next, as it is not cranked out in some anonymous industrial complex. It is made on a farm in very small batches by a fourth-generation ice cream maker, so some variation is inevitable. So while the commitment we’ve made to the environment is part of what makes our shop and ice cream so special, it does require some patience and understanding on the part of the customer.

Q: Do you see the green movement creating a kind of “alternative” or parallel economy of socially conscious entrepreneurs—or is this simply a new twist on an old practice of community-minded business at work?

A: What started as a fringe, “tree-hugging” movement has ventured into mainstream commerce. It seems that just about every retailer across every sector now offers products made of some sustainable, organic material or another. So in this sense, the green movement has indeed created an economy of its own, which is growing more robust by the day. Some people decry the commercialization of the movement, but I say the the more accessible we make it the greater the impact it can have. The community-mindedness aspect of it is, as I see it, a deeper level of commitment to the issues of environmentalism, particularly at the local level. For example, we not only use biodegradable cups and spoons, but we transport them, after being used, to a farm in upstate NY to be used as compost. I think it’s perhaps the community piece that sometimes separates those who truly believe in the movement from those who just want to make a buck off it.

Q: What are its greatest rewards?

A: One reward specific to owning an ice cream shop is that our “office” is truly a joyful place. People come to our shop to celebrate, to turn a bad day around, to meet friends, to treat themselves. We have worked really hard to create a warm, fun, inviting atmosphere, so to see people come and enjoy it fully is very rewarding. A more general reward is the creative challenge of it all. Neither my partner nor I had had any experience in the retail, food or business sectors, so the learning curve has been quite steep, but it has been really fun to exercise our brains in entirely new ways. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we feel enormously gratified when we see people not only enjoy our ice cream but actually learn something from their experience at Blue Marble. We love it when children ask in wide-eyed disbelief if our spoons are really made of corn and if they can eat them. Many children take samples in to show their teachers, and many of these teachers have come in to tell us they are now trying to get their schools’ cafeterias to use the corn spoons instead of plastic. This is what it’s all about: showing people, especially the young ones, how, with just small, simple changes – or the decision of where to buy their ice cream cone – they can support (and maybe even change!) the world around them. A grandiose mission for an ice cream shop, perhaps, but one, we feel, worth pursuing through any means.

Q: If you could pass a law tomorrow that would help small businesses locally, what would it look like?

A: There should be some kind of incentive on the government’s end (at least local, if not local and federal) that encourages and supports businesses to go green. For example, we use only grass-fed organic dairy and sugar in our ice cream, all of our serveware is biodegradable, we source our power from a green energy supplier, we used all non-toxic materials in the build-out of our shop, etc. We have conceded to slimmer profit margins as a result of all of these choices, but there is a public service aspect to our efforts that, we feel, should be rewarded. We are not cramming landfills, we are not supporting farmers and producers that pollute our air and soil and destroy surrounding ecosystems, we are not burning through fuel to power our business. And while we wouldn’t consider doing things any differently, the price tag on the choices we have made is substantial. If the government offered some kind of support for efforts like ours – through subsides, rebates, anything! – perhaps more businesses would go green, consumers would have greater – and less expensive – access to green supplies and services, and together we could effect some real change.

Q: Does a lobby for that exist locally?

A: Not that I’ve seen, but perhaps I should create one!

Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch, Associate Director of Public Affairs at the Center for the Urban Environment. For more about the Center visit www.bcue.org.

Tags: Boerum Hill · Living Local Economies · Urban Environmentalist

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kim // Apr 30, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    They could save more money and fuel if their ice cream was actually made on the premises. It is a nice store, though.

  • 2 H Tenney // Apr 30, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    I like your site and expect better from you than a gratuitous Cleveland dig to start up your piece. So lame, so easy, and so incredibly out of date. If you’re still Cleveland bashing, you are desperately in need of some fresh material, preferably something from this century. Seriously, are you Steve Lawrence on the Tonight Show in 1972 or what?

  • 3 loose stool // Apr 30, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    whoa, I’m from Buffalo and quite frankly, any joke about Cleveland is one less joke about Buffalo.

  • 4 alexis // May 5, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Hi, Alexis here from Blue Marble. This is probably totally not cool of me to respond to these responses, but I couldn’t resist…A) H Tenney: the lame Cleveland dig was MY OWN, not GL’s, so the site should in no way be held responsible for it! I guess beating people to the Cleveland punch line is a defense mechanism I’ve developed over the years against the inevitable cracks. B) Kim: you are quite right about making the ice cream on the premises and that was, in fact, the original plan. We simply could not find a space big enough (that we could afford) that would accommodate all of the equipment AND still allow for comfortable seating and our play area. C) Loose Stool: that’s a funny screen name given the one Cleveland joke I didn’t mention: the Cleveland Steamer. (Probably not appropriate for a wholesome kid-friendly ice cream shop owner to bring that up, but well, there you have it.)

  • 5 H Tenney // May 5, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Loose Stool: Hilarious screen name, you clearly know what it’s like to grow up in the Rust Belt. But sorry, Buff is the new Clevo so I’m afraid you’ll have to live with it for a couple decades like I have.

    Alexis: the fact that you make ice cream and Cleveland Steamer references in the same post puts you way at the top of my list. I will buy your ice cream first chance I get. But you have to be proud of your hometown (preferably from a distance, unforch).
    Sorry for the misunderstanding, GL.

  • 6 Karin-(Namibia) // Aug 23, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Meme Lexy

    I can still remember you buying and devouring a lovely “Jive” strawberry ice-cream from OK next door under the Hot Ondangwa African Skies!!

    I am proud of your achievements Girlfriend! Do your best! enjoy yr journey!

    Your Namibian herero sister!