Some people are just so entrepreneurial that no matter how successful they have been with previous ventures, they just have to keep innovating. Susan Sbicca — founder of the iconic Sbicca restaurant in Del Mar, the former Meritage in Encinitas, and now owner of Millie’s Vegan Gelato — is a prime example.I ran into Susan selling her gelato at the Leucadia Farmers Market and I will admit that I initially scoffed at the idea of the vegan gelato concept. That was enhanced by my friend Pia from Italy who knows her gelato and can be very discerning about it.
All it took was a taste and we were immediately convinced that Susan is on to something big here, it was delicious. Here is a conversation I had recently with Susan that gives some background on how Millie’s came to be and her plans for the line.
Lick the Plate: After a long career in the restaurant business, including owning and running the kitchen at Meritage and Sbicca, what prompted your decision to start Millie’s?
Susan Sbicca: I left the Sbicca kitchen the beginning of 2010. It took a while to settle down. In March of that year I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and started exploring options other than the heavy duty drugs recommended. This journey led me to a mostly raw, plant-based diet. It worked and my disease is in remission. I think it’s kind of ironic — I’ve been a cook for 30-plus years.
LTP: Did you have any experience making gelato or was it something you learned as you went along?
SS: I had never made gelato before, in fact I got my first little Cuisinart ice cream maker for Valentine’s day in 2011. I researched and tested, trashed and started over. It took a while to get it where I wanted it. Now that I have a foundation there is no end in sight!
LTP: So I’ll admit, my initial reaction to vegan gelato was one of uneducated skepticism, then I tasted it and immediately thought that this is something I’d like in my freezer. Can you describe how you make it taste so good and still be vegan?
SS: I find that “vegan” food has a reputation of not tasting very good. This is really sad to me. I believe my purpose in life is to make things taste really good. The word “yummy” is part of my culinary vocabulary, and I strive for that with everything I do.
I’ve always felt that the food is what tastes so good, not how I can change it. That being said, preparing raw, plant-based dishes and desserts is like learning a new culinary language. For the gelato I use nuts and fruit (preferable organic and local) and sweeten with raw organic agave.
LTP: What flavors are you currently offering and does the seasonality of ingredients factor in?
SS: Summer inspires so many ideas! Peaches and cream, coconut caramel banana, and so many more. Just walking around the farmers markets is great for ideas. There are a few flavors I could not show up without: chocolate peanut butter, chocolate caramel sea salt and passion fruit. I like to mix it up for my regulars.
LTP: I like that you are starting slow, perfecting your product and selling it in a very grass roots style through farmers markets. That said, my hunch is that this could really explode on a big scale at some point. What are your plans for expansion?
SS: Just last week I received the Emory Thompson batch freezer that will handle a nice expansion. Having worked and owned restaurants, I am no stranger to hard work and that’s what it will take. Attention to detail, the commitment I make to use only the best ingredients, the passion I have for making things delicious and nutritious are the foundation of Millie’s Gelato’s vision.
LTP: Where can readers find your gelato currently?
SS: Millie’s is selling gelato at the Leucadia Farmers Market on Sundays, Encinitas on Wednesday evenings and Carmel Valley Thursday afternoons. I am just about ready to move into specialty grocery stores. Check my website for updates.
Find out where you can buy Millie’s Vegan Gelato at www.milliesgelato.com and on Facebook.