Three Twins ice cream is a local business that’s been around since 2005. The company makes organic products and has four scoop shops in Northern California including a recently reopened one in the Haight. I enjoy their ice cream sandwiches, pints and scoops because the flavors are interesting and refreshing. There’s an altruistic approach to this company–from fundraisers for Hurricane Katrina victims to donating to land conservation via 1% for the Planet. Equally interesting and totally fun is the fact that Founder Neil Gottlieb and sometimes his staff wear the catchiest outfits to industry events. To add to the fun, Gottlieb launched a Sergio Romo flavor last September — “Sergio Romo’s Mexican Chocolate“–a cheeky reference to the baseball star wearing an “I Just Look Illegal” t-shirt to much controversy. The flavor’s tagline claims: “It only tastes illegal.”
Gottlieb is a Cornell University grad and decided to strike out on his own in the ice cream industry rather than attend business school. He went with a loan from his parents, a dedicated duo that have been seen selling Three Twins at farmers’ markets. Although his family helped with the hard work of starting up the business, the operation is exclusively Neil’s.
The first storefront for Three Twins was in San Rafael, and there are now other shops in San Francisco, Napa and Larkspur. There’s also a much larger production site housing an ice cream factory in Petaluma’s dairy belt. With an eye toward sustainability, the company is able to partner with nearby farms that provide milk and cream and are within a 17-mile radius.
Three Twins is available in many Bay Area restaurants, and has national distribution in Whole Foods Market, The Fresh Market and other independent grocers. To find out more, Bay Area Bites recently caught up with Gottlieb. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: How and why did you start making ice cream?
Gottlieb: I had never actually made ice cream before deciding to start an ice cream company. But, I decided to set forth building the next great American ice cream brand, so I started making ice cream at home, then took a commercial ice cream making class, which lasted two days and was terrifying. Almost every ice cream involved something out of a little brown bottle. It was like chemistry class without the Bunsen burners. When I actually opened up the business in 2005, I had only made a couple dozen batches of ice cream, so most of my learning was hands on.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you get your recipes: Dad’s cardamom, lemon cookie, chocolate orange confetti, strawberry Je Ne Sais Quoi and so on?
Gottlieb: They are developed in-house. It’s not actually that hard to make great ice cream if you use good ingredients and leave out the crap. Inspiration comes from all realms — from the spice rack, favorite flavor combinations, and making flavors organic for the first time that were previously only available in conventional ice cream, like our Sea Salted Caramel. Or, in the case of Sergio Romo’s Mexican Chocolate with the tagline “it only tastes illegal,” the inspiration came from his infamous t-shirt.
Bay Area Bites: Congratulations on re-opening in the Haight. That process took over two years after a fire shuttered operations. What was it like?
Gottlieb: It was a full 833 days. The process was reminiscent of one long trip to the dentist. Without Novocain. But, we are thrilled to be reopened and back in the neighborhood.
Bay Area Bites: You offer ice cream sandwiches at the Haight shop and pints of Sergio Romo’s Mexican chocolate. What are your favorites?
Gottlieb: My favorite flavor at the Haight shop is the Pliny the Elder around the corner at Toronado. I am very proud of what we’re doing: bringing inconceivably delicious organic ice cream to the world at a reasonable price and giving back at the same time through our land conservation initiative, Ice Cream for Acres. Also, Cookies & Cream or one of our Fair Trade ice cream sandwiches with Chocolate Chip Cookies and Vanilla Ice Cream are some of my favorites.
Bay Area Bites: You often make a splash at events like the Fancy Food Show by wearing a crazy costume. Where are the costumes stored? Did you dress up a lot as a kid? (Or not at all… and this is a way of making up for that?)
Gottlieb: Crazy is subjective. I believe that a little dose of personal branding can go a long way, especially when your mug and signature are imprinted on millions of ice cream containers each year. So, if it means that I show a little of what my momma gave me or sport custom ice cream cone pants in order to help build the brand, why not? Plus, nothing will ever be as potentially damning to future political aspirations as what I wore to run Bay to Breakers one year.