Food & Drink

Inside Kansha Creamery’s Charity-Focused LA Ice Cream Shop

This sibling-run sweet spot prioritizes “radical generosity.”

Kansha Creamery
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Kansha Creamery thrives in a basic, freeway-friendly Torrance strip mall, and though Elaine Yukari Marumoto-Perez and brother James Tatsuya Marumoto aren’t doing anything illicit, their ice cream shop is definitely a front…for charity. 

“It could have been anything,” Elaine says. “At first we were talking about a restaurant and bigger stuff, but just because we wanted to keep staff small and overhead low, it just turned out we were going to do an ice cream store. My brother was making ice cream at the house at the time too, so it’s kind of a perfect storm.”

The siblings started Kansha Creamery in 2015 and have subsequently raised nearly $300,000 for charity, donating 75 cents for every item sold. They rotate causes, but for the past two months, have benefited the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and plan to support MPAK (Mission to Promote Adoption of Kids) for the rest of 2020.

“As a business we feel that we have a responsibility to share our blessing with those who need it and in this current moment, it is those facing systemic racism and orphans in need of supplies and care during the COVID pandemic," Elaine says. The name Kansha fits their vision, which means gratitude in Japanese.

Kansha Creamery
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

The siblings trace their charitable spirit to church, and to Crazy Love, Francis Chan’s book that challenges religious complacency. “That book impacted both of us in an enormous way,” Elaine says. “Everybody has different ways of showing love, but in business there’s an emphasis on money. Money can be evil, but it can also be used for good…Since business is such a big platform, we wanted people to see we have radical generosity and radical integrity.”

Elaine and James support different charities based on personal connections or inspiring stories. When they first opened, Kansha Creamery benefited Children’s Hunger Fund, which is self-explanatory, before supporting ZOE International, an organization that rescues orphans and children from human trafficking. For the past two years, Kansha has worked with MPAK, which places homeless children and orphans in loving homes in Korea and China. Elaine and James found MPAK through The Drop Box, a 2015 documentary about Seoul pastor Lee Jong Rak, who along with wife Chun-ja, placed a box outside their church that welcomes abandoned children. The couple has placed hundreds of children in orphanages and personally cared for many kids. “We were really moved through that,” Elaine says. “We supported them and they introduced us to MPAK.”

Sean Cooley/Thrillist

James handles everything in Kansha Creamery’s kitchen: recipes, menu, baking, and churning. Elaine focuses on business, customer service and events.

Both siblings previously worked part-time jobs. James, 25, always gravitated towards food and cooked in restaurants. Elaine, 29, taught piano, worked as a housekeeper, caretaker, and waitress. They earned a living, but didn’t find fulfillment. “We felt like we had a duty to give back to different organizations,” Elaine says. They promptly paired ice cream with charity.

Kansha Creamery
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Finding the right real estate came naturally. Elaine actually frequented what is now Kansha’s space as a girl when it was still a donut shop. She and James signed a lease, and since they had “almost zero start-up money,” customers initially sat on crates, until neighbors donated chairs and tables. Only recently did Kansha buy matching furniture. To keep the space fresh, they feature a different local artist each month, displaying everything from photographs and illustrations to houseplants, all for sale.

Charity is their mission, but ice cream is no afterthought; James churns ice cream in-house using Straus Family Creamery dairy while avoiding preservatives and gums, resulting in consistently creamy, luxurious scoops.
 
To control quality, they only make five flavors per week. James occasionally churns more typical flavors like cookies and cream and caramel, but they’re best known for Asian flavors like soybean and black sesame and seasonal scoops made with fruits like homegrown mulberries. James even bends his own waffle cones. 
 
For their signature parfait, a creative sundae featuring vanilla and matcha ice creams, shiratama (supple orecchiette-shaped mochi), anko (sweet red bean), matcha jelly, and whipped cream, cornflakes are the only component that James doesn’t make onsite.

James first started making ice cream at age 14. He initially wanted to learn how to master making single-spoon quenelles, inspired by photos he saw online. He cold emailed vaunted New York pastry chef Will Goldfarb, who’s gone on to global acclaim with Room4Dessert in Bali and recently appeared on Chef's Table: Pastry. Goldfarb answered questions on how to form quenelles – “It’s all about the spoon and the ice cream,” James says. And a lengthy email chain also yielded a recipe for Goldfarb’s ice cream base, plus insights into “inverted sugar, Cremodan, milk solids, flavor release and everything needed to get the ideal texture.” He churned gallons for friends and neighbors who provided feedback and encouragement.

“I don’t remember the first batch, but I definitely remember the bad batches of ice cream,” Elaine says, referring to his brother’s experimental hay and mustard ice creams. “Before he would make whatever he wanted to try out,” she says. “It was just me and my parents trying the ice cream, so it would just be small batches of random things.” Now he considers flavors that are likely to have broader appeal. 

During the pandemic, Kansha limited business to selling its product only in pints to go, but business (and charity) hasn’t suffered -- a remarkable success story during the crisis and a testament to the good will they’ve built in the community.
 
The siblings have more projects in the works designed to benefit additional charities. Elaine says, “The challenge is going to be just keeping the integrity of the business as we grow.” 

Elaine and James have accomplished a lot, but have more to give. James hopes Kansha can achieve $1 million in charitable donations. “We’d also want to inspire more young and old people to give and help people in need,” he says.
 
“We were never in it for the ice cream,” Elaine says, “but we do have customers who love our ice cream, which is great, because I love our ice cream too.”

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Joshua Lurie is a contributor for Thrillist.