Food & Drink

This LES Ice Cream Shop Uses Likes and Licks to Tell Its Own Story

If you post it, they will come.

Ice & Vice founders Paul Kim and Kendrick Lo
Ice & Vice founders Paul Kim and Kendrick Lo | Yuxi Liu
Ice & Vice founders Paul Kim and Kendrick Lo | Yuxi Liu

Kendrick Lo and Paul Kim, founders of award-winning Lower East Side-based ice cream brand Ice & Vice, will be the first to admit it: They would be nothing without social media. “A business like ours, which started with nearly zero budget and just Paul and I doing everything, wouldn’t have survived without social media,” Lo says.

What started out as a hobby to create adventurous ice cream flavors for friends and family while Lo was working in finance and Kim was a chef on a New York river cruise was officially launched at popular food markets like Night Bazaar and Mad. Sq. Eats in 2013. This was the same year Instagram was really blowing up, launching both its video and direct message features. And with enough likes, plus the power of positive word of mouth, you can take your budding business to the next level without needing to rely on expensive marketing strategies.

“With Instagram, people can find you without visiting your profile,” Lo says. “There’s a level of discoverability that’s almost like free advertising.” While Lo and Kim were busy delighting New York market and festival goers with ice cream that creatively combined unexpected savory and sweet ingredients, Ice & Vice’s social media was expanding the brand’s reach to a wider audience. Ice & Vice soon won the Vendy Award for Best Dessert in 2014, and the very next year opened a Lower East Side storefront that now serves as the brand’s HQ and as a certified dairy plant. This is where Kim focuses on making the ice cream (featuring homemade, proprietary processes) while Lo manages operations and continues to handle all of the brand's social media. Both do R&D, which for each flavor that eventually lands on the menu could take weeks: Innovative confections are what also keeps Ice & Vice customers coming back.

“Compared to our competitors, we’re the oddballs."

With 20 new seasonal flavors a year, Lo and Kim have no choice but to push the limits -- their reputation depends on unbridled flights of fancy. Even naming flavors is an exercise in creativity. Basic B, for instance, is their take on vanilla ice cream. Spiked with black-lava sea salt, it’s one of their more subtle creations. “Compared to our competitors, we’re the oddballs,” Kim says, claiming they’ve even attempted (and failed) to make salmon ice cream. Ice & Vice’s signature flavor (the one that won them the Vendy) is called Milk Money, named after the 1994 comedy featuring Melanie Griffith and Ed Harris. The brand likens it to dulce de leche but whipped up a bit fancy with toasted milk ice cream ribboned with sea-salt chocolate ganache. It was initially inspired by leftovers they found in the kitchen.

Ice & Vice's success was spurred by the unique influence of the digital world, but Lo and Kim’s initial plans included wooing traditional media, too. Leading up to the 2015 ribbon-cutting of their headquarters on 221 East Broadway -- an achievement three years in the making -- the duo enlisted the help of friends in both the culinary and media industries to try and secure coverage from New York’s mainstream publications, but it amounted to very little.

“Because we weren’t well-known, no publication at the time seemed interested in covering us," Lo says. "The only thing we had was amazing ice cream, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the attention you think you deserve.”

Ice & Vice
Courtesy of Ice & Vice

Lo and Kim decided to lean even more on social media as their primary means of connecting with the public. Lo remains in charge of taking photos (he’s since upgraded from using a Samsung phone to a real DSLR camera) and engaging with their community. Today, Ice & Vice’s Instagram is full of enticing posts of triple-stacked cones, announcements of new flavors, and photos of milkshakes and ice cream sandwiches. And all of it has resonated: The account now has 90,000 followers.

“Initially, because no publication wanted to come see us, we thought it was our fault -- that we weren’t doing this or that enough. But eventually we realized some publications will cover who they want to cover because they think they know what’s best. They get to control what’s popular,” Lo adds. “But it all ended up being a blessing. Now, we can do it ourselves without having someone else telling us how to take pictures or dictate how to tell our story. Through social media, we get to control our own story.”

Something beyond their control, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. After closing the LES location in March, it reopened on June 10 followed by the Long Island City popup on June 17. Both have had to put seasonal launches on hold due to disrupted supply chains and because R&D is expensive, but the busiest stretch of ice cream season is a short one, and according to Lo, “we couldn’t hold out any longer.”

Another challenge is being pigeonholed. Lo and Kim, both originally from California and of Asian descent, have seen how the media can portray a brand based on one part of its identity. And having the story of their life’s work told through a narrow lens is something they try to avoid. Lo says that the moment they use ingredients typically associated with Asian cuisines, they’re immediately labeled an Asian ice cream shop.

“We have a flavor called 9 AM, which features Vietnamese coffee. Morgenstern’s has a flavor that uses Vietnamese coffee, too, but no one calls them an Asian ice cream shop,” Lo says. “We want the product to speak for itself, but when publications call us an Asian company, they’re telling their readers how they’re supposed to perceive us. We don’t want to be defined as an Asian business. We just want to make the best ice cream possible.”

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Chadner Navarro is a Thrillist contributor.