Food & Drink

This Oakland Ice Cream Shop Is Bringing Joy to the Bay Area

The perfect place for a pick-me-up.

Courtesy of Little Giant Ice Cream

Little Giant Ice Cream in Oakland was born of a simple truth: Ice cream is a universal joy. 

“Spend some time in an ice cream shop. No one who comes in is unhappy!” says Little Giant co-owner Kevin Best. “Or put it this way -- no one leaves an ice cream shop unhappy.”

Along with co-founder Neil Rideout, Best aimed to capture the happiness inherent in ice cream when they opened their Uptown Oakland shop in 2015. Little Giant, which specializes in American hard scoop ice cream, quickly became a neighborhood fixture, known for regularly rotating, unexpected flavors influenced by the duo’s decades of restaurant experience. Think mezcal-spiked mango sorbet, Mexican Rocky Road laced with chili-spiced marshmallows, and even, one year, honey-baked ham. It's a scoop shop slash ice cream lab with a sleek, yet undeniably whimsical vibe, bedecked with toy robots. 

Despite the challenges in their first five years, a short-lived second location in San Francisco, and, obviously, the full-tilt cluster that is 2020, Little Giant is still churning ice cream and slinging pints. But Best and Rideout are committed to being there, “when the dust settles,” as Best puts it. They know that right now, the world needs all the ice cream it can get.

“Ice cream is really a universal salve for tough times, and for celebration,” Rideout says. “It lifts your spirit. Ice cream’s for kids and for adults. We want to tap into that universality.”

Little Giant Ice Cream
Little Giant Ice Cream

The longtime friends met in the early 2000s when they were finding their footing in the San Francisco restaurant world. Best, who has a background in jazz performance and education, moved to the Bay from North Carolina with his wife in late 2001. He'd worked in fine dining on the East Coast and applied that experience to a more casual setting when he and his wife opened Boxed Foods Company, a high-end purveyor of organic salads and sandwiches in the Financial District. 

Rideout has lived in Oakland over half his life, landing in the city in 1992. He’s been working in food for most of his life, too -- one of his first jobs was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, which sent him to “a cake decorating program where they teach you to make clowns out of fondant and piping bags.”

He then worked his way up in the food world, eventually becoming a chef and partner at Cigar Bar & Grill in San Francisco’s Financial District. Best expanded his reach when he opened two locations of B Restaurant, one in SOMA and another in Old Oakland. While the two regularly crossed paths, becoming good friends in the process, they had never worked together. The idea of creating something in Oakland, where they lived, became increasingly appealing. 

“We were always cooking together,” says Best. “Neil would show up on a Saturday and we’d butcher a lamb, or something. And we’d get into these debates about the restaurant business as a whole. We weren’t getting any younger, after all... we’d think, how many more years do we have working on a hot line 12 hours a day?”

During those conversations, a common theme was ice cream. Both had experience making it at their restaurants; Rideout was particularly drawn to boozy flavors influenced by cocktails, while Best loved experimenting with savory flavors. They loved the idea of  bringing a scoop shop to their community.

The more they talked, and, as Best jokes, “the more beers we had,” they decided to go for it. They enrolled in Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course to gain a better understanding of the science of scoops. They embarked on an ice cream tour up and down the East and West coasts, and tried to figure out how they could set themselves apart in the competitive Bay Area ice cream market. In addition to focusing on genre-bending flavors, they landed on a rich, decadent style -- hard scoop -- which tends to have 16 to 17 percent butterfat, and is comparable to gelato in creaminess and texture. 

Little Giant Ice Cream
Courtesy of Little Giant Ice Cream

As for the shop’s name and robot-themed interior, the inspiration came from a desire to tap into a source of joy from their own childhoods: robots. 

“We spent the better part of a year trying to come up with a name,” Best says. “One day, I guess we were pounding wine, and we started talking about this little robot who ate ice cream. All his friends are fighter warrior robots, and he came off the assembly line kind of pudgy but really friendly.”

Little Giant, and Holstein, its spoon-wielding mascot, was born. The shop opened in the fall of 2015, with much of its production onsite. Located in Oakland’s rapidly gentrifying Uptown neighborhood, the team was heartened by an immediate, positive response from the community, and a loyal base of customers. But the neighborhood, while anchored by performance venues like The Fox Theater and The New Parish, along with a bustling bar and restaurant scene, wasn’t developing as quickly as many had hoped. 

“There was a bunch of development that was slated to happen in the neighborhood, that hasn’t happened,” says Rideout. “It’s been tough for Oakland, in general. It’s bittersweet.”

But, after a short-lived second location in San Francisco, they decided to double down in Oakland.  Now the duo develops and tests new flavors weekly -- sweet corn in the summer, a Blood and Sand-cocktail inspired flavor, and their best-selling Dirty South, caramel ice cream studded with candied pecans and a bourbon swirl. They’d have 12 flavors on offer at the scoop shop, usually subbing in one new flavor a week. 

“In summer, when the produce is just raging, you might get four new flavors in a week,” Best says of their constantly changing inspiration, which is largely seasonal, and often, draws on events happening in the community, like a Golden State Warriors championship run. 

Little Giant made a point of getting involved with the community, too, through work with the Warriors Community Foundation, the Oakland A’s Foundation, and Saint Vincent’s Day Home in West Oakland. “We have limited reach and resources, but what we do have is ice cream,” Best says. “We prefer our efforts to center on education and kids.”

Then came 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Bay Area, Little Giant closed its scoop shop, limiting sales to hand-packed pints and five ounce mini-pints, available for pickup from its Telegraph Avenue shop, and through many wholesale partners. The wholesale business, per Best, has been growing, and has been a lifesaver. There are also plans in the works for an ice cream mini-pint vending machine, which they’re hoping to launch at the Oakland International Airport. Still, the losses are significant.

“We’re so grateful for Oakland, for the city and for the people of the Uptown community,” he says. “There’s been a lot of love and support and it’s needed. It’s also appreciated. We’re trying to stay in it, trying to keep it going.” 

And the owners can’t forget the spirit of their optimistic sidekick who started it all. 

“Holstein, our little mascot, he kind of represents a lot for us,” says Best. “You’re the little guy, and you just get up and try. That’s how we approach every day.”

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Lauren Sloss is a contributor for Thrillist.