Cajou Creamery Will Change Your Mind About Plant-Based Ice Cream
Flavors include baklava, Mexican cacao, and sweet potato pie.
You know the old joke. What happens when a lawyer and chef walk into a reggae bar? They start an ice cream empire, naturally.
That’s the 13-year-old origin story for Cajou Creamery, a plant-based ice cream company in Baltimore, run by husband-and-wife duo Dwight Campbell and Nicole Foster. After selling their product at local farmers’ markets and, most recently, via porch drop deliveries, they’re currently building out a permanent space -- during a very uncertain time.
“It has been a bit of a shock to go from public health law to ice cream, but it’s really been a journey,” Foster says with a laugh. “Even though you don’t recognize how things are lining up along the way, the end result is a total confluence of our passions.”
After discovering their two sons were lactose intolerant around 2014, the couple explored the plant-based ice cream world and found there weren’t a ton of options. Many had strange additives or had more of an icy, hard texture than a smooth, creamy one. So Campbell drew on his more than a decade of experience being a chef in South Florida and, most recently, at the National Gallery of Art, and Foster got her raw vegan chef certification and they began to experiment.
Campbell and Foster went back and forth on the amount of water to put in the product to prevent that icy factor. They also tinkered with natural sweeteners like dates, maple syrup, and agave, but soon realized there was nothing quite like real, 100-percent cane sugar. And, of course, they played around with all different types of bases to keep the product dairy-free, and fell in love with cashews. (So much so that their business name is cashew in French.) The result is a creamy, almost silk-like texture.
“Cashews are grown in the West Indies and used in multiple meals -- used as a wine, dessert, and are super versatile,” Foster says. “We believe that they can be reinvented time and time again, just like people.”
As with all small businesses, family was the initial guinea pig and, once their two sons approved, they began to scale Cajou up and give samples and sell the product at farmers’ markets. Foster was even instrumental in starting a local market in their neighborhood. Customers were always shocked to hear there was no dairy in the ice cream.
“People hear vegan or plant-based and think ick, like they are dirty words,” Foster says. “Or a common story we hear is, ‘I haven’t had ice cream in 20 years,’ and we are able to give them that experience. We hope people can connect to whole foods again and feel the joy that we put into making the product.”
Part of that joy comes from developing globally influenced flavors -- including the popular Baklava from the Middle East, Horchata from West African/Latin America, Kulfi from India, Cortadito from Cuba, Mexican Cacao, and even two U.S.-influenced flavors Sweet Potato Pie and Cheesecake. Many of the flavors are based on the couple’s travels and each can be traced to a global root.
“People are so surprised to taste the genuine flavors of the ingredients,” Campbell says. “Like cardamom, which is front and center in the Kulfi or espresso in the Cortadito -- we actually grind cardamom pods and brew espresso. We don’t use pre-made bases, which can never replicate authentic flavors.”
Things really began to pick up steam at the beginning of 2020 when Cajou won a storefront competition for Howard Row, a mixed-use project along a historic 27-block strip in downtown Baltimore once home to some of the best shopping in the city. Along with one other business, they won a yearlong lease, but they are still responsible for customizing the space, and paying for insurance, utilities, and a security deposit. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown quite a wrench in these brick-and-mortar plans.
“Building out during this guessing game is a real challenge,” Foster says. “Should we make tables six feet apart? Should we have plexiglass separators? If people aren’t dining in, should we convert one wall to a pass-through window? We are having to pivot, but we feel lucky that we are building out now rather than having already completed it before the pandemic.”
One way Cajou is hoping to make things easier is through a Kickstarter campaign running during the month of July (National Ice Cream Month). The money -- so far $19,000 of their $30,000 goal -- will go to scaling up the business for the storefront and quadrupling its current production.
Campbell and Foster certainly think big when it comes to Cajou. They have plans to expand beyond ice cream and offer a broad, plant-based food menu. They also intend to hire former prisoners or “returning citizens” to give them a second lease on life. This is all on top of an underlying mission to promote healthy foods in their own backyard.
“My public health work has taken me to West Africa and Latin America,” says Foster, who still practices law. “But now we want to limit diet-related diseases in our community, and connect people with food from the diaspora. This has all taught me we have one life to live and we can always reinvent ourselves.”
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