Why Jason rocks: owner of Frozen Kuhsterd, a pop-up soon-to-be dessert truck!
Who is Jason?
Jason is an entrepreneur, hustler, a foodie, all encompassed in one person. By day, I am an IT recruiter. By night I created and run Frozen Kuhsterd. As a side venture, I also co-own a UPS store in Daly City. I gravitated to the food scene because I find that food as a chance to learn a little about someone’s culture, the chef’s background and to experience new things. I appreciate food more than the average person. In fact, a lot the flavors put together for Frozen Kuhsterd are inspired by places I’ve been to… not only from San Francisco but the cities I’ve visited around the world and I translate it into something local, sustainable, and organic. I’m from South San Francisco, and I am Filipino-American. In fact, the first Goldilocks was up the street from my house. I grew up on a lot of Asian influences. My earliest memory of ice cream was a Asian inspired ice cream store in the neighborhood called Coco Banana. They had flavors like: ube, avocado, macapuno, corn, lanka… a lot of flavors I was familiar with because of my mom and my family. We did trips to Thrifty’s, Mitchell’s Ice Cream.. all of the regular haunts that my dad would drive us to after church on Sundays. I don’t have a culinary background, but I love baking and creating desserts. I learned that about 10 years ago when I dabbled with baking and bringing cupcakes into work when I was working for Schwab and saying that my fiancé (at the time) made these, instead of saying here are some cupcakes I made. I thought that a dude shouldn’t be making cupcakes, but I liked to share what I made. I went to South City High School then on to San Francisco State for my undergrad, and went back to San Francisco State for my MBA in entrepreneurship. I run a UPS store, run a website (individualsole.com) that covers men street wear fashion trends, art, and local events.
You mentioned 10 years ago you started baking, how did that start off?
First off, I love sweets! I’m probably one of the few guys out there that have to have dessert. I’d take dessert over the actual meal any day. There’s something about cooking savory dishes versus desserts… desserts just make more sense to me. When I created desserts, I put my take on it and make into something I would like to eat. I’ve tried to make savory dishes, but I don’t have the connection or passion for it. Making sweets, comes easy to me because it is fun and creative outlet for me. Frozen Kuhsterd is not a job to me. It’s more than a hobby. Even if I put 12 hours on a project… it feels like its 3-4 hours.
Did it only feel natural to you to start your business here in San Francisco?
About 2 years ago, my ex-business partner and I were both laid off from our long-time jobs and had our severance packages. We were thinking about how to reinvent the food landscape in San Francisco. We bounced around ideas and a light bulb popped up in his head. He said, “Jason, when was in the mid-west, there is this stuff called frozen custard that is really popular out there and we don’t have it in the Bay Area.” We took our chances and booked a flight to St. Louis and signed up for one of these training seminars on frozen desserts to understand frozen custard. I had the money and had the time. I had never been to St. Louis before… so I got to taste frozen custard fresh and visited 12 different locations. I even made the pilgrimage to Ted Drews, one of the top frozen custard purveyors in the country. In no disrespect to a American legend, but when I tasted it, I said to myself that I could do better. We even traveled to Seattle to taste a few of the frozen custards locations up there… In both locations, they majority didn’t seem to integrate local ingredients or try to stay away from the artificial. What hit me was, during the class in St. Louis, they said lets make mint chocolate chip and asked us to grab a plastic container resembling detergent that said this is the mint flavor. I had to pour the green glop into a premade base, massaged it in and run it through the machine. They asked us to sample it and I refused to. After reading “Fast Food Nation”, I refuse to eat something that came out of a bottle and looked like detergent. Regardless I agreed to focus on bringing frozen custard to the Bay Area, bought the machine from the mid-west, but promised to focus on the use of local, natural, and organic ingredients. At this point, the only thing that I have integrated that hasn’t been local or organic is when I make alcohol-integrated flavors, like Spiked Cereal Milk (Jameson and Cereal Milk flavor).
My business partner left me 2 months into the business because he lost interest and personal issues. Late last year, we officially decided mutually to separate. For the most part, I’ve been doing it on my own, until recently with the addition of Alex Lam who has been my right hand man.
What is the Frozen Kuhsterd concept?
To bring to the Bay Area an innovative product that is different than ice cream, to educate the masses about the differences, and delivering my story, my uniqueness to the flavors that I present.
When was the first launch?
It started off officially, offering was at the Underground Market last April. It was a really great response from our initial customer base, we kicked it all off with Blue Bottle coffee and vanilla flavors. There was huge learning curve since everything was a first for us, but we sold out. We did 3 following Underground Markets before they got shut down due to the SF Health Department. The struggle at that point was to find an outlet to expose our product. A lot of the ex-Underground Market vendors moved on to the New Taste Market in Potrero Hill. The New Taste Market was about 15% of the attendance that the Underground Market drew and it is held during the day, so it was more of a family type of event. It gave us an opportunity to refine our product, explore different flavor ideas, and hone our presentation. They weren’t as popular as the Underground Market… but it’s really isn’t about the money at this point of the business. I’ve started a business before. I know that the first two years are the hardest. My angle is to share my product to the masses, building the brand identity. In fact, my initial pitch to Underground Market, which was a sampling at La Victoria Bakery, I brought Spicy Mexican Chocolate and Blue Bottle Coffee Flavors, making about 4 gallons of product, but had still a left over ice chest of dry ice and frozen custard. I told my best friend who was with me, let’s go give samples to people in line at Humphry Slocombe and then we headed to Dolores Park! We sold them for $5 dollars a pint and did a lot of talking to people about what the hell frozen custard is.
How is business now?
This past year, the momentum has been overwhelming. Recently, I’ve done a lot of corporate events for technology start-ups, who book us for ice cream socials. I think the main thing that draws people to Frozen Kuhsterd is because of the connection to the San Francisco street food and because there’s really a person behind it all.
There are certain flavors that really take me back, Avocado being one of them. I reminds me a dessert drink my father used to make us when my brothers and I wanted dessert. I am not alone when it comes to this flavor. Recently I dropped off a pint to Joanie (a Filipino food blogger) and she did a whole 3 minute YouTube video about our Avocado flavor Frozen Kuhsterd.
Currently, we are selling through Izakaya Sozai in San Francisco, Attic in San Mateo, and will be an addition to Ken Ken Ramen. We are in preliminary stages of pitching our product to Melt (they have 8 locations) brainchild of Michael Mina and the Flip Camera founder. I did a pitch with them late last year and recently reconnected with them again regarding Frozen Kuhsterd to be a frozen dessert option on their menu. Our contact told me that Michael Mina even got a chance to try our Cereal Milk flavor and was impressed. It was just bad timing then because they were focus on opening stores and not expanding the menu. But we’ll see how goes in the next few weeks.
My passion would be to do this full-time, but there’s reality. Based on what’s in motion, the dream might not be that far away.
How did you gain momentum?
Umm, social networking and building relationships with key people. If you put Underground Market vendor on your resume (which isn’t easy) and you do well… your name starts spreading. After every food event we do, I reach out and share the product all the time with other food vendors (I think they are our biggest critics). We are out there, showing people the testament of our work. My daytime job as an IT recruiter forces me to reach out and connect with people. I’ve connected with Nathan Downs last year and we’ve done a few pop up events at Coffee Bar. It even got us access to Elizabeth Faulkner as she attended one of those events. She tried our Spiked Cereal Milk and loved it. When I see someone try the product and get positive feedback, it’s just a validation of my hard work. Because I would say 70% of the events I do, I don’t make money on. The focus is sharing our product with as many people as we can.
What is the difference between frozen custard, gelato and ice cream?
It’s its own segment in the frozen dessert offering. Frozen custard is somewhere between ice cream and gelato as far as texture. The main difference is the higher egg yolk content. Unlike ice cream which is very inflated… for example if you pour 1 gallon of pre-made base into an ice cream machine you could come out with almost 2 gallons of ice cream. If you pour 1 gallon frozen custard base into a frozen custard machine, you come out with about a gallon and a quarter. It’s denser. It’s creamy. It’s smooth. It melts slower than ice cream due to the higher amount of egg yolks.
Are the flavors seasonal and how do you build on that?
We play around with ideas and execution. If I don’t like it, we don’t do it. If I’m on the fence, I’d like to ask our customers for feedback. For example the spiked cereal milk with Jameson is a confirmed flavor… everyone loves it. I recently read a book called the Purple Cow that inspires constant innovation and not playing it safe. So for the last Food Social, I took my love of cupcakes and I told myself that I was going to make cupcake tribute, the result was a Cake Batter flavor topped with Ghirardelli Buttercream. People liked it but not as much as our Cereal Milk. One that I really like… is our Fresh Mint White Chocolate flavor, it is crushed fresh mint leaves that is infused into a white chocolate base. The result is a strong white chocolate taste that’s refreshing like a Mojito. That flavor translated into creating a tribute to my favorite drink at Philz Coffee – the Mint Mojito. I want to stay true to what frozen custard is, but give it a San Francisco feel to it.
Is there a particular top-seller flavor?
I would say the Blue Bottle Coffee, Cereal Milk, Malted Chocolate and Avocado. Head over to Izakaya Sozai they are serving the avocado!
How did you come up with your brand identity?
The name Frozen Kuhsterd… everyone always asks what’s up with the spelling. If you look up Frozen Custard in the Webster Dictionary, it is the phonic spelling, it’s kuhs-terd. Also, I have a talented friend named Cat Oshiro who has done work for Yelp and a couple of other start-up food businesses. I knew she was busy, but asked her if she had time to put a logo for me that was 1920’s-1930’s, very retro look since frozen custard was started in Coney Island back then. She took on the project and did amazing work. The end result is a character that has a vintage inspired look. She went with a soft palette because I told her that vanilla custard has a little yellow tone to it. I wanted to stay true to that.
What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing the product to market?
The separation of my business partner… you know, going headstrong into a project. Dumping in thousands of dollars (the machines are expensive), after doing all the work, to find the guy that was with you step-by-step doesn’t want to do it anymore. Trying to pick up without support, I think was the hardest thing. That and finding outlets to sell my product.
How do you feel about Underground Market shut down?
I think San Francisco is losing the point… they are killing innovation. In some cases, amazing food could come from some gentlemen or ladies who have cleaner kitchens than real restaurants. It gives the general public an injustice to not allow us to taste and experiencing these things. I don’t think it takes away from the food landscape, it adds color and variation. I support everything they do and will do anything to help because they helped me launch Frozen Kuhsterd from the start.
What has been the most rewarding?
I would say, being able to handle and manage our recent corporate event, providing 26 gallons for Yelp’s Employee Appreciation party (biggest order I’ve ever had). Then there is our maintaining of our 5-five star rating on Yelp and there is also that video from Joanie, a well respected Filipino food blogger, doing a 3 minute speech about why she loved Frozen Kuhsterd. That in itself is worth more than any dollar amount. I know that down the line that money will come, if stay true to the product and to myself.
What is the vision for Frozen Kuhsterd?
We’d like to try the food truck route, you can see the success through Cupkates and the Crème Brulee Cart who have done well without a brick-and-mortar location. Right now my focus is building the brand to the point where people are begging for a store front. On my Yelp, there is my Google voice phone number and I am getting 3 to 4 phone calls a day looking for a location. If things work out and we build enough funding for a store location, I would like to be in the Mission area… the place and people have a higher appreciation for food. Cold or not, people come out, as you can see with Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe, Mitchell’s, etc.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in a food venture?
If you really enjoy and have an amazing product you’d like to share outside of your family and friends then you just have to believe in yourself and just do it. I encourage people to reach out to me and ask any questions they may have. When I was going through the motions, I didn’t have much to go on, I just did a lot of research and made a lot of connections. If you’ve want to put a smile on people faces and it not all about the dollar, then just do it. You have to realize there is a trial of losing money before becoming successful.
Any last words?
I’m excited for our Food Truck, set to get onto the streets by early June, which would be in time for summer time. I’m amazed where we are at… we’re not there yet but I told myself that in the year 2012 I wanted to somehow get onto FoodTV in one way, shape or form to help promote our idea to reinvent the frozen custard and frozen dessert segment. People should remember their first experience with Frozen Kuhsterd because at first taste, it may provide you with a lasting memory!
// photos by fareandsq //