Summer seems to suit Walter Youngblood handsomely. I meet him outside the Central Park Zoo and he is smiling and friendly despite the heat, wearing a highlighter green T-shirt, fedora, pinstriped pants, and a red cooler slung over his shoulder. I look to the cooler and know immediately what populates it: King Leche Cremes, the goat milk ice cream pops that Walter first debuted this summer.
Although the creation of King Leche Cremes marks Walter’s first foray into food startup entrepreneurship, he is no stranger to the New York City food world. Walter has been waiting tables for the better part of the twenty years he’s been living in the city, serving food for the likes of Wiley Defresne at WD-50, for Rick Bayless at Bar Americaine and, most recently, at the Good Fork in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Walter lives in East Harlem but is a native of Kansas City, where he can trace the origin of his love of ice cream to his large Missourian family. “I can taste it right in the front of my mouth,” he waxes nostalgic. “I can taste the cheap vanilla” of the ice cream his aunt would make for family gatherings.
King Leche Cremes are a far cry from his family’s traditional rock salt and imitation vanilla concoctions. For one, the base of his ice cream is spice driven: “I use cardamom, all-spice, and rosemary,” he says. “If I left the sugar out, it would be the base for a savory tart.” Another trait that sets his ice cream apart is his use of alternative dairy and eggs. Lactose intolerant himself, Walter chooses to work with goat milk to achieve a desired consistency and viscosity and because of a belief in it’s more salutary qualities; he also uses duck eggs in lieu of chicken eggs. Finally, he doesn’t use a stabilizer–an ingredient found in most commercial ice cream that emulsifies the components and serves as a preservative–because he dislikes the consistency it gives the ice cream (even though this means you might have a melty pop on your hands if you don’t eat fast enough).
Getting the alchemy just right was a result of lengthy experimentation. Amongst the most notable of Walter’s trial and error disasters was a particularly adventurous blue cheese ice cream effort that he premiered at a Thanksgiving dinner eight years ago. “It just tasted like frozen blue cheese,” he recalls. “My friends still bring it up.”
It’s safe to say that he has redeemed himself since the blue cheese incident. These days he’s serving an array of flavors, including red velvet cake (made with the traditional source of it’s distinctive red color: beets), spicy chocolate, chocolate bourbon, honeysuckle, and sweet pea and mint–among others. Flavors change weekly, depending on which fresh ingredients Walter can get his hands on. Everything is locally sourced in piecemeal through a veritable scavenger hunt that spans the metro area. He gets honeysuckle from the Inwood Hill Park, honey from his neighbor’s rooftop, figs from a Harlem community garden, mint from his boss’ garden in Red Hook, goat milk from cheesemonger Anne Saxelby at Essex Market, and other local fruits and vegetables from greenmarkets around the city.
In many ways, Walter’s story exemplifies what it takes to cultivate a startup from scratch in the Brooklyn artisanal food scene. It seems that Walter has a lot of the qualities for success: a culinary knowledge, an interesting spin on a traditional treat, and a dedication to locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. He also has the hard work and resourcefulness necessary to start a business alone and with little money–King Leche Cremes is a one-man show operating on a server’s income. Walter relies on the generosity of the restaurants at which he works for commercial kitchen space, for example, toiling away after his serving shifts to make his product.
Beyond the complications of starting a small business on a limited budget, another obstacle has been finding an audience. Walter’s community is East Harlem but Brooklyn has provided the easiest point of entry to big crowds of adventurous eaters at large-scale food venues such as the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg. The flip side to this access, though, is the challenge of standing out among all the other food vendors. “It’s a lot of competition,” Walter laments. “Every Saturday at Smorgasburg, I’m facing People’s Pops. They’re the most popular frozen dessert. They have a lot of visibility. That’s my challenge. Gaining visibility. Literally, you have to be seen in this scene of other food stalls.”
As summer comes to a close, Walter remains optimistic and confident in his product in spite of the hurdles. When I visited him recently at Smorgasburg, he was happy to report that he had sold more pops than ever before and would likely sell out that day. He successfully managed to grab a good, visible spot, right next to one of the entrances and the ATM machine. He also announced that the Good Fork in Red Hook recently started selling a couple of his flavors: Duemarte Rum Raisin and Peach Lavender. And, from what I observed, everyone who skipped the long line at People’s Pops and tried a King Leche Creme was a satisfied customer.