My final project of Food Reporting and Emerson College: The story of FoMu ice cream
FoMu Premium Ice Cream
The story of the chillest dairy-free ice cream in Boston
Business owners referring to their enterprises as their children is nothing new, but for Deena Jalal, founder of Boston’s earth-inspired, dairy-free ice cream brand FoMu, the metaphor is more accurate than most.
“When I was in the hospital with my first son, my mom had to stay with me because my husband was opening our first store,” says Jalal.
The brand’s second location in Jamaica Plain opened a year later, right at the time of the birth of her second son.
Obviously it was a tough balance, she says, “But there’s so much reward. I don’t dread going to work every day, and if I’m working late at night I don’t regret it, because I can see the growth and the progress, just like with my own children.”
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“My entire adult life I’d daydreamed about owning a food business,” Jalal says. “I didn’t have a food background, I wasn’t a chef, but one of those things that always seemed sort of dreamy was the idea of owning an ice cream shop.
In 2011, when she and her husband, Hin Tang, began to think about starting a family, Jalal started to consider her pipe dream a little more seriously, and the more thought she gave it, the more sense it made.
“I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about doing when my children weren’t around, and the idea of spending very long days at work in my corporate job didn’t seem quite right,” she says.
She and Tang quit their jobs — she in advertising, he in finance — and bought an ice cream commissary in Watertown. Within a year of purchasing the commercial kitchen, the couple opened their first brick and mortar location in Allston’s Union Square, after happening upon the space for lease.
Two kids and another cafe later, they launched an online store, and began a partnership with Whole Foods and other specialty stores in New England. In 2016 FoMu hosted three pop-ups, and found another new home in the South End. This year the couple is on track to open their most central location yet, this time on bustling Newbury Street.
The company is clearly visible and increasingly accessible, but none of this would matter if people didn’t like the product. For anybody who hasn’t tried FoMu’s progressively prominent brand of dairy-free ice cream, the biggest question still remains: Is it any good? Does coconut-based ice cream hold a candle to the regular stuff?
Bostonians certainly seem to think so. According to Jalal, when FoMu opened in 2011, it went through six thousand pounds of coconut cream, the base ingredient in each of their ice cream varieties. Less than six years later, Jalal says the company now moves through over one hundred thousand pounds of coconut cream per year.
And despite being a knuckle-headed skeptic of most health-trendy substitute foods, I became near dependent on the first flavour I tried. Last summer’s seasonal Blueberry Shortbread batch felt like a merry picnic in your mouth, and the flavours were simply radiant.
A scoop of it looked like a tiny balled galaxy of swirled, jammy blueberries; smooth, tart ice cream; and chewy, satisfying shortbread globs. It was wonderfully refreshing, as wickedly indulgent as ice cream should be, but without the regret of a heavy binge pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
“What makes the ice cream so flavourful and delicious is the use of real ingredients. I can’t say it enough. It makes a huge difference,” Jalal says. “When you see it on the menu, it’s what we use,” she says. “If we’re using lemon it’s real lemon juice. If we use strawberries, it’s real strawberries.”
The process of making FoMu’s signature coconut-base ice cream is largely the same as the regular dairy stuff, the company’s production manager, Matthew Woellert says.
“We start off with regular coconut cream and add in organic sweeteners and actual fruit, or all natural flavouring if necessary,” he says, before it’s all mixed up with a big immersion hand blender. The mixture is poured into a batch freezer, where it’s spun and frozen in about 10 minutes, all while adding air.
As the ice cream is being ejected into the boxes or pints it’ll be sold in, Woellert says the extra bits such as cake chunks or fudge are swirled in. The containers are then deep frozen at -20 F degrees to set them and trap the air pockets inside the product.
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Neither Jalal nor her husband had much, if any, culinary experience before starting FoMu, but she knew real food. She grew up as a first generation American to Lebanese and Jordanian parents, on a diet of farm fresh, whole foods. After learning for herself at college that not all food is created equal, and the impending addition of her own children to the mix, her food values only became more important.
So when she and her husband, Tang, began the ice cream business, it quickly became a larger project than they’d initially expected. Unlike FoMu’s from-scratch methods, she explains that the done thing several years ago was to either build the product yourself from a pre-made base, or buy ice cream from a big company and just jazz it up a little.
Quickly they realised they didn’t want their product to be filled with artificial flavours or sugars you can’t even pronounce. The couple also decided to stay away from a dairy base due to concerns with the environmental impact the dairy industry has, and issues with the product itself: dairy products typically contain high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat.
Noticing an increase in people becoming more conscious of what was in their food, Jalal and Tang suspected there may be a market for a new kind of ice cream — one made as theirs is, with premium natural ingredients, sustainability, and mindfulness. Made right, to put it simply.
“Boston’s an educated city — it’s one of the most educated cities in the country — and when you give people information about food, it can help shape the decisions that they make,” Jalal says.
She doesn’t attribute the brand’s success to its minimalist cafes or trendy marble table tops, instead seeing FoMu’s commitment to food education and openness as the thing that customers have most appreciated. Behind all the fad diets and emphasis on local consumption are an increasing number of people who are trying to be intentional about their decisions and informed about the food they’re consuming.
“It’s information,” she says in regard to FoMu’s transparency. “It’s not a trend.”
Despite the gentle push toward mindfulness the brand is promoting, a visit to FoMu is far from a dry nutrition lecture, or anything close to resembling eating your vegetables.
“I can’t help for it to be laid back and approachable. It’s ice cream at the end of the day. Even a two year old wants ice cream,” she says, with first hand experience as a young mom to back it up. “We’re not a fat free brand, we’re not a low calorie brand, we are a dessert. But our desserts are made with organic sugars, and real ingredients.”
And the company is proud of their product, encouraging customers to sample away at the counter until their palette is content. Each flavour on the board is there for a reason — it’s local, it’s seasonal, or even just delicious — and the staff are all happy to share what that reason is, how the flavour is made, and what it’s made with. Education, especially when it involves ice cream, can be fun!
“For those people who care even a little bit, or have any thoughtfulness about what they put into their body, that’s what we’re here for,” Jalal says. “That’s what we want to continue to produce.”
In a world where fake news, alternative facts, and greedy corporations are happy to leave you misled, it’s comforting to know that there’s an easy way to eat ice cream without feeling guilty. We’re certainly going to need it.
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It's cold here. So where does New England's love of ice cream come from?
Despite rumours it originated in China, it’s commonly agreed that ice cream as we know and love it today was invented in Southern Europe sometime around the 17th Century, foodtimeline.org says. Its precise time of introduction to the new world is also unknown, but according to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, the first recipe may have been brought back by one ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson. His recipe for vanilla ice cream is in the Library of Congress, no less.
Today, New England leads the country in ice cream consumption per capita. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire are all in the top ten ice cream consuming states! However, nobody is really sure why this is. The winters seem to last longer and longer each year, so surely we’d cool it with the frozen desserts? The extremely unscientific theories range far and wide. It could be because of the large student population, some say it’s because the first ice cream churn was invented here, or perhaps it’s because of the availability.
New England is home to some of the best and most famous brands in the world — including Ben and Jerry’s, Hood, and Friendly’s. That’s not to mention dozens of fantastic independent creameries, like Gracie’s, Christina’s, and Central Square’s Toscanini’s, which the New York Times declared the best ice cream in the world several years ago. So perhaps the answer is deceptively simple; we just do it best.