OAKLAND -- Robyn Sue Fisher once pulled a kid's red wagon to peddle ice cream on the streets of San Francisco. Five years later, her company, Smitten, is opening its flagship store in Rockridge, bring made-to-order ice cream to an Oakland clientele on April 1.
"I just think Oakland is so right for this," Fisher said.
The new store, next to Claremont Middle School on a bright and busy College Avenue corner, mixes an open, welcoming atmosphere with an almost industrial feel. But the giant tank lurking by the front door isn't for decoration -- it's the liquid nitrogen that Smitten uses to quick-freeze rich local ingredients into ice cream. And the strange stainless steel machines puffing out cold steam on the counter are Smitten's patented, in-house designed ice cream makers.
"We're similar to a brewery -- why have these things hidden?" Fisher said.
The machines, which Fisher said cost "about as much as a car," mix and freeze a batch of ice cream for every order, from the smallest cup up to take-out pints.
"You get to watch your ice cream being made," she said.
The speed of the freezing -- only 90 seconds for a small cup -- means the ice crystals are tiny, Fisher said, which makes for a smoother finish.
And since the ice cream is made to order, there's no need for stabilizers, emulsifiers, or any of the other things commonly found in store ice cream.
It was reading the back of an ice cream container that started Fisher on her path to Smitten. As a business school student at Stanford, Fisher had a serious thing for ice cream but was taken aback at what was in her frozen treats.
"Half the ingredients I couldn't even pronounce," she said.
She decided to experiment to find a better way, but after many tries with all sorts of mixers, she realized she just didn't have the engineering background.
She spent the next few years working with an engineer who traded work for equity until Fisher had a prototype.
"I spent my entire life savings," she admitted.
In 2009, she was ready to go retail when the economy dived.
But that didn't stop Fisher, who joined other out-of-work food purveyors in San Francisco's burgeoning street food scene by taking her machine to the sidewalk.
"I basically strapped it to a Radio Flyer wagon," she said.
Soon Fisher had a following. She opened the Hayes Valley shop, made out of a shipping container, in 2011. In December, Smitten opened a shop in collaboration with Whole Foods market in 2013. Another store is planned for Lafayette this year.
Although Fisher is a San Francisco resident, Oakland was an easy pick for her first big store because of its edgy yet family friendly nature.
She had often walked past the shop -- which previous held Great Harvest Bread Co. -- on her way to visit friends, and was thrilled to see it for lease.
"People appreciate good food in this area," Fisher said.
The Rockridge store is lined with white metal to mimic the feeling of the original shipping container shop, livened by a bright graffiti mural.
Six machines will make one kind of ice cream each -- things like salted caramel or rhubarb crisp -- and will feature an open kitchen where seasonal ice cream ingredients and toppings will be made.
Everything is meant to be seen -- because, Fisher said, there's nothing to hide.
"We're proud of everything we put into this ice cream," she said.