Sweet Ritual is that mom and pop shop that went new century and is run by two sexy women who hand you vegan ice cream.
Listen to the interview on Soundcloud:
Amelia Raley and Valerie Ward started at Toy Joy and only grew from there. They took that colorful, childlike atmosphere and used it as their foundation. They let their employees play, from rosemary and ginger flavors to unicorn poop flavors. Always willing to challenge the market and their customers, Sweet Ritual is definitely a place that belongs in Austin. So driven are these women, that this interview did seem more about the products and the business rather than that human to human connection that comes from the bond of food. Jason and I are learning that some interviews we will just have to bury our egos for. Photos are provided by Amelia, who has a degree in photography. From Valerie hand painting their first store sign to the tattoo on Amelia’s arm that’s also by the same Austin artist that drew their logo, these ladies are dripping with Austin creativity.
Sweet Ritual has been open since 2011. They are giving out free ice cream at Hope Farmer’s market today alongside mural paintings. They are sponsoring four local Austin artists.
What is your first memory of ice cream?
Valerie shrugs with a lack of memory coming back. “I don’t really remember”. Amelia laughs inside and out at her memory, “My mom used to tell me that the water towers, on the skyline, were ice cream towers and that’s where the city’s ice cream supply came from.”
Why ice cream?
Amelia begins, “So we both have backgrounds in ice cream, and we have other roots in Toy Joy. It was in a café called Dava Joy in 2008. Their soft serve machine supplier went out of business and we created the new ice cream recipe for it. When they moved to the location downtown they didn’t bring the café, but we already had a build up of clients. Then I found Valerie who had a background with Amy’s Ice Cream, and we went into business together. The soft serve recipe is still the same one we use today”.
“We started with soft serve then we went to Ice Cream University. We spent a few days in his basement. It was a vegan ice cream course he started. He had his own dairy free enterprise six or so years ago. He saw the market for it and then ran with it”.
Our family, when we first opened a vegan restaurant, were apprehensive. Then we hit a million dollars in sales
How is the Vegan Scene in Austin?
“Portland people come here and talk about their vegan movement, and it’s like ours is so much stronger. The Whole 30 thing happened and now vegan is like let’s go out for Chinese food, or BBQ, it’s its own category. People got over the idea that vegan has to be healthy. We realized that so many people are lactose intolerant, and were just stubbornly eating ice cream. We even see on people’s Instagram that they are eating our ice cream in one shot, and then eating BBQ in the next. Our family, when we first opened a vegan restaurant, were apprehensive. Then we hit a million dollars in sales”.
We want to give people as much information as we can. Once you start giving people a chance they really start to trust you and view you as a godsend”.
Why did you put your ingredient list on your website?
Valerie tells us, “We realized it’s not just a store for vegans. A lot of people with allergies or other concerns were coming. So we were sitting on the phone for thirty minutes just telling people the ingredients. We want to give people as much information as we can. Once you start giving people a chance they really start to trust you and view you as a godsend”.
Amelia gets up from her chair and heads to the back, not for a quick loo trip but to bring us a card. It has all the ingredients on the back, and they tell us they also keep a folder with everything in it.
What is Cool School?
“We were starting to get cold calls from people that wanted to come and learn from us. We heard you’re the best in the nation and want to learn. We’re one of the only ones in the nation. I have a background in teaching, and she has one in improve. We turned it into field trips and going out to meet people. It’s one thing to learn in a lab and another thing to go experience it. We have three companies that have grown from it”.
Now the trend is Instagrammable food. It has to be interesting and look cool.
Where did the Unicorn Poop thing come from?
“People will come in and be like Haha that must have come from the commercial, but the flavors came way before that. It had a different name, like rainbow connection, and then Amelia changed the name and now people can’t get enough of it. Now the trend is Instagrammable food. It has to be interesting and look cool. We just made an activated charcoal one that is midnight black, and added edible glitter and people have gone crazy for it. We are the only place in Texas, one of the only places in the South that uses Konery cones, and they make really unique flavors. They’re made into really cool fin ships. There’s birthday cake, and red velvet”.
We saw that you work with a lot of Austin Companies. How did that start?
“We work with Better Bites Bakery and they are a dedicated gluten free facilty. The owner Leah is a friend of ours. Amelia saw them at Taco Deli and thought we would just call them, and then we called them and a friendship was born. Celeste Best Cookie Dough and then Capital City Bakery brownies, we’ve been friends with Christian a long time. We also work with Pie Jacked. We’re just, in general, really big believers in communities and being friends with all the other businesses, like all the vegan stores. We go to new stores that open as a boss date and just see if they want to become friends”.
How do you feel you compete with other shops in Austin?
“It depends. You know, Austin is so big. There’s plenty of room. And we feel that the better other businesses do the better we will do. We are arranging a vegan self guided tour in Austin. Per capita we have the most amount of dairy free ice cream shops in the nation: Our shop, Vice Cream, Thai Fresh, Mr. Natural, Spun, Fat Cats, Lick, and the vegan ice cream shake trailer that’s opening. Also Noda Moo which does a lot of retail”.
What’s your Favorite Flavor.
Valerie immediately goes with the sunflower chocolate chip. “It’s made with sunflower seed butter so it’s like peanut butter but not quite”. Amelia is really thinking about it, “Well I’m in charge of everything that gets made”. She ponders through all of her loves. “I really love all of our chocolate ones. It’s really rich and creamy. It uses almond butter as a base”.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
“Wherever we can find them. When we started out we’d buy from Costco or Restaurant Depot, but now we order directly from the manufacturers. We are now at a place where we can get a better deal on ingredients by buying in bulk but we just don’t have the room”.
Have you thought about expanding?
“We have crunched the numbers and we’ll have to stay here a couple more years. Companies like Hey Cupcake wound up expanding too fast, and built an empire then had to bring it back.
Yeah we’d rather be around in fifteen years. We thought about Whole Foods and then talked to people and heard that it actually can make businesses fail. You have to keep up with sales, do demos, supply a minimum number at all times and be in all Whole Food stores. Wheatsville has been great to work with, and it puts us in South Austin”.
What is it like to be females in the industry?
“Being business owners is nice because you bypass the gate keepers. It makes it to where we bypass a lot of the corporate barriers. We’ve had a lot of supportive mentors along the way. There was a woman in New Orleans who retired and worked with us”. We noticed that these ladies just attract guidance and people that believe in them. “I think they just saw that we were sincere, and hard working. We’ve made all of this ourselves. We’ve never been able to get a bank loan. Even with four years of really strong sales we couldn’t get a loan, but we kept going. We’ve gotten a lot of investors and even personal loans. We used Kickstarter. It’s really for small growth. We raised $40,000 and are just now fulfilling all of the stuff. A lot of people move and there are addresses changes, or they cancel their credit cards etc, etc. The next level of funding we would need would be around $500,000 and that’s outside of the Kickstarter range. It is great for advertising really. You need people to know something. You’re opening a new store or even changing location, but it’s not really a heavy duty way to raise a lot of money.
We would rather dig one six foot hole then six one foot holes”.
“Right now we’re just biding our time and seeing what opportunities happen. I mean, we need a new air conditioner for this space. It’s not very interesting but we want to make this location as strong as it can be. One thing that is really exciting for us is that we haven’t hired any new staff in a year. We’ve been able to give raises across the board and provide health insurance. We want to create a team that we support and are supported by. That’s why we don’t want to have multiple locations yet. We would rather dig one six foot hole then six one foot holes”.
What’s it like in the winter?
It works, especially because Austin is still hot in the winter. I was going through the ingredient cards and saw a pumpkin spice card that said even though it’s 90 degrees out we can still pretend it’s Fall. We’ve tried to close in the winter but our customers get upset because their friends come from out of town and want to see us. We’re also a big tourist destination.
We also realized as business owners we can be creative but we’re the ones who have to put it into action.
Have you ever considered an ice cream truck?
“We have”. Amelia laughs, “We’re both really tall. Also in a food truck you’re just standing in the heat. Those places also don’t make their ice cream. The whole ice cream market is also really competitive. There are just jurisdictions you don’t cross. That’s their territory. There’s like wars in New York city. Like the Mr. Softy trucks. They’ll even take keys and throw them on rooftops. It’s someone’s livelihood, and you’re in their territory”. Valerie says that she thinks the food truck thing is waning as we get more established. “People even have their generators stolen. We also realized as business owners we can be creative but we’re the ones who have to put it into action.”
You two seem happy with where you are.
Yeah we made sure to work only the forty hours a week. We make sure to take care of yourselves.
What’s your creative process?
Our ladies back there will just come to us and want to try something like a rosemary smoked sea salt butterscotch. I listen to a lot of food podcasts. I also just have two women back there that are really passionate about desserts. We just took a huge step to eliminate one of our most popular items. The waffle cones. The irons were 400 degrees and the oil went everywhere and splattered. The actual estimate for a vent hood was 15 to 20 thousand dollars. So we got the Konery cones and they’re selling like hot cakes. Our employees came to us and asked what to do with all their time and we said to make ice cream. Now they come to us with flavors all the time. We have a Thai basil with pineapple and a raspberry liquor with whiskey in it.
Amelia tells us of a fantasy she has for an ice cream parlor brunch cocktail place. You can have coffee, french toast, bloody mary sorbets. We all foodie out in a mutual dream. Amelia says she was even seeing a video on how to make a Moscow mule and imagined it deliciously as ice cream.
We get to imagine crazy things. We have a brainstorming board back there. Around this time we’ll have a peanut butter pickle one that people love and others have a giant ick factor for. We have this one, a durian one. It’s a spiky fragrant fruit that tastes like gasoline smells. Like caramelized onions and trash. It’s also an aphrodisiac so we usually make it around Valentine’s day. It stinks though. That’s what’s nice about being a smaller shop is that we can make a small batch and then git rid of it if it doesn’t work.
We have the chance to interview an employee with Sweet Ritual, Wendy.
How did they find you? “I was working pastry over at Sway and working in the kitchen is such a strange dynamic. I was there for a year and it was just exhausting. There was a day I was working a double and went to Bouldin Creek on my break and saw that they were hiring. It was just this desperation. I applied right then and while walking back to Sway they called me and asked if I could come in for an interview. I tried balancing both since they could only offer part time at first. They were great at getting me onto full time. I worked production and then out here once a week. Serving vegan ice cream is so funny because it’s such a mixed bag. Some are so excited because they haven’t had ice cream in so long. You’ll also get some that come in with people that want to be here and they just don’t want to try anything. It’s like, the best ice cream you’re ever going to have but you do you. To some extent we’ll have some of those self righteous customers but I’m so excited by what we do and how we have such an inclusive space.
How is it working for Amelia and Valerie?
It’s been great, they’re really great to work for. They’re great about encouraging me and the other girl. They ask what I want to make. That was part of the interview question was what ice cream I would make. It was a coconut base with infused rosemary and blueberries that I actually just got to make recently. I get to eat ice cream every day. I would like to stay with them. They are growing so much and I want to see where they can go.