Frankie & Jo’s makes plant-based ice cream magic

By Rebekah Denn

Some flavors of Frankie & Jo's plant-based ice cream.

The ice cream magic happens on Thursdays each month at Frankie & Jo’s headquarters.

Technically, there’s always magic with the vegan and gluten-free ice cream company.

Its creative plant-based ice cream flavors like Chocolate Tahini Supercookie and Brown Sugar Vanilla are as creamy and dreamy as their dairy counterparts. But those Thursday sessions are flavor taste tests, and “magic” is literally on the grading sheet along with standards like texture and color.

Frankie & Jo’s makes pints of unique dairy-free seasonal flavors for PCC (currently Pickled Blueberry is in the freezer case), and PCC members are invited to enjoy ice cream floats with the company at Ballard PCC on Aug. 24 (see details below)! Sitting in on a tasting session, though, adds a whole new layer of understanding to the Frankie & Jo’s world of carefully crafted cones.

 

Seattle Ice Cream: Frankie & Jo’s

The Seattle-based company “is like a restaurant,” said founder Autumn Martin. “We do things as a nice restaurant would… everything is handmade.”

That’s reflected in the leaders’ five-star backgrounds. Martin, former head chocolatier at Theo Chocolate and former pastry chef at Canlis, was also the founder of Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery. Starting with take-and-bake Mason jar cakes at the farmers markets, Martin transformed the treats into two “dessert restaurants” and a line of packaged goods before selling the business to focus on ice cream. Martin, who has a dairy allergy, had created vegan chocolate treats that amazed diners, but tackling plant-based ice cream was a unique and steep challenge.

She joined forces with Kari Brunson, Frankie & Jo’s CEO, a personal development coach who had moved from a career as a professional ballerina to the culinary world, most recently with Juicebox, a lovely plant-focused café focused on fresh juice blends.

Together they operated Frankie & Jo’s as a certified B-Corp prioritizing social and environmental responsibility — a business that, as Martin once put it, could make ice cream “a vehicle for change.” At the time, vegan ice cream was widely seen — for good reason — as a glum second-choice compromise. For a world that will rely on more plant-based foods, they knew they had to prove even a cherished favorite like ice cream could be as good or better than its dairy counterparts.

 

Three scoops of Frankie & Joe's plant-based ice cream

Making vegan ice cream great

Developing Frankie & Jo’s required creating their own ingredients like cashew milk, a gum-free coconut milk and gluten-free oat milk, rather than commercial versions.

“We make our own ice cream base. We pasteurize it as well,” Martin said, walking through the small Georgetown factory.

Fruit purees, like the peach version on that day’s taste-test, are made from fresh fruits purchased from local vendors like Collins Family Orchards. Staff roast the fruits, remove the flesh and puree it, rather than pouring it from pre-purchased bags.

For a flavor like “For the Love of Lemon,” a previous PCC special, Frankie & Jo’s makes its own lemon curd from juiced and zested whole lemons, and bakes its own shortbread cookies. The vegan powdered sugar it uses — standard powdered sugar sometimes has anti-caking agents that use animal products — has to be hand-sifted. After the ice cream mix is churned and different swirls and inclusions are added to its tubs, the ice cream is packed into pints by hand. When it’s scooped into gluten-free waffle cones at one of the four Frankie & Jo’s stores (three in Seattle and a tiny California outpost), the waffle batter is made from scratch using oat flour and maple syrup.

“It’s unique… and it’s way, way expensive to do it,” Martin said.

It’s also resulted in, as Bon Appetit magazine once put it, a vegan ice cream that makes people actually like vegan ice cream.

 

Flavor tests with Frankie & Jo’s

At a recent monthly taste test, production manager Bennett Olling prepared sample pints of the latest iterations of four summer flavors. Participants dug in and silently rated seven attributes of each before comparing notes as a group.

Basil Blackberry Buckle wowed testers with its intense herbal flavor combined with the fruit and pastry.

“I really like it and I think we’re not far off,” Brunson said. That flavor ultimately hit the summer stands as Blackberry Bake, a basil-infused ice cream with blackberry jam and herbed shortbread chunks.

Years into the business, some flavors just need a quick revisit: “OK, we’ve done this before, it’s still really good,” as the tasters put it.

But sometimes, Martin said, it takes 20 taste-tests to get a flavor right. A minimum base quality score from the Thursday scoresheets is required to keep moving ahead.

“Each one is definitely a different mountain to tackle.”

On that tasting day, Raspberry & Fermented Cream needed punchier colors before it was shelf-ready. For Caramel Cookie Crunch, tasters weren’t happy with the texture – or the cost of a flavor with pricey ingredients and extra steps to compose. Kitchen labor averages $33/hour, which adds up when even a batch of homemade cookie bars are sliced by hand rather than run through a machine.

In an early version of the caramel flavor, “basically, we were giving it away,” Brunson said. Ultimately it morphed into Potato Chip Caramel Crunch, featuring a potato chip-infused ice cream, ribbons of house made caramel, and chocolate-covered potato chip clusters that were more time-efficient than shortbread.

Finishing off the flavor taste-test, participants moved on to different versions of Frankie & Jo’s ice cream sandwiches, gauging the impact of slightly different baking times for varied levels of chewiness and crunch in the chocolate chip cookies. Judging was difficult: All were sublime. (PCC carries the frozen cookie dough and the ice cream pints, though finished sandwiches are only available at the scoop shops. PCC collaborations include variations on the scoop shop flavors, such as holiday Oatnog, and unique seasonal pints like springtime’s rhubarb yuzu.)

Frankie & Joe's storefront

“We are — as with everything I’ve ever done — just so committed to doing things the slow, artisanal way,” Martin said.

There’s a cost to that care. Frankie & Jo pints average around $15.49 at PCC. Even so, that reflects a “tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny” profit margin, Martin said, especially given the rising costs of doing business. They keep working toward that goal of quality, profitability and a unique mission.

“The whole reason I started Frankie and Jo’s was for people who had an alternative diet like I do, and still wanted to celebrate with ice cream…,” Martin said.

“Everybody’s welcome and everybody comes in — we need that and we want it — but we’re here for the celiac folks, for the dairy-allergic folks, for any food allergy, any sensitivity … and I really want to continue to serve those people.”

It’s a challenge, she said, but one they’re determined to solve. Put it all together, from salty caramel ash to beet strawberry rose, and it hits a very sweet spot.

 

Enjoy Frankie & Jo’s ice cream floats

PCC members are invited to enjoy a free ice cream float with Frankie & Jo’s at the Ballard PCC from 1 to 4 p.m., August 24, 2024. Frankie & Jo’s ice creams and frozen cookie dough are available in the freezer case of all PCC stores year-round.

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