For most college students, the COVID-19 pandemic saw an unusual summer consisting of a long list of cancellations: overseas vacations, Coachella, the Olympics, summer blockbuster movies, and most importantly, internships.
Debbie Tanudirjo, a senior majoring in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, was no exception. However, rather than accept defeat by COVID-19, Debbie pondered over what she could do to have a meaningful summer. With a strong craving for good ice cream in the blistering summer heat, and most of the local ice cream artisanal shops closed due to the pandemic, Debbie and her sister, Liz Taunidirjo (NYU Econ Class of 2018), decided to make their own ice cream. After three months of trial and errors, the sisters became the proud founders of Sundae Service, an online Asian flavored ice cream parlor selling homemade products straight from their NYC apartment.
Their Asian-inspired flavors are surprisingly unique, ranging from Banana Miso Caramel, Ginger Black Sesame, to Lunar New Year special Jasmine Tea with Roasted Rice Clusters. For a completely online ice cream parlor that delivers within and around the NYC area, Sundae Service has a proud following of over 1100 followers on Instagram and finds its weekly deliveries frequently sold out.
Though I personally have not been able to try out their ice cream due to taking Zoom classes from Seoul, when Debbie casually brought up Sundae Service during our Creative Coding final project meeting, I knew it had to be something special. Debbie is a hard worker capable of tackling any project assigned to her (like carrying me through our coding project), let alone a business that she cared for from conception to realization.
Jihoon Yang: How did Sundae Service come to be? How did you come up with the idea and what got you started?
Debbie: Yeah, so honestly if quarantine didn’t exist it would have never started. It was kind of because I was just really, really craving ice cream while we were stuck in quarantine and it was so hard to find good ice cream while we were stuck inside. Like, you could kind of go to the grocery store but that was about it and you were kind of constricted to those choices. One of my friends asked “what do you want for your birthday?” and I just kept saying ice cream as a joke and suddenly he thought “okay, I’m just going to give her an entire ice cream machine.” That’s kind of how Sundae Service started. We didn’t plan on starting it in the beginning it was just me and my sister kind of playing around with fun flavors and we would just send it to our friends when we got bored because we had way too much ice cream and we couldn’t finish it ourselves and they were like “wait this is kind of good, maybe you could consider selling it.” At first we were like “eh, nah” but then the more we did we were like “you know what? What do we have to lose?” I didn’t have an internship lined up for the summer so I was just like I’ll make my own haha.
Jihoon: That’s a really good start though. Did you feel like there was no good Asian flavored ice cream or just ice cream in general?
Debbie: Yeah, definitely Asian flavored specifically. Just in general though we didn’t really want to be going outside and walking too far at that point [during the pandemic]. At that point a lot of the artisanal ice cream stores were closed and so I was kind of just stuck with the grocery store options. Even with the kind of more artisanal ones they rarely have Asian flavors or if they do it’s kind of your standard matcha ice cream and we just thought ‘no, that’s been overdone’ and we kind of wanted to do something more interesting.
Jihoon: And what about the meaning behind the name Sundae Service?
Debbie: When we were younger we would go to church every Sunday, but one of our favorite parts was actually after church when we’d order in food with the whole family and have a feast. It was a combination of that nostalgic memory, generally thinking about playing on words for a fun name to follow through with our playful branding/flavors, and also making sense with our once a week delivery method.
Jihoon: Even within start up businesses for college students making your own ice cream is pretty unique. What was your first experience making ice cream like?
Debbie: It was really fun. Actually, this wasn’t my first time making ice cream, I remember making ice cream in maybe middle school with my mom. And at that time it was a really old machine, you had to literally get like a bag of ice and salt and put it around the ice cream machine as it spun. But that was really fun, because it was my first experience actually seeing ice cream get made and it was because my mom got this new tool and she really wanted to use it. With my current ice cream it was definitely a lot of trial and error. At first we started off with just finding a recipe online that was the best rated recipe but we had to make a lot of tweaks for sure to the point where we wanted it, where we liked it. It was a lot of trial and error but it was really fun. The only downside was that now I’m quite lactose intolerant because I’ve had too much ice cream to taste.
Jihoon: Wait, you can get lactose intolerant from that??
Debbie: I think I literally had so much dairy that my body was like “you need to stop.” Now it’s not as bad anymore but there was a point in the middle of quarantine where my stomach would immediately hurt after I had dairy because I just had way too much dairy haha. But it’s just me.
Jihoon: Oof, that is pretty unfortunate. And out of all of those ice creams that you ate, did you originally start with Asian flavors or something more normal?
Debbie: I think we kind of start off with “I don’t want the regular flavors.” I’m trying to think about my very first flavor. I think it might actually have been black sesame. Black sesame was one of the very first flavors and we also tried to do a matcha with red bean. Kind of along those lines, but I don’t remember making [something like] just a vanilla.
Jihoon: Is it the same black sesame that you’re selling right now?
Debbie: It’s kind of different. So at first we tried to do a black sesame base but you can kind of find that in some grocery stores if you have Asian options. And so we realized “why not make it something that you really can’t get anywhere?” and so we [made] it with a ginger base and then there’s like black sesame crumble inside. It’s based off of this Chinese dessert that’s also super common in Indonesia because there are a lot of Chinese people in Indonesia.
Jihoon: What has the design process been like for your other flavors?
Debbie: The very start is finding the right base recipe. That’s just like a custard base that is like egg yolks, sugar, milk, and cream. That’s just how the basic recipe is and that’s where we had trouble with in the beginning: trying to find the perfect texture because you can either make it super custardy or kind of lighter, so we tried to find the right balance. Once you get that it’s kind of just playing around with adding different flavors. For example, I’ll go back to the ginger black sesame. To give it the ginger flavors we steep the ginger into the milk and the cream and so we’ll do that for about two hours and once that’s done we’ll just use that in the same base recipe but with just this new ginger milk that we made. And then once that’s done we cook it up, put it in the fridge to rest for a little bit and cool up. Afterwards we put it into the [ice cream] machine and the machine will churn it and turn it into ice cream. Then right after that technically you can eat it and it would be a soft served texture but for us, and obviously for selling purposes, we put it in pints and we freeze it and then that’s the final product.
Jihoon: That sounds like either you had to spend a lot of time researching how to make ice cream or you already had a good base knowledge on how to make it.
Debbie: We did spend a lot of time in the trial and error phase. A lot of research on things like, for example, the different kinds of sugar and what that would do to the texture. Even just like different ratios of how many egg yolks to use, or how much yogurt cream to use because there are so many different ratios that come into play like the ratio between the milk and the cream, the ratio between the dairy and the eggs, and all the sugar and everything. It took a while.
Jihoon: Yeah, it sounds like you spent your entire summer going full research mode.
Debbie: Yeah, there would be days where I would just make two or three ice creams in one setting and it would be a lot.
Jihoon: Then when you guys were starting out did you have to eat all of that ice cream or did you have to scrap any?
Debbie: Haha if it was really, really bad. We would try to eat it and then realize it was really bad and then eventually toss it because no one was eating it. But when it was good we would try to give it to our friends. Thankfully, we had a few friends close by so we would just walk over, drop it off, come home. Other than that we ate a lot of ice cream. It wasn’t very healthy.
Jihoon: How did you guys come up with Asian flavors? Or just flavors in general?
Debbie: It’s definitely a combination of just looking at what already exists, in dessert form or snack form, and also just running off with random ideas in our heads and seeing what fits. For example, our banana miso caramel that you thought was strange, “sus,” might work.
Jihoon: I’m taking that out of the interview.
Debbie: Haha we were just thinking of that one ingredient, miso, which was Japanese and [realized] there wasn’t an existing dessert that had miso in it. It was combining the idea of “oh, miso would be interesting” and also just research. So I asked my friends what their favorite ice cream flavors were and one of them said something like Chunky Monkey so I was like “Oh banana and nuts, let’s put miso into that.” VS the one I talked about, the ginger black sesame. That was an original dish that was already a dessert but we transformed it into ice cream.
Jihoon: That leads into one of my other questions. Is your banana miso your most unexpected flavor you came up with or is there another one?
Debbie: Hmm.. I think definitely one of the most out there ones, like people I think either love it or, actually, I don’t want to say anyone hates it (laughs) but –
Jihoon: So it IS sus.
Debbie: Or some of them will actually really, really enjoy it. I’m trying to think.. What else have we done? Honestly, I’d say the ginger one is already really polarizing because some people just don’t like ginger at all. But in terms of exciting ones or most out there ones, our moon cake [flavor] was definitely a big hit because nobody had seen anyone do that before. A mooncake is generally a salted egg on the inside and there is the red bean or whatever base on the outside. That was for our Mid-Autumn Festival flavor. But what we did was we would make two different ice creams, the red bean and the egg yolk one. We would make the egg yolk into a sphere and then center it and drop it down into the middle of the red bean ice cream and the pint so that if you cut it in the middle it would show a circle in the middle of the ice cream of the pint. That one was definitely the most interesting in terms of thinking how to put it together.
Jihoon: Were there any flavors that you were excited to make but turned out not as tasteful as you imagined?
Debbie: Oh yes. Unfortunately, the Lemongrass Mojito [flavor]. People were just not interested.
Jihoon: Oh damn, I actually wanted to try that one though.
Debbie: I know! I mean I personally liked it but I do understand that most people, when they get ice cream, are there for ice cream not necessarily for the tart sorbets unless they’re really in the mood for it. We also had some issues with it texturely. Sometimes adding alcohol messes with [the ice cream] a little bit but that one was [one] we were so excited [for] because we did a poll and we were like “who wants alcoholic ice cream?” And everyone said “yes, of course” and we got the flavor out and nobody really ordered it and we were like: “god damn it, oh well.”
Jihoon: Do you think Sundae Service has given you a chance to explore your Asian identity?
Debbie: Yeah, for sure. I’d say like one, of course, we’re playing around with different flavors and we also get to create a community because of this. Obviously our customers, the majority of them, are Asian and we’ll get a lot of comments, replies saying “Oh my god, it was really amazing.” Especially when we had our Mid-Autumn Festival one. A lot of our Chinese customers brought [our ice cream] back home and that was really nice to hear and to be a part of that. But on top of that we also make it a point to hire Indonesians for our delivery. So for us, especially, not having been able to go home since the beginning of quarantine, it’s kind of a nice way to stay in touch with our home community.
Jihoon: Is that also a key point in the way your guys market yourselves? Because I’ve noticed that you guys market yourselves as an Asian women minority local business.
Debbie: Yeah, I’d definitely say so. Everybody, especially now, it’s so important to support each other so we definitely do market that as one of our [key points].
Jihoon: Have you any of your classes at NYU helped develop your business?
Debbie: Mhmm, for sure. I think for me it was my Innovations in Marketing Brand Strategy class. Rather than the business end of things, [the class] got me to thinking of how to actually create a brand and the steps to really creating a brand identity. That was important in the beginning when we were still trying to figure out what we were going to call it and who we were going to market it to, how we were going to market it, and all that. Our professor gave us a really good step by step guide kind of to basically creating your own brand and doing market research, marketing strategy, and planning everything out so that really helped me when I was starting this business. At the time I had no idea I would start a business but I’m glad I took that class and it really helped me.
Jihoon: What has the general feedback from your customers been?
Debbie: So far thankfully all of our customers are really, really sweet. Some of them will go out of their way to take a picture on Instagram and put it on their stories and like a few days later we’ll get a bunch of new followers from their friends. So I think we have a very nice community and a nice customer base. Me and my sister say “you can’t be unhappy when it’s ice cream.” We’re very happy and yeah thankfully we haven’t heard any negative feedback. Everyone’s just been really positive and gave great reviews. They’ll be like “oh yeah its my favorite ice cream from now” so that’s actually been one of my favorite parts of handling the Instagram account, not necessarily posting or whatever but being able to talk to people and hearing what they have to say about the ice cream and so far it’s been very nice.
Jihoon: That was going to be my next question. What is the most rewarding part of Sundae Service?
Debbie: Definitely hearing back from the customers. When they say it’s their favorite ice cream, that they’re addicted to it, and that they already told their friends to buy some. That’s definitely the most rewarding for sure. Because you know, people don’t have to go out of their way to take a picture and post it on Instagram but when they do so we’re always really grateful to see that.
Jihoon: Final question, what are some advice that you would give to your fellow students for starting a business?
Debbie: Think it through. Definitely think it through but don’t think too hard almost? Kind of go with the flow and run with it, you’d be surprised by how many things will work out and if they don’t you’ll figure out another solution, it’s not the end of the world. If this wasn’t during the pandemic I would never have had the guts to do this, but because I had nothing else going on I had to have a “fuck it” attitude and just go for it. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. But if it does then that’s great but don’t shoot yourself in the foot by not trying something. Just try it and anything is a learning experience. If it doesn’t work out that’s a learning experience, and then get back up and figure out what to do next.
All images courtesy of Sundae Service.