Smitten founder Robyn Sue Fisher started her business serving ice cream out of a red Radio Flyer wagon. Photo: Smitten

The dreams of most Stanford MBA students tend to Silicon Valley start-ups, prestigious consulting firms, and high-paying investment banks. It’s a fair bet that Robyn Sue Fisher is unique: she spent the first two years after graduated from Stanford prototyping an ice cream machine.

What was a quixotic quest at the start has grown into the acclaimed Smitten ice cream business, which plans to open its first East Bay outpost at 5800 College Ave. in Rockridge on April 1.

“I was naive and optimistic,” Fisher said. “It took two years and all my life savings to get a prototype.” 

A Brr machine at work at Smitten. Ice cream is made to order, as you watch. Photo: Alex Loescher

Fisher’s hunch, since borne out by Smitten’s rave reviews, was that there should be a way to perfect the freezing process of ice cream, one that would prevent ice crystals from forming and make for a smoother product. By using liquid nitrogen, at -321 degrees Fahrenheit, Fisher developed an ultra-cold churning process. The result is a trademarked Brrr machine (with three patents for the technology), which makes each ice cream to order, from scratch in minutes. Part of the show of Smitten’s stores is the bank of Brrr machines, front and center, each producing a single flavor.

But before Fisher graduated to her first store in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, she built her reputation by towing an early Brrr machine on a red Radio Flyer wagon around the Mission and Potrero. She would tweet where she was going, and, as word spread, plenty of ice cream lovers showed up.

“I was towing a 40-pound machine and a tank of liquid nitrogen,” she said. “It was $5 and only one flavor. Make your own change. But it validated that people would pay more for a good product.”

At the Hayes Valley store, where lines for ice cream on weekends can stretch beyond a half-hour wait, Smitten offers four flavors a day. The Rockridge store will offer six. The emphasis is on special seasonal flavors. With the April opening, the featured flavor will be rhubarb crisp (Fisher’s personal favorite). More standard flavors include salted caramel, fresh mint chip, chocolate (from TCHO 60.5% chocolate), vanilla, and brown sugar with cinnamon shortbread.

There are no preservatives, stabilizers or emulsifiers in Smitten’s ice cream, thanks to the fast-freezing and servings to order. Ingredients are sourced locally: organic milk and cream comes from Beretta Dairy in Sonoma, strawberries (coming in May) from Swanton Berry Farm. Recipes are very simple.

“In the mint ice cream, we just have mint infused into the cream,” Fisher said. “That’s all.”

The Smitten team in Rockridge, during late stages of construction. Robin Sue Fisher (left), head of operations Nick Wood, and Smitteneer Eliza Bennett. Photo: Lance Knobel

Fisher has long sought the move to Rockridge, since she saw the new location — a corner spot formerly occupied by Great Harvest Bread Co. at the intersection with Birch Court, just north of Rockridge BART — when she was visiting friends in the neighborhood two years ago.

“I think Rockridge has a lot in common with Hayes Valley,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of chain stores. It’s a hip, foodie part of Oakland. It’s filled with families. It’s a fun place to be.”

The new store is an appealing mix of high tech — those Brr machines and the large tank of liquid nitrogen at the entrance — with a rougher aesthetic of corrugated metal and wood, that nods to the Hayes Valley store which is in a converted shipping container.

Fisher is happy about adding to College Avenue’s string of artisanal ice-cream makers, from Ici to Tara’s. “We all have the utmost respect for each other,” she said. The corporate Dreyer’s, not so much: “I don’t even think about it.”

Smitten will be open seven days a week, from noon to 10 p.m. weekdays, and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Fisher said she might open even later depending on demand, pointing out that the nearby Ramen Shop is open to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Smitten is also opening in Lafayette later this spring.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...