Oakland’s favorite bootleg ice cream is going legit

Officials shut insider ice cream company Bad Walter’s down last summer, but now its creamy, lactose-free pints are back in the East Bay.

Bad Walter’s doughnut-packed Sufganiyot ice cream (left), a pint of Backyard Lemon and Froot Looped-Silly Wabbit (center and right). Credit: Bad Walter’s/Instagram

Bad Walters Bootleg Ice Cream at Korner Kitchen & Bar
1014 Fruitvale Ave. (near San Leandro Street), Oakland
There’s no walk-in service: flavors are announced on Instagram on Wednesdays, ordering is online and pickups are on Saturdays.

Sydney Arkin spent her entire life thinking she wanted to work in advertising. But even before the pandemic hit, she was having misgivings about her chosen career.

“It just wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be,” she said.

Then she was laid off at the start of the pandemic.

When others were stocking up on toilet paper, she bought 11 pints of ice cream. And then, lest she run out, she decided that “I’d better learn how to make it myself.” So, she began making ice cream in her Oakland kitchen. When a friend’s wedding was cancelled, and became a six-person, backyard celebration, her ice cream got its big debut.

“You should sell this,” was the response of one of those six guests, an old friend of Arkin’s. That old friend was Marc Schechter, the founder of Square Pie Guys pizza. That was the encouragement Arkin needed to start Bad Walter’s Bootleg Ice Cream at the end of 2020.

Named after Walter, Arkin and her husband’s chihuahua, Bad Walter’s began as a pop-up of pints served straight from Arkin’s home. Arkin only makes one or two flavors at a time — all unique to Arkin’s brain, with tongue-in-cheek names like Mick Jagger, a brown sugar custard with Oreos and salty caramel swirls.

“I don’t do plain flavors,” Arkin said. “Growing up, I always turned every ice cream into a sundae. I always had Oreos at home, as well as different types of sprinkles and other candy. I think of each flavor as basically a sundae in a pint, so now I get to create that experience of how I would eat my own ice cream for others.”

Walter, the dog after which Bad Walter’s is named, enjoys a bit of ice cream. Courtesy: Sydney Arkin

Arkin says she considers ice cream the ultimate comfort food. When Arkin – who grew up in Manhattan – was young, and a competitive gymnast, her parents used to bribe her with not one but two ice creams (she is both blessed and cursed with a speedy metabolism, she said).

“Also, I grew up with a mother who has the worst diet you can imagine,” she said. “We were a household that would have Froot Loops for dinner. Ice cream was perfectly acceptable all the time.”

Arkin isn’t lactose intolerant, but a lot of her friends are. The frozen dessert is packed with eggs, milk and cream, but she counteracts the lactose in that dairy with carefully added lactose enzymes. (She explained the process on Instagram, for those who want to know more.) That means recent flavors like Stroll Through Provence (lemon ice cream with blackberry jam swirls and lavender cookie crumble) or Breakfast in Bed (retro vanilla custard, Cara Cara orange custard, prosecco and caramelized Corn Flakes) are digestible by anyone who struggles with traditional milk or cheese.

Her most popular flavor to date is the Slumber Party, which is Ritz cracker ice cream with thick chocolate fudge swirls, Nutter Butters and Reese’s Pieces. “It tastes like being 12 years old,” Arkin said. “I didn’t think anyone would be excited about it, but it really works.”

“I want sugar loaded with more sugar, but with an adult palate, that’s sometimes nostalgic,” Arkin said, noting that she eschews herbal flavors like basil or sage. Every ice cream she makes has to appeal to adults and children — and dogs, as she makes a special peanut butter ice cream for canines, too.

With her advertising background, Arkin has an incredible amount of marketing savvy. That includes an Instagram game plan of flavor launches featuring an overloaded spoon and a colorful background (“I used to take photos of the pints but then I tried the spoon one day, and aesthetically, with so much stuff in it, it photographs really beautifully”), and once, a delivery of ice cream to influential voices like SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho. After trying the treats, Ho included Bad Walter’s in her newsletter’s “What I’m eating” section, saying it “is phenomenal. Go get it!”

Before that, Arkin was selling about 80 pints a week. After her inclusion in Ho’s newsletter, that number increased to nearly 200.

“I went from selling out in a day to selling out in minutes,” she said. “I’m still shocked whenever I think about it.”

But with more attention came the authorities. By May of 2021, Bad Walter’s was shut down. Within the laws governing cottage industries and what goods can be sold out of one’s home, ice cream is not on the list. Arkin had to regroup and find the right space to launch her business by the book.

Sydney Arkin prepares a batch of Bad Walter’s ice cream inside her Korner Kitchen workspace. Courtesy: Sydney Arkin

For the last month, she’s been working out of the Korner Kitchen & Bar commissary kitchen (1014 Fruitvale Ave.) in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, with a weekly pickup for customers who order swiftly enough to snag a pint. Flavors drop online on Wednesdays, and sell out fast. Pick ups are on Saturdays. Convenient, it’s not — and the ice cream is pricey at $13.50 a pint — but this works for those always on the hunt for the next delicious thing.

“People are more willing to do that here,” Arkin said. “There are so many pop-ups that do this and sell out immediately. I think it might even be part of the fun to be in the know about something new.”

As for her future plans, she hasn’t figured that out yet, she isn’t thinking about retail or scoop shops; perhaps an ice cream truck is more her style.

“My favorite part about making ice cream is that it’s fun,” she said. “There’s a reason it’s a universal comfort food and that people turn to it equally on vacation and as a reward and after breakups. It just makes everything better.”

Alix Wall has lived in Oakland since 2002, with some summers spent in Berkeley as a child, and has written for Berkeleyside since 2013. She writes mostly about food.