It all started with a Christmas gift. In 2019, Stephanie De La Cruz’s partner gave her an ice cream maker for the holiday, a device she thought she’d use to make some fun desserts at home. Less than three years later, her Instagram-based ice cream pop-up, De La Creamery, is a favorite vendor at Bay Area spots like Temescal Brewing, Degrees Platos and Tahona Mercado, and she’s built a business that helps her and other Americans from a Mexican background connect with their roots.
When De La Cruz first started making ice cream, all she wanted was a delicious vanilla bean flavor. She enlisted one of her sisters, a chef in Southern California, to get the flavor right. Then, she started thinking about how she might transform some of her favorite drinks growing up, horchata and hot chocolate, into ice cream.
Horchata is a common agua fresca flavor, made with rice, cinnamon and milk. It was a favorite for De La Cruz’s family. So was Mexican hot chocolate, a simmered and frothed drink made with round tablets of sweet, spiced chocolate, from companies like Nestle, which made her family’s preferred brand, Abuelita.
“Some of my most powerful memories are of me and my dad in the wintertime drinking chocolate Abuelita in Christmas mugs,” De La Cruz said. “That was my dad’s favorite thing to make.”
The horchata flavor had its roots in a recipe a friend’s mom taught her in high school. “Since that day, I never wrote down the recipe, but I remember exactly how she told me to make it,” De La Cruz said. “And when it came to making my ice cream, I remembered how she taught me and I used that to learn to make this ice cream flavor.”
Given that nostalgic connection, De La Cruz said that her new ice cream experiments “had to taste like the flavors from my childhood. There was no question about it.”
As she continued perfecting her flavors, sharing samples with friends and family, she got a lot of good feedback, and realized this might have the potential to be more than a hobby. Meanwhile, the pandemic hit and she was furloughed from her day job. Like so many other budding makers, she turned that challenge into an opportunity, and decided to turn her ice cream making into a business.
In 2020, she founded De La Creamery, reaching out to business and pop-up organizers and growing her social media presence. She joined the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a small business support non-profit, and was eventually accepted into the La Cocina Kitchen Incubator, which helps working-class women of color and immigrant food entrepreneurs. Her business got so busy, in fact, that she was able to leave her home kitchen behind, and to rent space in a Berkeley commercial kitchen.
Things hit a new level when the owners of Tahona Mercado, a Nob Hill bottle shop and market, reached out to see if she’s take them on as a wholesale customer, saying that they were big fans and wanted to sell her ice cream in their store. De La Cruz was bowled over, she said.
“I went home and cried, thinking, ‘oh my God, these people are genuinely telling me how they feel, and it’s extremely thoughtful and kind,’” she said.
While she has received a lot of support over the last two years, De La Cruz said she’s also been the target of some unpleasant messages. While working on getting her ice cream to Tahona Mercado, De La Cruz said she was threatened by a now-shuttered local ice cream shop that felt it was unfair that her Instagram-based business, run out of a commercial kitchen, was doing so well.
“We had talked before, and I tried her ice cream,” De La Cruz said of the other entrepreneur. “I have given feedback, and I’ve given them my ice cream. I really wanted her to succeed.”
Kind words, but it’s clear that De La Cruz was also frustrated by the interactions. “As a Latina woman who has been working her ass off, the harassment floored me,” she said.
De La Cruz hasn’t let conflict like that slow her down, though. Since then, she’s developed even more recipes and flavors, including an elote ice cream that she pairs with a lime and habanero jam swirled into every scoop. Just don’t ask her how she makes that ice cream, which is based on the Mexican corn-on-the-cob street food. Her elote recipe is one that took lots of trial and error to come out just right, and is such a top-secret process that she won’t even divulge what kind of corn she uses. (When it launched, it quickly joined horchata and hot chocolate as her most popular offerings.)
Another ice cream, gansito, is a take on the popular Mexican snack cake, with flavors of strawberry and chocolate. She’s also concocted a crème fraiche ice cream for Slug, a popular new wine bar in Oakland. Joining the menu of a spot like Slug is another milestone for De La Cruz, who has long sought a way to bring the dessert flavors common in Mexican households to upscale restaurants. “I want our culture to be elevated to the fine dining experience,” she said.
It’s that household influence and the history behind every recipe that makes De La Creamery’s flavors unique, as they’re deeply rooted in its founder’s past. And playing around with the flavors of her childhood isn’t just inspiration for her work — it’s also a way to connect with her heritage.
De La Cruz is one of the millions of Americans from a Mexican background who doesn’t speak Spanish but has been embedded in the United States for generations, back when speaking a language other than English resulted in harassment and racist attacks.
She said that her ice cream flavors are intended to reflect a part of her identity that was lost all those generations ago, and noted a kinship with other makers like KoolFi Creamery, owned by queer immigrants Priti Narayanan and her wife, Madhuri “Mads” Anji. They specialize in making Indian-inspired flavors with a lot of the same philosophies De La Cruz applies to her Mexican creations. In both cases, she said, their businesses are “making specialized flavors for our culture.”
Featured image: Various flavors of De La Creamery sit on a table in the company’s kitchen space. Credit: Amir Aziz