In honor of national ice cream month in July, I chatted with Brighton’s Deena Jalal, 40, who runs FoMu. Hers aren’t your typical ice cream parlors: At locations throughout Boston, ice cream is made using coconut milk, and flavors are completely plant-based.
For those unfamiliar with FoMu: What’s the philosophy? What led you down the plant-based ice cream path?
From the start [in 2012], FoMu has been committed to making all-natural, plant-based, scratch-made ice cream. The reason for that is because, over a decade ago, I was in a regular old job and wanting to do something meaningful. I had just found out that I was pregnant with my first son. And, you know, ice cream to me is like its own food group — my favorite food group.
I try to eat a pretty good diet, I cook mostly for myself, and I don’t eat things from packages. I was kind of shocked to think that ice cream hadn’t had that movement, that Renaissance. It’s fine to be a dessert and indulgent with fat and sugar, but why does it have to be full of all sorts of preservatives?
My husband [Hin Tang] and I decided to make it plant-based because sourcing plant-based materials is obviously sustainable. It also gets you out of this weird place with sourcing of really good-quality dairy, and the pasteurization of dairy, and the requirement of having to use a premade mix. Overwhelmingly, people who make ice cream start from a premade mix. Part of that isn’t necessarily their fault. I can’t come down on them for that; it’s because of pasteurization laws, particularly in Massachusetts.
So if I’m going to make something from scratch, if I’m going to get milk from a local farm, I have to be the one to pasteurize it and take on that manufacturing cost. So most people end up buying a mix. But unfortunately, that mix doesn’t just come with pasteurized dairy; it comes with all the sugars and the preservatives and emulsifiers.
What did you do differently?
We took the approach of: ‘Well, there’s nothing with coconut-milk-based ice cream out there.’ And coconut milk can be sourced as coconut milk, with nothing else added. And coconut is such a creamy, lovely product to start. You don’t have to process it; it comes the way it is. The thing that makes it unique also allows us to really be creative but stay super natural and have a really delicious product.
I’ve talked to a lot of entrepreneurs who had been at a job and left, wanting to make more of a difference elsewhere. What were you doing before?
I was in marketing. I was traveling a ton, and it was really cutting into my work-life balance. I took a trip and thought, ‘I can’t do this with a child. This is terrible. They will hate me for leaving them for so long over and over and over again.’ But how nice would it be to have a child who could come to work and see exactly what I’m doing and how it made a difference?
What was the public reaction when you opened?
We started by offering ice cream to restaurants and doing wholesale to gauge what flavors people liked. Was this a viable product? Was there a need for it? We got immediate reactions from places like Life Alive and Veggie Galaxy, from people who cared about food and had largely vegetarian-oriented customers. They were like, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for. There’s nothing like this around here.’
We did that for almost a year. And we live in Brighton, so Allston is very close to us. We happened to drive by a location for rent that used to be an ice cream place. And we were like, ‘You know what? Let’s take a risk. This is probably the lowest-risk thing we could possibly do.’ We lived nearby. We knew folks in Allston had a great alternative palate.
When we opened, there was no marketing, no p.r. And we were shocked. At first it was a lot of people who were either vegan or lactose intolerant. They started bringing their friends and were like, ‘This is really good!’ It grew from there.
Let’s talk about Boston ice cream in general. Why do you think we’re such an ice cream city?
I mean, that’s the age-old question, right? I think that people are just get used to the cold, and they’re just willing to plow through and reward themselves. It’s kind of a traditional town. In a lot of ways, New England is a bit of a traditional food spot. And I think it’s just the traditional, old-school all-American dessert.
I think that since FoMu, there been some folks who have started other ice cream places that are trying to do it justice. I think it had gone down a bad path, kind of like a lot of foods have in America — being overprocessed and using bad ingredients. People have done a really good job of trying to turn that around, like we have as well, taking that traditional old-school, all-American dessert and making it with cool flavors and using great ingredients. It’s having this second wave of a revival.
What are your favorite ice cream places, besides your own?
Well, I did grew up in Western Mass., and I went to Smith, in Northampton. And Herrell’s was the place, committed to good quality, low air, and cool flavors. And [owner] Steve Herrell was an innovator when it came to ice cream. I love to see that innovation happen again. I think there was a long period between ice cream innovation that happened in the 1970s and again in like the 2000s. That was a big one growing up, obviously. I think that texture groomed me to appreciate the texture that we now have at FoMu.
Another place obviously everybody knows and loves is Toscanini’s. [Owner] Gus Rancatore, if you go back in the history books, took a couple of notes from Steve Herrell. It’s certainly a very similar style, really thoughtfully made ice cream as well. And Honeycomb Creamery is doing great. Anyone trying to get beyond using that standard mix and trying to innovate for themselves and do something different takes work, guts, and commitment. I applaud anyone who’s trying to do that. It’s a lot of work and a lot of money. It’s saying, ‘I’d rather commit to my craft than make an extra buck.’
Favorite ice cream flavor?
I really do love fruity flavors. I never really did as a child. When I was growing up. I loved mint chocolate chip and a peanut butter, mud pie type of thing. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t know if my flavor profile is altered or whether it’s because I’m so used to eating FoMu where we’re using fresh-squeezed juices and fresh pureed fruits. But I am in love with our summer flavors. Our lemon meringue pie has real lemon juice that we get from Russo’s in Watertown. Our blueberry shortbread has real blueberries in it that we put with homemade shortbread. I love feeling like I’m eating a composed dessert in my ice cream, and I like those textural and flavor nuances. But I gotta say, if you put something like a peanut butter mud pie in front of me, I’ll do some damage as well.
What restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
We love getting behind immigrant-owned businesses, and we eat a lot of ethnic food. I’m Middle Eastern; my husband is Chinese. We have a huge fondness for any food that comes from the Middle Eastern region and any food that comes from the Asian region. We eat a lot of Vietnamese, Lebanese, and Thai food. If my husband and I were to get away for a nicer meal, we would definitely hit Sarma or Oleana.
I’m going to give a shout-out to a new place that just opened up in Allston that has weathered the storm beautifully and still serves gorgeous, homemade food. It’s called Lazuri. The people who work there are lovely. The food needs to be more expensive! It’s too reasonably priced, and the food literally looks like your mom or your grandma just came out of the kitchen with these beautiful platters. We’ve gotten takeout with friends and brought takeout home. It’s just so much food. It’s such a reasonable price — and just so tasty and fresh, fresh, fresh.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.