Welcome to our series, Hello Denver, My Name is… where we profile people in Denver that you probably don’t know — but should. Get ready to meet painters, dancers, comedians, musicians, designers and just generally fascinating people that help make this city awesome.
Helen Williams moved to Denver almost four years ago with a mission: to start a vegan ice cream business. Williams grew up eating her fair share of ice cream in New Jersey, but when she and her husband decided it was time to move west, they settled on Denver.
The couple loved the mountains and the opportunities for outdoor adventures, but they also loved the sunny weather and food scene. Williams ventured into the food world with a vegan/vegetarian recipe blog and fell in love with the challenge of concocting ice cream flavors. Now, Best One Yet is a full-time job for Williams, even in the off-season. Riding around the metro area on a Vespa, Williams sells pre-packed ice cream in both original and classic flavors.
Denver, meet Helen.
303 Magazine: Did you start Best One Yet immediately after moving to Denver four years ago?
Helen Williams: Yes and no. . . At first, I was looking for a truck and I was coming up short on finding the right thing because all the trucks are huge and kind of a gamble. So we ended up scaling it back and were deciding [if we wanted] to wait to find the right truck to open this or [if we wanted] to let ourselves grow into something bigger. So that’s kind of how we came on the vespa. And that even was a search as well, once we decided we wanted to do that. It was finding a very specific bike, and actually, I was visiting the scooter shop in Boulder a lot, just checking out what they had and he was telling me what I should look for, and he was like, “You’re never gonna find it though. When they have them, they never want to sell them, they’re great bikes, they’re super hard to find, good luck.” And I went home that day on Craigslist and searched for that type, and there was someone in Boulder selling one. So that was kinda the last big piece to the puzzle. We were registered and filed and had our commissary kitchen, and had all the other things we needed in place, but that was the last thing and once we got that it all started to roll together.
303: What is different about Denver than other cities where you thought you could start a successful vegan ice cream company?
HW: It’s funny, a lot of people I talked to about the food scene in general, everyone was really excited for something vegan, but there weren’t a lot of things that existed already. So it was kind of like, “Yeah, we’re ready to have that here but no one’s done it yet.” So that was a really exciting thing. And then since we’ve done it, so many new restaurants and food trucks – like there’s three new vegan food trucks just this last year – so it’s just really cool to be a part of it as it’s taking off. And just the industry in general, it’s really happening right now, so I feel like that was a cool opportunity.
303: How did [Best One Yet] come together in your mind? Was there a specific moment where you thought “vegan ice cream, that’s my thing”?
HW: I was running a vegetarian/vegan food blog for about seven years. I kind of started the blog because I really wanted to do something in food, but I really couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I liked to cook at home, I loved being in the kitchen, I loved figuring out recipes, but I didn’t really want to work in a restaurant, I didn’t want to own my own restaurant. I was just torn on where in the food industry I would fit well. Because I wanted a certain lifestyle, but also I really wanted to be in it without being totally submerged because restaurants are all consuming.
So I started the food blog as sort of a personal outlet. [I] really enjoyed it [and] was super diligent, and it was one of those things, also, where . . . food blogs were taking off at the time, there were lots of people getting really successful at it and they were like “Just be patient, post consistently, post good content.” People always said they liked my writing, so that was really fun. In doing that I discovered vegan ice cream recipes. My first go at it was not super successful, and I feel like part of the reason I wanted to do it was because I was buying a lot of dairy-free ice cream that was not super great … I wasn’t really loving any of it. So I was like, “What don’t I like about this, what would I do differently?” and that informed what I would do with my recipes. So I tried for a long time, and I kind of thought at first, “Oh this will be really easy, how hard could it be?”
Turns out it’s pretty hard. Ice cream is an exact science kind of like baking. So I just enjoyed that challenge and the journey of figuring it out and towards the end of my blog . . . it’s mostly ice cream recipes because I was just really into it at that point. And I kind of thought, “Oh, I want to do something with this.” I didn’t know what. . . It kind of came to me, I wasn’t really looking for it.
303: Denver has a lot of ice cream, what makes Best One Yet stand out?
HW: We are one of the only local – I believe – that’s only coconut based. [Also,] all of our add-ins are gluten-free, so all of the cookie doughs and cakes, we have a peanut butter brownie flavor, everything we make in-house is gluten-free. I kind of figured most of the time if people are looking to avoid dairy, maybe they’ve got other eating restrictions, chosen or not. And it was a super easy thing to do because gluten-free baking I feel has gotten so much better as well, the same with vegan food. And our goal is also to keep the sugar content low. We do use organic cane sugar, so it is a sugar ice cream, it’s not another type of sweetener like agave or something, but I feel like part of what I didn’t like about a lot of the stuff I was buying when I first was getting into making my own recipes was they were all super sweet. Like almost hurt your teeth sweet. . . I really feel like the flavor should shine rather than the sweetness, so we kind of use the sweetener as an enhancement and not the front runner.
303: So you planned on having a truck and settled on a Vespa. Now that you’re growing, how do you hope to grow in the next year or so?
HW: We’re actually looking for a truck still, we kinda never stopped. We figured we’ll just keep an eye out and when the right one comes along and it’s time, we’ll jump on it. So we are looking at trucks, we have found a couple that we’re interested in, so I feel like right now the goal is to have a bigger vehicle by 2020, which would be a bittersweet thing. [But] we could sell at bigger events, we could stay places for longer, we can carry more product, we can do cones – because right now we have to pre-pack everything because of the way our set up is. So we could scoop to order and it will just be more of the ice cream truck that you know, which I’m excited about. Also from the beginning our first summer we didn’t do any wholesale . . . and then after our first summer we started to reach out to some stores and from last year to this year we grew from six to 15, so we hope to keep doing more wholesale.
303: So when you dreamed of adulthood, did you ever think you would be doing anything with ice cream?
HW: No, I mean it’s so funny, I really had no idea what I would be doing. If I think about myself in college or something, I went to school for writing, and now that that’s not playing a part. It’s funny the way you find the thing that you studied will work its way into your life. Just in writing the copy or putting our website together, it’s stuff like that, or even just the blog that led us to this. But I don’t think I ever could have predicted [this].
303: What is one of your most memorable childhood experiences of ice cream?
HW: There was this ice cream shop that we went to a bunch of times when I was little. It was kind of the dinner thing in the summer, like “Alright let’s go get ice cream.” It’s called Yums, I think. But it was on the waterfront in Burlington City, and I just remember going there. And my dad always tells this story, of course I don’t remember this because I was too little, but he said that I was sitting there and I had already eaten my ice cream, and my older sister was sitting next to me, not paying attention, looking around and so I just started eating hers.
Also I remember going to my grandma’s house, and she would always give us vanilla ice cream with pretzel sticks in it, kinda like that salty-sweet thing, which is of course a beloved flavor combo – salty and sweet – but I’ve never seen an ice cream flavor with that, so maybe I should try that next.
303: Tell me about the creation process of a new flavor.
HW: There are a couple of different things. We’ll try to recreate classics that everybody likes, like cookie dough. . . There are other ones that have just come to me. One of our best sellers is a birthday cake one, and it’s a vanilla bean ice cream [with] gluten-free vanilla cake and sprinkles in it, and that is sort of something – I know there’s cake batter ice cream and birthday cake ice creams you can buy – but I kind of thought what’s missing from them is actual cake, so sometimes [it’s] just taking it the next step further.
Sometimes – I am not kidding – I’ve had recipes come to me in a dream and I’m like, “That would be weird but like let’s just try it and see if it’s good.” We made this one called Once in a Blue Moon, that’s a special summer seasonal flavor. It’s a blue spirulina ice cream and it’s got lemon cake and data caramel in it, and it doesn’t make sense but it works. And then sometimes I feel like I have a bunch of random things and I just see if they work together. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it does.
303: Do you take inspiration from another ice cream brand to create your flavors?
HW: It’s hard to not I guess, every now and then you’ll make something, you’re like, “Wow this is super unique,” and then you see it on a shelf somewhere else and you’re like, “Did I think of this or not?” But I think that’s just a cool part of the creation process if you’re kind of drawing inspiration even when you don’t realize it. And there are tons of other ice cream companies that I admire and I think are so cool, and a lot of them are women-owned which is really cool too. Like Jeni’s, her stuff is always interesting, her packaging is beautiful. I really love Christina Tosi from Milk Bar. I think she’s the coolest person ever. . . She’s got like a compost cookie, with like coffee in it. I like people that aren’t afraid to just try something and see if people are into it. And then there’s a bunch of really cool local brands too, there’s Nice Cream Sammies, like her stuff is incredible, [and] there’s Brightside Creamery, she’s in Denver. There are lots of cool women in the space, and men too. They’re out there putting together really unique flavor combinations and when you try it, you can’t help but think, “Oh how would I do this?” and go from there.
303: If you could only have one ice cream flavor ever again, what would it be?
HW: Oh no! [laughs] Oh man, I’m already rolling through a bunch–oh man. I feel like people ask me this all the time too when I’m out selling, or if we’re doing a demo, and they’re like, “What’s your favorite?” and I’m the worst person to ask. I love them all! I guess I have to go with the first one that popped into my head: cookie dough. Because cookie dough has kinda been my flavor forever.
303: If you had to describe your personality in one of your flavors, which one would it be?
HW: Shoot, this is hard too. I feel like I’ll have to mention the Once in a Blue Moon again, because it’s a little out there, it’s a little weird but it works.
303: If you could see one Red Rocks concert by someone dead or alive, who would it be?
HW: Oh wow, such a tough question. Would Lady Gaga ever perform at Red Rocks? If she does, I’ll be the first in line.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Follow Best One Yet on Instagram for updates on new flavors and where to find the Vespa.
All photography by Evans Ousley.