Jonathan Keim is making a go of his ice cream business here in the Bay Area because a Balinese priestess told him to.
If that sounds a bit woo-woo, so be it, but it’s an important part of Keim’s story. Her name is Mangku Tya and she told him, “Go to San Francisco and see if you can do this and don’t give up. You have my blessing.”
So he did and now he’s here, or rather, Oakland, to be exact.
Of course, there’s more to the story than that. Keim, 30, is the founder of Kokolato, a plant-based gelato made with a coconut cream base. He founded the company, nurtured it and grew it during the five years he lived as an American expat on the Indonesian island of Bali. He built Kokolato into a successful company in Bali, which is still in business today, though in the hands of a Balinese partner. Stateside, Keim is now making Kokolato and selling it at Classic Cars West, the vintage car dealership, restaurant, art gallery and beer garden in Oakland’s Uptown. Keim connected with Classic Cars West when he began emailing local vegan businesses, asking who might like to help him jumpstart his company in the Bay Area.
So far, Keim is making two flavors in Oakland: Cardamom, ginger, rose and Ecuadorian raw cacao.
“What’s special about [Kokolato] is that I make my own raw coconut cream as the base,” Keim said. “I use coconut sugar, which is a low-glycemic sweetener. It’s light, it’s not ice cream and it’s not gelato, it’s Kokolato. It’s almost as if it should have its own category as it’s light and refreshing and not overly sweet, and its texture is very creamy, which sets it apart from my competition.”
In addition, the cacao flavor often fools non-vegans who can’t tell it’s dairy-free. The cardamom, ginger, rose flavor has a flavor profile reminiscent of baklava.
Back in Bali, Kokolato has more flavors, like cold-pressed coffee, coconut, moringa mint chip, and strawberry balsamic black pepper, all of which he hopes to eventually make here as well. More than a few of his flavors have beneficial herbs and superfoods, like moringa leaf, as additions.
But given that it’s just Keim in the kitchen right now, he’s starting out slowly.
Keim describes himself as a flexitarian who tries to eat mostly vegan, but when it comes to putting a product out into the world, he said he will only do so with a vegan product.
“I’m not super strict with myself, but I do prefer eating a mostly vegan diet,” he said. “Most people who are eating vegan or mostly vegan are challenged with not enough options.”
“I want to be part of the solution. I want to bring forth a gelato so amazing that people prefer it over the alternative, not only because of the taste, but because how their body feels after they eat it,” Keim said.
Keim grew up in Crested Butte, Colorado. At age 14, he began working in restaurants that served tourists. He was promoted from dishwasher to line cook almost immediately.
By the time he graduated from college, several of his family members were working with self-help guru Tony Robbins. Keim was hired to work with them running the sales for all of Robbins’ materials.
“About a year and a half after that, I was meditating in Santa Barbara, examining this feeling of lack of fulfillment I had,” he said. “I was pretty much helping people achieve their own goals while I wasn’t really paying attention to my own. I saw dolphins in the water and immediately felt jealous of them, and thought, ‘This is weird, why am I jealous of dolphins?’ It came to me because I wasn’t free.”
He gave his 30-days notice and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. After traveling for a couple months, he landed in Bali and like so many before him, was completely smitten.
“I quickly became immersed in one of the most beautiful cultures I’d ever seen,” he said. “There was this vibrant expat community there as well, with very heart-centered people coming from all parts of the world, doing whatever they could to stay as long as possible.”
Keim decided to join their ranks, and with the investment of someone who tasted some coconut-based ice cream he made for a party, encouraged him to make a business out of it.
Although he managed to get press for being a bold American expat living the dream by starting a business in Bali, all was not as rosy as it seemed. As many foreigners know, it’s not always easy to start a company in another country, where different rules apply, or in some cases, rules seem not to exist.
Keim chose not to give details, except to hint that running a business in Bali as a young foreigner was far from smooth sailing. He left the business in the hands of a partner, who now runs the operation in Ubud, where there is still a storefront, too.
In Oakland, Keim is now importing raw coconut meat from Thailand. His immediate goal is to sell Kokolato at Classic Cars West and then market the product to local restaurants, with greater goals ahead.
He believes strongly in his product as well as the mission behind it. “I haven’t given up this dream of wanting to get this gelato out there,” he said.
Kokolato is now available at the Classic Cars West Beer Garden and is looking for more locations to serve from. Classic Cars West is open 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Thursday; noon to 10 p.m., Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.