Humphry Slocombe co-founders Jake Godby and Sean Vahey didn’t plan an expansion to Berkeley, but when they heard of the opportunity to open a fifth store on College Avenue in the former Ici Ice Cream shop, they knew they had to jump on it, especially after getting the blessing from Ici founder Mary Canales to take over the space.
“It fell into our lap, it was a no-brainer,” said Godby about the new Berkeley location, which soft-opened Monday. Godby is the chef, while Vahey is in charge of PR and marketing for the brand, which started in 2008 as a single shop in San Francisco’s Mission District and, over the years, gained a following for its creative, sometimes straight-up bizarre flavors. Humphry Slocombe currently has two locations in San Francisco, one in Oakland and another in Los Angeles.
Godby said they didn’t initially have their eyes set on Berkeley because Ici was filling the need in the area. They thought, “Why open in Berkeley if Ici is there? They already have great ice cream.” But that changed when Canales abruptly closed both Ici locations last November.
Although the co-founders were familiar with Ici, both live in San Francisco and are just getting to know the microcosm of the Elmwood. They admit they were surprised by the neighborhood’s attachment to the former ice cream business and how traumatized some fans were by its shuttering. Godby said that before they opened, neighbors were constantly coming to their door, knocking and asking questions about what was coming next to the space.
And just two days into the shop’s soft opening, when I was invited to get a behind-the-scenes look at the shop, customers steadily walked in.
“We were not expecting this response,” Vahey said. “We love the energy.”
But the two did their homework and know about the famous Ici lines, the ones that snaked outside, especially on warm days, but really, on just about any day, rain or shine. Ici had a system, with ropes that penned in the queue, keeping the eager crowds from overwhelming the sidewalk and the 1,150-square-foot shop. Godby and Vahey took note of details like the menu at the head of the line outside, where waiting customers could start pondering what they wanted to taste inside. They haven’t figured out exactly what they’re going to do to control the customer flow on busy days, but they’ll likely instate a system that takes inspiration from Ici.
The shop’s kitchen will serve as a production facility once it gets its final permits, probably within the next week. Although the Berkeley storefront is similar in size to its other locations, the kitchen is much bigger than the one in the Mission shop, which they estimate is about 1/4 of the size. Godby said he’s excited about creating new flavors in the spacious digs, which is outfitted with several freezers, a walk-in fridge, a stovetop, sink and a room in the kitchen where the ice cream machine lives.
On my visit, Godby opened a light pink door and showed me the machine, which he says will be used to make all the flavors they offer at the shop — a base is poured in and then the flavorings and mix-ins are added for each individual flavor. Although Humphry Slocombe once used Straus Organic for its ice cream base, Godby said their need outgrew the dairy’s capacity, and the brand now uses a base made and pasteurized off-site using organic cream. It’s very similar to, but not Straus. All the mix-ins are still made in-house.
Godby said they’ve reached out to area businesses like St. George Spirits in Alameda and Third Culture Bakery in West Berkeley about possible collaborations on future flavors, but he said they’re “taking it slow” on bringing in partners. Still, they’ve already nailed down a few Berkeley businesses they’ll be working with, including alternative dairy product maker Eclipse Food Co., gourmet oil company La Tourangelle, barrel-aged sour beer brewer The Rare Barrel, and bean-to-bar chocolatier TCHO.
“We’re super excited about getting to know the neighborhood more,” Vahey said, bringing up some spots that have caught his attention so far, like Summer Kitchen just south of the shop on College Avenue (“The pizzas are legit.”) and Dream Fluff Donuts around the corner on Ashby (“You know it’s old-school when they have lottery tickets and donuts.”).
Godby and Vahey are food industry veterans. They met years ago at Tartare, George Morrone’s FiDi restaurant, where Godby was the pastry chef and Vahey was the restaurant manager. They decided to start an ice cream shop together that would cater to the chef’s palate, although neither dreamt their business would eventually grow into their current empire. They started off with that first shop in the Mission, where they both got a daily arm workout by scooping ice cream for hours on end. These days, with all their stores and lots more staff, neither do much scooping. “Scooping is hard work,” Vahey said. “I can’t scoop for bullshit anymore.”
Humphry Slocombe’s most popular flavor is Secret Breakfast, a bourbon ice cream with house-made cornflake cookies. Godby likes to experiment with all sorts of booze (wine, beer, tequila and more) and uncommon ice cream ingredients, like prosciutto and cheese. He also tends to gravitate to a lot of Asian flavors, so you’ll find flavors like Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, Yuzu Cream and Coconut & Shoyu Caramel.
One of the most interesting scoops I tried at the Berkeley shop was Earl Grey Lemon Ash, which Godby makes by baking whole lemons for several hours at 500ºF “until they look like nothing you want to eat.” The completely charred lemons are then pulverized into a fine powder and are mixed into the tea ice cream, appearing as dark, craggy lines, like mold veins in a fine cheese. Even though the powder is black, it has a surprisingly bright zing that complements and mirrors the citrus notes of the bergamot-flavored tea.
Another memorable flavor I tried is the Pepper and Mint Chip ice cream, made with Indonesian Cubeb pepper, fresh spearmint and flecks of dark chocolate. Vahey said it’s the “elevated version” of his favorite ice cream growing up, Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip.
Humphry Slocombe can sometimes veer sweeter than other ice creams, so sugar-sensitive customers may want to order creamier selections. I found the creamier flavors, like the Yuzu Cream and the French Vanilla, were better balanced than the sorbets and vegan offerings that don’t have the rich dairy to buffer some of the sweetness. But, taste is personal. My advice is to try a few before you commit to a scoop.
While many of the flavors are sophisticated and geared towards adults, the spirit of Humphry Slocombe is young-at-heart. It’s apparent in the irreverent, silly ice cream names and the playful vibe of their social media posts, but it’s also ingrained deeper. During the first few minutes of chatting with Godby, he stopped mid-conversation to help a customer who he thought dropped her scoop outside the shop. He approached her and offered her a new scoop, on the house. It turns out, this is a house rule that has roots in Vahey’s childhood. Later in our meeting, Vahey recalled growing up in Delaware, when he’d save the money earned from mowing lawns to buy Dilly Bars at the local Dairy Queen. He recalls a moment when he dropped his ice cream and the man behind the counter was unmoved by his loss. “That scarred me.”
So, the founders decided to make it a rule: “In our shop, if you lose an ice cream, you will get a brand new one, no questions asked.”
Humphry Slocombe is hosting a Grand Opening Celebration from 1 to 9:30 p.m., Thursday, March 28, featuring free scoops of the brand’s signature flavors (Guests are encouraged to contribute a $1 donation to local charity partner Project Open Hand). Store hours are 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; noon to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m., Sunday.