Vancouver's dessert culture is more than eye candy

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      Dessert shops—specifically, soft-serve ice cream shops—are springing up in our city as fast as one can finish an ice-cream cone on a hot summer’s day.

      In the past year, people with a sweet tooth have been able to flock from one ice-cream shop to another, thanks to the soft-serve ice cream frenzy that has hit Vancouver.

      This food trend is no stranger to bigger and more bustling cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney. In these sweet-filled utopias, it isn’t rare to name-drop where you’ll be headed for some crazy ice cream even before you’ve had lunch or dinner, or to get excited over a new flavour when it is announced on social media.

      And Vancouver is finally catching up in the frozen-treat realm in a way that will undeniably satiate the infinite number of foodies—ice-cream lovers, in particular—who reside here.

      That isn’t to say our city hasn’t had its fair share of ice-cream shops. Some of Vancouver’s favourite frozen-treat shops appear regularly in the Straight’s annual Golden Plate Awards issue—including Earnest Ice Cream and Bella Gelateria.

      But now these veteran frozen-treat shops have new company, and rather than being viewed as direct competition, the newcomers should be embraced as long-awaited additions to the dessert culture in town.

      One of the many soft-serve ice cream shops that opened in Vancouver last year is Soft Peaks (25 Alexander Street). The Gastown store focuses on creating handmade and healthy desserts using organic ingredients.

      Soft Peaks serves a variety of organic soft-serve ice cream.
      Soft Peaks

      Dan Kim, 32, and his brother and cofounder Ken, 33, had never started their own business before or ventured into the food industry. “We were working in someone else’s company in a white-collar job,” said Dan in a phone interview with the Straight.

      Both brothers are hard-core dessert-lovers, and they shared a dream of opening a small business one day. One of the main reasons they opened an ice-cream shop is because they felt that it was something Vancouver lacked.

      “We opened Soft Peaks because it was something we wanted,” said Dan. “We have lived in Vancouver for almost 20 years, so we know the market. After dinner, I would always go for bubble tea or coffee, but that was all there was.”

      Evidently, it was easy for the Kim brothers to decide on what type of frozen-treats shop to open. Organic soft-serve ice cream was virtually unknown to Vancouverites, other than those well-travelled consumers who had tasted varying kinds abroad.

      Slowly but surely, soft-serve ice cream began to catch on with other young entrepreneurs in the city. Of course, this type of ice cream could be found at your local McDonald’s. Even if Soft Peaks didn’t kick off this type of dessert in town, it instilled a sense of assurance in other budding business owners thanks to its success and popularity—especially with masses of young consumers.

      “We have been to a lot of ice-cream shops and frozen-yogurt places,” said Meina Hoang, 28, owner of the newly opened Kul Cup (2751 Main Street), which serves organic soft-serve ice cream. “We saw a lot of young customers, so we figured our target customers are a lot of young people and students.”

      It makes sense that dessert shops are well liked by younger consumers. Not only do some who live at home have spending money to splash out on a $6 cup of soft-serve ice cream, but younger people can be more open to trying new things.

      On Yogurt is the first frozen-treats shop to bring "ice-fried" yogurt to Canada.
      On Yogurt

      For instance, take the ice-fried yogurt that is being served at On Yogurt (95 Smithe Street), yet another new frozen-dessert shop. Owner David Zhao, 30, said that he and his wife are the first to bring this flash-freezer-made dessert to Canada.

      “It’s a new thing, and for people to accept a new thing, they have to have an open mind,” said Zhao. “And young people have an open mind.”

      The dessert culture in Vancouver is visibly thriving, and these young entrepreneurs are connecting with the younger crowds by offering health-conscious alternatives to traditional after-dinner treats. Organic and locally sourced ingredients are the norm in the new generation of dessert shops.

      David Wang, a 21-year-old partner in 720 Sweets & Etc., holds onto his company’s popular Matcha Madness soft-serve ice cream.
      Tammy Kwan

      “It is really important that food culture has a prevalent community,” said David Wang, one of the partners at 720 Sweets & Etc. (3278 West Broadway). “It’s like walking into a section of Disneyland. In the city, there are very obvious themes in Vancouver’s food culture.”

      Wang believes that one of those themes is frozen desserts, which led him and his partners to start an ice-cream business. The 21-year-old entrepreneur explained that they had been working on this soft-serve ice cream shop for a very long time.

      “We take branding very seriously, and we take a lot of time creating the brand, presentation, and concept,” said Wang.

      The hard work paid off, and 720 Sweets opened in Kitsilano last year to offer the city’s first soft-serve ice cream decorated with nitrogen smoke. Its toppings aren’t too shabby either—choices range from toasted marshmallow to fluffy cotton candy, boba to honeycomb. Now ice-cream sandwiches are the latest addition to its menu.

      Our city’s food scene has been attracting international attention for a few years. And the soft-serve ice-cream business in Vancouver has tremendous potential to grow and diversify.

      It is also an outlet for young entrepreneurs to make their mark in Vancouver’s increasingly tough economy or to simply pursue a lifelong passion.

      Matcha Madness at 720 Sweets & Etc. is made with matcha soft-serve ice cream, red bean, mochi, crisped rice, and drizzled in condensed milk.
      Tammy Kwan

      But it never hurts to have pretty desserts. The visually appealing soft-serve ice cream that is Wang’s brainchild quickly attracted the city’s foodies, with the hashtag 720Sweets garnering over 2,000 Instagram posts to date on the mesmerizing smoky ice cream.

      “Sometimes, food just tastes better if it looks great,” Wang added. “It’s more than just dessert, it’s almost like an experience.”

      Follow Tammy Kwan on Twitter @ch0c0tam.