It was a Wednesday in late May when Renee and Madeline Berry-Travis found out they'd have to leave the house they'd lived in for four years. Their landlords were reclaiming the abode after their own home had been foreclosed on. "We were totally broke," Renee recalls.
So the next day, on Thursday, Renee walked into Dave's Market, a place she'd been frequenting for years, and asked Dave if she could make him some ice cream—not just any ice cream, mind you, but liquid nitrogen ice cream, an enterprise she and Madeline had been experimenting with since March. Dave acquiesced.
"At first he looked at me very oddly," Renee tells me over the phone recently, "but after eating his scoop, he asked if we could start tomorrow." They couldn't; they needed a week to get the appropriate licenses together. By the following Friday, however, they were up and running. NitroKarma was born.
Despite their quick launch, Renee and Madeline are not your typical entrepreneurs. For most of their adult lives, they've devoted their time to helping young people. Madeline, who is currently a full-time caregiver for a child with disabilities, ran sexual-assault-prevention programs for youth, while Renee ran group homes for youth in recovery. They were foster parents for 10 years, and wound up adopting eight kids, all but one of whom have special needs (they have a dozen children total, ranging in age from eight to 36). Quips Renee: "We're like the circus family of the neighborhood."
Their efforts to feed such a large brood are what first sparked their idea to make ice cream. "It's kind of silly how it all came about," Madeline admits. When her kids wouldn't eat the fruit smoothies she made for them, she'd put them in the freezer, unwilling to let good food go to waste. "They didn't want all-natural smoothies," she laughs, "until they became all-natural ice cream."
Madeline had remembered a college science class she took in which her professor made ice cream with liquid nitrogen. No stranger to adventure (years ago she and Renee relocated to the jungles of Mexico), she called up the gas company and started tinkering. "All the kids went nuts over it," Madeline recalls. "And we thought this might be a good way to make some money." Eight weeks later, they were in business.
On a recent Friday, I head down to Dave's to watch the magic happen. Tucked between the fruit display and the deli counter, Renee and her 18-year-old daughter Chase concoct made-to-order scoops ($4 each) as customers admire the spooky, cauldron-like effects of the liquid nitrogen. Renee's 15-year-old son Adian offers free samples of the brittle ice cream they just invented that morning. (The other children are discerning taste-testers).
Though a more expensive way to make ice cream, liquid nitrogen is also more efficient. No freezer necessary. Other than the giant 260-liter metal tank hunkering in the corner of the market's storage space, the set-up is simple: a couple of mixers, Strauss organic dairy base and the ingredients du jour—currently things like chocolate ganache, pineapples, cucumbers, limes, marshmallows, espresso and caramel.
When a new customer orders the butter pecan, Renee offers a brief science lesson as she pours the frigid liquid into the mixing bowl. "The liquid nitrogen is only used as a freezing agent," she explains, "so it's not actually an ingredient in the ice cream." With a temperature of 321 degrees below zero, Renee continues, liquid nitrogen can freeze something so instantly that the ice crystals are miniscule, rendering ice cream impossibly dense and velvety. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
Like snowflakes, no two scoops are alike. They can be harder or softer, depending on preference, and some customers even buy or bring their own ingredients—recent picks include avocado and a Ziploc bag full of Oreos—to throw into the mix. When I ask for a cone of caramel and coffee, Renee stops in the middle of mixing so that I can evaluate. "What do you think? Does it need more espresso?"
Open for only two months, they've already got a few regulars, like Tami, who discovered them on day one and has been "addicted" to the coconut ice cream ever since. They'll be freezing up scoops at Graton Winery next month (a special apple wine/bleu cheese/candied pecan flavor is in the works) and are about 10 grand shy of getting their trailer on the road.
If their goals are lofty, they're also admirable. "We want to generate seed money to invest in other people's enterprises," Renee says, "and help them be sustainable. Obviously, we'd like to make some money ourselves, but we also want to be socially responsible."
"Gifts come from very strange places," she continues. "If we hadn't been forced to move, we might not have started NitroKarma so soon. But that's the whole point: we want to give out the good stuff in life. And then, hopefully, get some of it back."
NitroKarma, inside Dave's Market, 320-A W. Third St., Santa Rosa. 707.542.8333.