“Stop making milkshakes and practice milkshakes,” an imaginary Frank Morelli whispered as his former student Doug Quint was failing to perfect the milkshakes he was trying to sell. “It was like I had jumped into a performance without practicing them and I went back and sort of dissected milkshakes from the beginning to the end,” Quint told The Journal recently. A native of Portland, Me., Quint received his master’s in bassoon from Juilliard in 1994 and eight years later is a part-time freelance musician and full-time ice cream entrepreneur. But shedding milkshakes, so to speak, was far from anything he could have seen himself doing during his Juilliard days.
In the spring of 2009, Quint said, he noticed a friend’s Facebook post seeking summer ice-cream truck drivers. “I thought, ‘I just want to do something weird for the summer after finishing my comprehensives and practice—but not have to worry about going to festivals or making money,’” said Quint, who at the time had been working toward a D.M.A. at the CUNY Graduate Center and freelancing with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and a number of ensembles in Boston.
That summer, Quint and his partner, Bryan Petroff, adopted a beat-up old Mister Softee truck and began dishing out soft-serve with unusual toppings, like crushed wasabi peas, olive oil, and toasted curried coconut. They named it the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and soon gained something of a cult following, with upward of 1,000 Twitter followers (this number has since grown to more than 30,000) and a write-up in The New York Times Dining section. Factor in a spot on The Village Voice’s list of best street food and two Vendy (best street vendor) Award nominations, and the venture’s success was promising enough to drive the first-time business owners to plan for a second year using more conventional business strategies. But for the winter months, Quint got back in musical shape and continued his bassoon career.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011, when business boomed “right from the get-go,” Quint said, and it was clear the team needed a brick-and-mortar space with a real kitchen in which to experiment—and practice (just as Morelli’s spirit had advised). In September, the team opened the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop in the East Village with a bang: crowds lined up and witnessed a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra by a contrabassoon octet with pop sensation D.J. Cutlet on MIDI timpani and a benediction by celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain. And then they filed into the brightly colored space for treats like the Choinkwich (bacon marmalade and chocolate soft-serve sandwiched between two chocolate cookies) and the Salty Pimp (vanilla soft-serve sprinkled with salt and covered in dulce de leche and chocolate sauce).
On occasion, the shop has morphed into a performance space, with performances by musicians like Andrea Fisher (B.M. ’02, M.M. ’04, flute) and the self-described “post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience” Genghis Barbie (whose members include French horn alumnae Danielle Kuhlmann and Alana Vegter and also Leelanee Sterrett, who is in the Academy, the joint Carnegie Hall-Juilliard teaching program). Videos from these events are posted on YouTube, alongside music videos of Jane Wiedlin’s “Big Gay Ice Cream Song” and D.J. Cutlet’s “Big Gay Ice Cream Truck,” which with their thousands of hits have given Big Gay and their musician friends a healthy amount of publicity. The performances and personalized songs have made the shop more of a multimedia scene, which is exactly what Quint and Petroff intended.
But hip musical connections and the occasional visit from an imaginary Frank Morelli aren’t the only ways that Juilliard has helped with the business. “One of the things that helped the truck succeed was that I wasn’t scared of anyone and I could talk to anyone, and a lot of that has to do with being a chamber musician [and] having to talk to every single person after the concert,” Quint said, also noting that his music-playing colleagues represent an extremely narrow demographic compared with the “big food writers, junkies, prostitutes, and women in burkas”—along with the thousands of others—who buy from the truck. Being an adept performer has also no doubt helped with his numerous TV appearances, including on The Rachel Ray Show and Anthony Bourdain’s Layover, to name just a few.
Although owning the shop has complicated the possibility of sustaining a career that is evenly balanced between music and ice cream, Quint is trying not to close any doors and still performs occasionally though he has shelved his D.M.A. plans. He and Petroff are working toward making the store more self-sufficient (they’ve been there nearly every day since it opened).
This month, the truck will return for its fourth summer with the usual crazy toppings and new ones like butterscotch bourbon sauce. Though the truck strongly resembles your average Mister Softee truck, the massive lines and Quint and Petroff’s fabulous personalized jingles will give away the secret that this is far from your average soft-serve: this is Big Gay Ice Cream.
The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop is located at 125 East Seventh Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A. For store hours and more information, visit biggayicecream.com or call (212) 533-9333. For Big Gay Ice Cream Truck locations, follow @biggayicecream on Twitter.