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Sustainably Sweet

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Using all local ingredients—and a dash of science—Spun Ice Cream takes dessert to a whole new level.  

By Kat Barclay, Photos by Jack Sorokin and Hakeem Adewumi and courtesy of Spun Ice Cream

It seems only natural Ashley Cheng ended up in the food business. After all, it’s what she’s always known. As a child, Cheng, along with her older sister and their cousin, could often be found playing in the kitchen. Cheng recalls the times they would spend hours in their grandmother’s shed, where old restaurant equipment was stored. Cheng’s father is a restaurateur and her aunt owns Freda’s Seafood Grille in North Austin.

“We used old carbon paper to take orders. … That’s just how we played,” Cheng says, “which is probably why we somehow evolved into this business.”

Today, Ashley Cheng and her sister, Christina Cheng, own Spun, an ice-cream shop in East Austin on Seventh Street. The first location opened in December 2016, and now there are two other satellite locations: a shipping container outside Whole Foods at The Domain and a shop inside Noble Sandwich Co. on Burnet Road.

“Ice cream is just so joyful,” Ashley Cheng says of why she chose to go into the business. “It really lends itself well to being whimsical and playful.”

While there are many ice-cream shops in town, the Cheng sisters’ take on classic recipes makes theirs stand out. The steps to making the ice cream start behind the scenes. The ice-cream base is made using milk, cream, sugar and other organic spices or produce, depending on the flavor. Once a flavor is ordered, the base is poured into a mixer and pumped with liquid nitrogen—at -321 degrees. Once the liquid nitrogen hits room temperature, it dissipates, causing a smoky illusion that brings the sisters back to high-school chemistry class.

“It makes the ice crystals smaller and more condensed, so the ice cream is smoother and creamier,” Ashley Cheng says of the decision to work with liquid nitrogen. “And it’s super-fresh because it’s made on the spot.”

Spun’s flavors rotate monthly, with the standard sweet cream and chocolate remaining year-round. Fruit flavors rotate depending on the season and availability, and vegan options are available as well. Customers can also choose from homemade toppings like a salted-chocolate shell, Texas pecan brittle, glitter sprinkles and crushed waffle cone, all made in-house.

Along with running Spun, Ashley Cheng is the vice president of Slow Food Austin, an educational initiative reconnecting people with the food they eat through social activities, fundraising events and community volunteer projects.

Going hand in hand with the mission of Slow Food Austin, Spun’s ice cream is made from local and organic ingredients. It also connects people with their food since each cone is made to order and flash-frozen in front of customers through the use of liquid nitrogen.

“Sometimes we get disconnected with our food, and our process is so transparent—and it’s entertaining,” Ashley Cheng says.

While working at Spun has been a dream for the Cheng sisters, starting a business in the food industry is not always easy. Ashley Cheng believes growing up amid the food business helped prepare her for the ups and downs she would later experience.

“We went into it without any illusion of how romantic it might be,” Ashley Cheng says. “Some days, honestly, just suck. If you’re looking to get rich quick, I advise going into a different industry. It has to be about so much more.”

At the end of the day, the business has been about much more. Ashley Cheng recalls a day when her ice cream brought a smile to the face of a girl who had recently lost her mother.

“We never know what we mean to others. As silly as it seems, it’s cool to know our ice cream was that little thing to sweeten their day,” Ashley Cheng says. “Even when equipment is breaking, people aren’t showing up for work, that’s what makes it worth it.”

 

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