At Tin Pot Creamery’s newest location, owner Becky Sunseri showcases flavors that have been decades in the making.
By Kate Bradshaw
Mootella. Blackberry Jamble. Salted Butterscotch.
The mastermind behind these clever — and goshdern delectable — flavors, Becky Sunseri, has been sweet on ice cream since her girlhood days.
Back then, growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, little Becky had a habit of sitting atop the household heater in the cold of winter, its edges leaving waffle cone-style marks imprinted on the back of her legs, while she joyously relished her bowl of ice cream.
Her commitment to eating ice cream year-round, even when her mom said she was crazy, was only the first inkling of her unwavering devotion to the frozen dessert.
Today, she’s founder and CEO of the popular Tin Pot Creamery, which recently opened its fourth location on the Peninsula, in San Mateo.
Sunseri brings to her path an abiding passion for food. “I’ve always just been really interested in food, and the joy and love that surrounds the food experience,” she says.
Even at a young age, Sunseri was fascinated by cooking shows and was a big fan of the Food Network’s celebrity chef Alton Brown. She also read lots of books about cooking and the science of food. At 15, she wrote her first menu of ice cream flavors. Later, she would go on to graduate from Cornell University with training in food science and nutrition.
Sunseri credits growing up in an artistic household for much of her creative approach to food. Both of her parents are in the music business: dad is a composer; mom, an orchestra director. Their creativity inspired her from an early age, she says. “I wanted to do with food what my dad does with music.”
About nine years ago, after college, Sunseri decided to move across the country with her boyfriend (now husband) Nick, to the Bay Area. He’d grown up in Marin, and had just been hired at this young company called Facebook.
She soon enrolled in the Tante Marie Cooking School’s pastry program in San Francisco — which has since closed — and was eventually hired to work at Facebook, then headquartered in Palo Alto, as part of the company’s culinary team, to focus on pastries.
The experience was a crash course in how to make a wide variety of pastries in large volumes, she says. The cafeteria’s menu changed every day, and, with the exception of the top crowd favorites, recipes were rarely repeated. After work, she began experimenting with some of the leftover pastries she brought home, mixing them into ice cream.
She’d been working there for almost two years when she was approached by a high-level Facebook employee. He asked her what she thought about ice cream and offered to introduce her to his wife. The two women got to talking about how the Peninsula really needed an ice cream business that focused on handmade, organic products.
Sunseri did not wish to disclose the name of her business partner, but said that they’ve divided duties so that she’s considered the face of the company, and her partner plays a role in developing high-level strategies.
In typical Silicon Valley fashion, they launched their ice cream business venture with an innovative approach: a subscription service that featured an “Ice Cream of the Month” program, in which Sunseri hand-delivered pints to customers up on the Peninsula and in San Francisco. In July 2013, after building up a following and developing some tried-and-true flavors, she opened Tin Pot Creamery’s first location in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Shopping Center.
Since then, she’s opened three other Tin Pot Creamery locations around the Peninsula.
Her food network
As Sunseri transitioned from Facebook’s cafeteria to her own budding business, she quickly found her way into the small world of Peninsula chefs. She befriended Peninsula restaurateur and sustainable food luminary Jesse Cool at, of all places, a cycling class. She soon found herself talking with Cool for hours at her Menlo Park restaurant, Flea Street Cafe.
Cool became her mentor, and introduced Sunseri to JobTrain, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that offers free job and vocational training to people who are low-income. The organization runs a culinary training program that Sunseri has since become involved with, most recently as a board member. She works with the head chef, Adam Weiner, and has hired several graduates of the program to work at her ice cream shops. “[Chef Adam] and I work together to help students get jobs once they’re through the program,” she said. “It’s something I feel passionate about.”
Sunseri says her business now has about 70 employees — though numbers fluctuate seasonally, and there are many part-time workers. She says she’s made efforts to help employees feel her business is a place they can have a career.
On being an entrepreneur in the old-fashioned business of ice cream, she says she’s learned a lot: “You have to be so flexible. There have been times I thought something was going to go one way and it went a different way. If you’re always looking for opportunity, you can find it — maybe not in the way you envisioned.”
Her invention of the salted butterscotch flavor is a prime example of that flexibility. In her “Ice Cream of the Month” days, she was making a batch and realized she didn’t have any plain sugar. But she did have brown sugar. So she tried substituting it — knowing full well that brown sugar is acidic and can make milk curdle if added in the wrong ratio. Sure enough, she said, the brown sugar curdled like crazy, so she set it aside. When she returned to the pot later and began whisking it, though, the solution came back together.
“It could have been a disaster, but instead, it was an amazing discovery,” she says.
Now, it’s one of the creamery’s most popular flavors.
More about Becky:
Lives in: Redwood City
Favorite coffee shop: Bliss Coffee
Best croissants: Pamplemousse
Favorite pizza: Vesta
Outdoor spots: Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay or Pulgas Ridge (both are dog friendly).
Current seasonal flavors at Tin Pot include blackberry jamble and pumpkin with bourbon caramel swirl (but hurry, they’re set to be phased out soon!). Customers should stay tuned for a fall flavor launch of brown butter pecan, baked apple sorbet, roasted banana fudge ripple and cinnamon snickerdoodle in mid-October.
San Mateo: 3081 South Delaware St., Suite B. (650) 458–3171. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Palo Alto: 855 El Camino Real #121. (650) 327–1715. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Los Altos: 201 First St. (650) 947–4996. Open Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 12:30 to 9 p.m.; Monday 2:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 12:30 to 10 p.m.
Campbell: 1875 South Bascom Ave., #370. (408) 412–8668. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Go to tinpotcreamery.com for more information.