Portland’s artisan ice cream craze all started, really, with love for a local farmers market.
In 2004, Lisa Herlinger was working at Milo’s City Cafe on Northeast Broadway in Portland when she started doing a farmers market booth with the Portland Chefs Collaborative.
“This is so awesome,” she thought. “I love being on the site of the farmers market.”
Herlinger loved it so much, in fact, that she began racking her brain for a way to participate on a more regular basis. The problem was that she’d gone to culinary school and had no intention of becoming a farmer.
“I thought, okay, what can I do?” Herlinger said. “What can I do to sell something at the farmers market? Because I love it and I’m not going to be a farmer.”
And then an idea struck, inspired by childhood memories: ice cream sandwiches. But not just any ice cream sandwiches—artisan ice cream and cookies made by hand from locally-sourced ingredients. A look around the market revealed no ice cream, so Herlinger applied as a vendor and got in.
Milo’s had taught Herlinger how to make stovetop ice cream, and now they allowed her to use their commercially licensed kitchen in the evenings to start her business. In the beginning, Herlinger did everything herself, from picking up ingredients at dairies and coffee roasters and farms to crafting her ice cream base and baking cookies to selling at the market.
“I was working literally crazy, crazy hours,” Herlinger confessed. “And I’d make like 75 sandwiches a week and sell them at the market.”
But all that work paid off: The ice cream sandwiches were a hit, and Ruby Jewel was born.
As the summer wound down, fans of Herlinger’s creations wanted to know how they could get their hands on their favorite treats during the market’s off-season. In the midst of doing research on the state of artisan ice cream sandwiches in the commercial market — result: there weren’t any to speak of — Herlinger entered and won the Food Innovation Center’s first Food Fight, netting herself $2,500 worth of services from FIC including use of their kitchen, access to their packaging lab, and advice from food experts.
From there, Ruby Jewel was able to launch into grocery stores such as New Seasons Markets and Whole Foods Markets in Oregon and Washington (with Herlinger acting as both ice cream maker and salesperson). The following years had Herlinger hiring her first employees—including sister Becky and production gal Alice—setting up a dedicated production facility, and opening an ice cream shop on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. In 2014, Ruby Jewel has two scoop shops and can be found in grocery stores in Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.
Over ten years into it, they’re about to outgrow their current production space. Herlinger has also just hired her first salaried employee, an operations manager.
“I spread myself way too thin,” Herlinger admits. “But with these new additions, I can focus my energy on product development and sales. We’re definitely at the next stage of growth.”
Growth, indeed. From local farmers market to international grocery chain, Ruby Jewel is a story of passion, creative thinking, and collaboration — oh, and ice cream. Let’s not forget the ice cream.