These days, many retail businesses give a nod towards green and ethical values – they may stock a range of Fair Trade products or encourage their customers not to use plastic bags. But few have gone as far as Blue Marble, an ice cream parlor with two outposts in Brooklyn. Not only is their product composed of fully organic ingredients, but it’s served in biodegradable receptacles over a counter fashioned from recycled glass – and local deliveries are made via pedal-tricycle. “The whole venture is a kind of experiment to see how far we can take the whole green thing,” says co-owner Alexis Miesen. “You find that, once you start going down that route, it’s like opening Pandora’s Box. We’re not tree-hugging hippies,” she stresses, referring to herself and her business partner Jennie Dundas. “We’re here to make money. But we didn’t want to compromise our ideals.”
A New Angle
Those ideals run right through the DNA of Blue Marble, starting with the name itself, which comes from a famous photograph taken of Earth by the astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission: “The idea is that our product is a little taste of the planet,” says Miesen. Before Blue Marble, she worked in international development, in the education and public health fields, living in Africa and the Marshall Islands for a decade. “I saw firsthand the social and environmental issues that impact on the global community,” she says, “but I grew very frustrated with the glacial pace of public sector projects. I was tired of going round with the begging bowl, picking up tiny checks here and there.” Dundas, an actress, (a lot of the shop fittings are reconstituted from the sets of Broadway shows she’s appeared in) is also an enthusiastic devotee of the small farms and local food producers of New York’s Hudson Valley. The pair met on Craigslist, became roommates, and decided to pool their resources. “It wasn’t like either of us was burning to become a businesswoman,” says Miesen. “But I was looking to do something different that flexed my brain and furthered my ideals. And Jennie encouraged me. She’s an evangelist for sustainable quality food and she’s a real force to be reckoned with.” She grins. “We’re an unlikely duo, but we work well together.”
Their choice of venture turned out to be a no-brainer: they were both Brooklyn residents and had noticed the lack of a decent ice cream parlor among the hip new delis, restaurants and boutiques that were springing up all over the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. “It started as a joke,” says Miesen. “You know, ‘I should open my own ice cream shop,’ that kind of thing. Then a little light-bulb went on in my head.”
Their timing was propitious. “Brooklyn was so ready for this,” says Miesen. “There was a huge renaissance in local sustainable agriculture, with everyone getting into farmers’ markets and restaurants making a point of using local produce.” So they seized the moment: it was a mere nine months from the light-bulb revelation to the opening of their first shop in Boerum Hill in October 2007 (a second outlet, in the stroller-jammed environs of Prospect Heights, followed in May 2008). “People think we must have spent months researching our suppliers,” says Miesen. “In fact, there really aren’t hundreds of options if you want to go organic and local. It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for."
Blue Marble boasts a range of 16 flavors, from ginger and hazelnut to green tea and maple, but there’s a distinct absence of fudge cookie dough and the usual glutinous toppings. “The word I like to use with our flavors is elemental,” says Miesen. “I would hope that we were the antithesis of those ice cream companies that profess to have alternative values while using processed ingredients. Mother Nature doesn’t need a lot of help to be totally delicious.” Blue Marble’s ice cream is made by third-generation dairy farmer Matt White, with milk and cream from Natural by Nature, a collective of organic farms in Lancaster, PA. Coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance and roasted by Irving Farm. Teas are from Sebastian Beckwith, whose company In Pursuit of Tea is helping to support small, traditional tea plantations in rural Asia. And the cookies and muffins come from an organic bakery in Park Slope.
The business even invites photographs from members of the public, which are then displayed on a TV screen in their Atlantic Avenue store. An imaginative way of reinforcing their brand values and connecting with the wider world, the pictures espouse the diversity of the Earth’s population and its natural resources. Miesen and Dundas would like to expand the brand, using what Miesen describes as “a new model of franchising – with the same flavors and the same aesthetic, but using local suppliers wherever we are, so the whole enterprise is integrated into the local area. As far as I know, that doesn’t really happen right now.”
Ice Cream Moment
However, Blue Marble’s next branch may not be in Red Hook, or even Jersey City, but in Kigali, Rwanda. It’s the first foray of a nonprofit “community development initiative” by Miesen and Dundas called Blue Marble Dreams, “to explore the transformative power of ice cream as a means of sustainable economic growth in developing countries.” It came about when Dundas found herself in an acting workshop at the Sundance Institute in Utah with a Rwandan drummer and playwright named Odile Gakire Katese. “She told Jennie that ice cream was just what Rwanda needed,” says Miesen. “People’s lives there are so focused on survival, with no space to breathe and create, and she felt that having an “ice cream moment” would separate them just momentarily from the struggle and grind – it would be a small symbol of hope.” So far, the organization has raised nearly $40,000 of its $150,000 goal. “It’s a challenge,” concedes Miesen. “We have a location waiting, with freezers and a reliable power supply, and staff lined up, and aid agencies offering support. We just need to raise the rest of the money.” She reasons, “Of course, money is a bit of an issue for everyone right now.”
Nonetheless, Miesen remains optimistic, not only for Blue Marble’s ambitions but also for her conscientious business model. “We make a special product,” she says. “People need options like ours. We’ve found with Blue Marble that something out there wants us to succeed.” She grins sheepishly. “At the risk of sounding like one of the tree-huggers, you could call it cosmic energy, or whatever. But we’ve put something out there that we believe in, and it’s repaying us in every sense.”
Do you also have a story to share about how your business is Booming? We want to hear about it! Click here to share..
For more Cardmember stories on OPEN Forum click here.