Kula is San Diego pioneer in vegan, gluten-free ice cream
San Diegans are known for living active, health-conscious lifestyles. So it was surprising to San Diego resident Libby Lefanowicz that there weren’t very many options available locally for vegan ice cream.
When Lefanowicz visited her sister in Austin, a hub for vegan ice cream, she was excited to see all of the options available to those who don’t eat dairy, such as herself.
“Austin, Texas is like this mecca for vegan ice cream. NadaMoo! Dairy Free Ice Cream started there and there are all these all-vegan scoop shops. And most of them have lots of gluten-free options also. So I went to my first one, it’s called Sweet Ritual, out there and I was so excited that I could eat everything. And I could also have it on a waffle cone, which I hadn’t had in years. When I came back to San Diego, I couldn’t believe we didn’t have that here. It just seems like a San Diego-style thing. And the weather’s great. There’s so many reasons that ice cream should be a big thing here,” she said during a phone interview.
Lefanowicz’s background had been mostly in the tech start-up world. After growing disenchanted with the male-dominated world of tech, she decided to go back to school to get her Master’s degree at the University of California San Diego.
“It’s an awesome program. It’s focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. So both innovation in big companies, like how do you keep them innovating, but also how do you start your own company?” she explained.
At the same time, Lefanowicz was on her own journey with food and health.
“Back in college, I read a book about how cow’s milk is made for baby cows. It always made a lot of sense to me that it’s made for a small baby cow to grow into a huge full-grown cow. And then I also learned about growth hormones and factory farm issues, all these things behind dairy. And so it always resonated with me,” she said.
“I was having all these symptoms — everything from adult acne to depression and anxiety — I had a weird rash for a year and a half on my leg. Just all these weird things that I was always dealing with. And I kind of found, through a lot of trial and error, that the things that were causing inflammation were actually the dairy, which I always try to stay away from anyway, but you know, it’s hard, and gluten.”
But for food-lover Lefanowicz, going dairy and gluten-free would be difficult. There just aren’t as many options for those who don’t eat dairy or gluten, particularly in the dessert world.
“I have this huge sweet tooth. And every dessert has either gluten or dairy in it. So I had to figure out, how do I still have dessert in this new world of not being able to eat gluten and dairy,” she said.
“Another thing I learned is that there’s a lot of crappy vegan ice creams. So if you go to the store, there’s a lot of options, but a lot of them taste like coconut or banana or they’re icy or they try to be diet ice cream,” she said.
And so, said Lefanowicz, the idea to start making her own vegan ice cream was born. But Lefanowicz wasn’t a cook and she didn’t have a background in food. She was also working full-time with her own consulting business.
So, she got innovative: she sent her sister to a five-day class in Austin to learn how to make vegan ice cream. And then, coupled with her sister’s newfound knowledge of vegan ice cream making, Lefanowicz got to work.
In March of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began, Lefanowicz says that her consulting work stopped completely. With everything shut down, Lefanowicz went all-in on Kula Ice Cream, her all vegan and gluten-free ice cream company.
The name Kula comes from the Sanskrit word for “community.”
“I liked that aspect of community. Everyone can share dessert,” she said.
She began the process of obtaining permits, and she started renting kitchen space from her friends at Maya’s Cookies, the popular gourmet vegan cookie company. Eventually, she created an online store and began advertising heavily on Instagram. She would make the ice cream, take orders and deliver all by herself. The pandemic made her touch-free delivery service wildly popular.
“I had some customers who got ice cream from me every Friday during the first three or four months of the pandemic,” she said.
What did her customers love most about Kula? The familiarity of it. It’s similar to dairy ice cream in texture and taste.
“It it really tastes like the full-fat, creamy ice cream that they missed,” she said.
Lefanowicz says the process of making vegan ice cream is similar to making dairy ice cream.
“You have to have the same amounts of air, protein, fat, water and sugar as regular ice cream. Instead of using milk or cream or eggs, I use cashews, almonds, agave nectar, cane sugar and olive oil as my fat. We make it in the same way as they make dairy ice cream in terms of the process of freezing it.”
Her best-selling flavor is chocolate lava cake.
“I make the chocolate ice cream with almonds, olive oil and vegan chocolate. And then I bake a gluten-free vegan cake, crumble it in and then I swirl in this really thick, decadent chocolate sauce. It’s one of those flavors that, if I went to the store right now, I could not find that. I could maybe find a gluten-free one, maybe find a dairy-free one, but not both.”
Other flavors include Guilt-Free Chocolate Fudge, Guilt-Free Peanut Butter Chip, Just Peachy Chardonnay, Birthday Cake and Sunflower Rum Raspberry.
Since Kula began last year, Lefanowicz has expanded her team to five full and part-time employees. You can find Kula at what Lefanowicz refers to as “pop-up scoop shops” at local farmer’s markets and at independent grocery stores around town, like Specialty Produce, People’s Organic Food Market in Ocean Beach and Just Peachy in Encinitas. She’s hoping to get into bigger grocery stores soon.
She’s also in the process of opening up her own tasting room in Sorrento Valley. She says she wants Kula’s tasting room to be similar to a brewery, where the product is made onsite and in the front, guests can sample flavors.
As for Lefanowicz’s sister, while she isn’t as involved with Kula anymore, Lefanowicz is proud that they started the brand together.
“She’s definitely on her own journey; she works for a lot of cool vegan companies and zero waste companies and does marketing for them full-time. So she doesn’t have time to be all in on Kula Ice Cream anymore, but it was awesome that we got to start this together.”
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