At the Seed Popup Dinner, I tried some outstanding vegan entrees by plant based chef Daphne Cheng, but what stood out amongst all five dishes was actually the dessert, a Butterbeer ice cream by Three Little Birds. Even though I don’t have the biggest sweet tooth, something about this ice cream was particularly special.

Now as a vegan myself, I’ve tried plenty of non-dairy ice creams hopeful they’d fill that ice cream void I often miss. With most of them, it’s easy to guess what’s used as the base to give it its creamy texture. Whether it’s bananas or coconut milk, both have such strong flavors, which often overwhelm the ice cream. So even if you’ve chosen chocolate, it usually tastes like coconut with chocolate or banana with chocolate. However, the ice cream I ate at the Seed Popup dinner had no banana or coconut after taste. To my surprise, it simply tasted like ice cream. Eager to learn more about the brains behind the ice cream, I interviewed co-founder Wei for some insight into their company, the inspiration behind vegan ice cream, and what the future holds for Three Little Birds. Read on to learn more about this sweet, handmade, all natural, small batch, NYC based company.

Could you tell me about how Three Little Birds began? What was the inspiration behind it?

My partner, Derek Hackett, and I started our company as a dream that we wanted to build together, with the hope that it would support both our families (his in Ireland, mine in China), and our own little family in the future. “Three little birds” the brand name is inspired by the eponymous song by Bob Marley. The song’s music and lyrics invoked a kind of peacefulness that my partner, Derek Hackett, and I wanted to find, in terms of personal peace, peaceful surroundings, and peaceful world.

Why vegan ice cream?

Both Derek and I are vegan for ethical reasons. Derek had previously founded and operated a vegan ice cream parlor so ice cream was a natural first step to take for our company. Derek was dissatisfied with his old recipes for many reasons, so we researched and developed brand-new recipes from scratch. We were specifically looking to achieve the thick and creamy, yet light and airy texture of dairy-based ice cream, and we also wanted to eliminate the aftertaste of the base (in our case, cashew) that plague other vegan ice creams. It took nearly a year for us to work out the recipes and methods that we use now. We are also big proponents of handcrafted and minimally processed products, which is why we hand-make our ice cream, toppings and sauces in-house.

However, our products are not made just for vegans. Sixty-five percent of the human population is lactose-intolerant, not to mention those who are dairy-free for health reasons. Why should anybody have to go without ice cream?!

What were your favorite ice cream flavors as kids? Have you tried to recreate any of them with Three Little Birds?

Both immigrants, Derek and I have definitely brought our roots and experiences into our flavors. I ate an enormous amount of Neapolitan ice cream as an immigrant kid in the Midwest (out of those giant plastic tubs), and Derek had loved the tricolors when he was growing up, so that was one of the first flavors we made. We have several flavors in the works that draw specifically on our cultures – Derek and his favorite Irish cookies and ice cream bars and me with my favorite Chinese desserts – and it’s so nostalgic and so much fun to work on them.

To be honest, though, we both loved vanilla ice cream as kids. There is a reason why it’s the number one selling ice cream flavor in the U.S.! The flavor is so boring and so simple, but it is the toughest vegan flavor to recreate. The vanilla recipe took us the longest time to perfect, and we’re finally happy with it. It tastes just like we remember when we were kids.

 What are you most excited about for spring/summer?

 Summery flavors! But we love the fall and wintry stuff, too, so a few weeks of heat and humidity and we’ll be looking forward to making Candied Yams, Pumpkin Pie and Mulled Apple Cider Streusel.

How have you seen the attitude towards vegan products change over the years?

People in general are a lot more knowledgeable and willing to accept vegan products. You see a lot of omnivorous eateries offering and making a point to highlight their vegan options. There are a many more brands per category out there now then there ever were before. Lots of companies are improving on old products or creating new ones. With the increase in ethical and health awareness of the vegan – or at least dairy-free – diet, the market will only continue to grow.

What has it been like starting a business specifically in New York? Do you think the reaction would have been different elsewhere?

Starting our business in New York City has been a whole lot more challenging than we had imagined. Our company consists of just me and Derek, and the two of us do every single task related to ice-cream making. We hand-make every ice cream and every topping; we hand-label and hand-pack every pint, and we self-deliver to every store. It’s a very labor-intensive process. For distribution, we cold-called every shop that carries us. It hasn’t been easy, but when we see our pints on the shelves, all of our painstaking work is worthwhile.

As with many lifestyle-based communities, particularly those centered in a cultural hub, there is a clique-y-ness and an in-house tribe vibe to the New York vegan community. If we had started out in another vegan-friendly city such as Portland or even Asheville, North Carolina, I think we would have had more positive reception for the reason mentioned above. At the same time, it could be a more rewarding experience to do a vegan business in a place like Lafayette, Louisiana – where I spent my adolescence and where people would likely scoff at anything vegan – and be able to share our knowledge, passion and products and visibly see that we have made a difference in people’s worldviews.

How have organizations like The Seed helped you?

The Seed and other pop-up markets like the Vegan Shop-Up have been invaluable in allowing us to connect with our customers. As a wholesale company, these events have also been incredibly helpful for building brand awareness, since we have no brick-and-mortar shop. Through these markets, we have had the privilege to meet many wonderful and supportive people. For small businesses, these are fantastic opportunities and outlets to share great products.

What advice would you give to people with a (vegan) product they want to create?

We’re old-school folks so our advice would sound something like, create something you find meaningful and stick with it until you’ve made it perfect. But since so much of our world is commodified, we could just as easily say, if you’re smart you can create a product and create a need for it, and as long as you can sell it you’re golden. Seriously, though, we’re not in any position to give advice! All we know is to keep pushing ahead, work as hard as we can on something we care about, and build a meaningful business with integrity, ethics and a sense of humor.

Where do you see Three Little Birds in 5 years?

Although we began with ice cream, we envision three little birds as an all-vegan line of eats and sweets that offer the best alternative to the meat and dairy-centric comfort foods people love. We would like to see our products in stores across the country as well as open a few café-style ice cream parlors. Sometimes, though, we like to just focus on the present and that batch of creamy, airy, delicious ice cream just out of the ice cream machine, and “taste-test” more than a few times to make sure it’s good.

For more info visit the Three Little Birds website

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About The Author

Profile photo of Julie
Healthy Eater

Southern girl at heart, minus the fried food. Fresh on the NY food scene, hungry for a healthy way to live in this food capital.