Longtime Montreal fans Bryan Petroff and Doug Quint, the couple behind the popular Big Gay Ice Cream truck and shops in New York, and, soon, Los Angeles, were in the city last week for a few days. With stops at Le Vin Papillon, Joe Beef and Impasto - a visit that elicited a "We are floored" from Quint, as well as this priceless photo op with chef Michele Forgione - the duo made time to chat about the future of Big Gay Ice Cream and the bonds they have with the city.
Before I shamelessly ask you to talk about Montreal, tell me about the new shop in L.A.
Doug: We have our lease out there and we've demolished the place. Bryan's going to relocate there in about a month and get the place going. We find that things around us don't happen the way we want them to happen unless we go take care of them. And maybe that's because we're bad delegators, I don't know what it is. Maybe it's our fault (laughing). The only way to get things done the way we want them is to go and oversee them or do it ourselves.
So Bryan will go out there and make sure that walls get built in the places we want walls built, beginning of April. Hopefully we'll be open by July.
Bryan: I don't think it'll take that long.
Doug: I don't think so either. I'm just accounting for unforeseen licensing or permitting errors. But we won't miss summer.
You did do some events recently in L.A. where you had people lined up around the block.
Bryan: We did two pop-ups with a truck.
Doug: Twice we've gone out there and rented a truck from a guy out there. At the time we were just saying, we're just coming out to L.A., we want to bring our truck out, but it was all preconceived test marketing. We knew what we wanted to do. A lot of that was at the encouragement of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo [Animal, Son of a Gun and Trois Mec]. We met and they said "Oh you guys are going to kill it out here, come out and open a store." We brought a truck out, they facilitated it and we cooked in the Son of a Gun kitchen. They're great guys and, you know, they're crazy too.
I'm assuming you don't make a move like this unless certain things fall into place. Having people like that in your corner has to be an important part of the equation.
Doug: We don't say yes to much. We say no to a lot.
Bryan: We only do things at a speed in which our heads won't explode.
Doug: Yeah, very early on we got very good at saying no. Bryan's always been good at saying no. He's got that knack. Whenever anyone emailed and said hey why don't you bring your truck to so and so and then donate money to so and so, Bryan would say why, what's the point, what does this do for the longevity of the business or the brand, or why is it pertinent to us and more often than not, I had no good answer for any of those things and it taught me what we should do.
From Montreal, Big Gay Ice Cream seemed almost like an overnight success story in 2009. Did it feel that way at the time?
Doug: Yeah it did. We didn't expect it to be - you know at best I think we expected a bit of a cult hit, a couple hundred people who would come around to us for a few weeks and then the novelty would die off. But that was not how it worked out.
So you didn't expect to have almost three shops at this point.
Doug: No. Think shorter term. We didn't expect for the truck to last, really, for a summer but by August we had a big blurb in The New York Times and we were getting asked to come on morning shows and things like that.
Bryan: It was the summer project that consumed our lives. That's the best way to describe it.
I first became aware of you on Twitter.
Doug: Yeah well that first summer was sort of the summer of Twitter. The summer of food trucks. Both hit at the same time.
A perfect storm for you guys.
Doug: Exactly. It was also a recession so it was the perfect time to do a cheap thing. And we were a cheap thing. So, you know, for you to be able to go out on a date and track down a truck on your phone, that was a big thing. To actually find us, I mean some people would walk up to the truck and say "Oh my God you're a real thing!" They thought we were some elaborate hoax.
It's funny how we take that for granted now, following food trucks on Twitter.
Doug: People still do that? (Laughing)
I'm really looking forward to getting in a truck again because it's been about two years since we were really able to do that full time. But I won't be in that truck at the corner of 17th and Broadway, trying to do that scene ever again.
So do you get in your new truck when you get back to New York?
Doug: No no no, this summer. It's not even fully built yet. Once it happens though, I mean, we have stores in New York, we'll have stores in L.A., we'll have a truck in Southern California that will go and cater, we'll have this one on the East Coast that will, sort of, take us to other towns and really -
Bryan: Do other events. Go down to South Beach.
Doug: Now we can do two weeks in Baltimore. Two weeks in Norfolk. Two weeks in South Beach and really take the business mobile.
If you're going to South Beach, Montreal shouldn't be much of a stretch.
Doug: If we can get permitted up here no, no it's not too far at all. We're buying a truck that will actually -
Bryan: Go over the mountain.
Doug: The ice cream trucks that I drove, I was terrified getting them from the Bronx to Manhattan.
Bryan: And sometimes they didn't make it.
Doug: They didn't make it! One time the gas tank fell off in Harlem. I saw sparks and the diesel engine was dragging on the ground. Kids came up from a playground and were pointing and laughing at me, like "How's the Big Gay Ice Cream truck doing?" It was pretty great. So I had to duct tape it back on.
One time Bryan and I were driving through Queens to a depot and the starter burst into flames.
Bryan: Yeah something happened, we pulled over and one of the mechanics came over and started -
Doug: He tried to get it going again.
Bryan: And the starter exploded.
Doug: Flared up.
Bryan: He started yelling.
Doug: "Get off the truck!" So the idea of taking any of those trucks on the road, it's not going to happen. But now that we're building a new truck, with a new ice cream machine, yeah we're gonna take it everywhere! The only issues will be getting our ice cream to the truck. All of our ice cream is made, at least on the East Coast, by Ronnybrook Dairy [in Ancramdale, New York] so we'll need to ship it. If we're going to work in South Beach we'll have a big thing shipped to Miami. So we would need to get it brought up here [to Montreal]. That's all. We could do it.
Bryan: Well it's a refrigerated truck. We could bring it on the truck.
Doug: Yeah, we'd just have to pack it, chock-full. That's the only hitch.
When you take time off for trips like this to Montreal, to see friends, eat, is there much R&D going on? Are the wheels always turning, with incessant thoughts of ice cream?
Bryan: It doesn't take a special trip for that to happen. It can be a simple trip to the grocery store. You see whatever flavour of Oreo is out there - Cookie Dough Oreo now -
Doug: Wait, isn't Oreo a cookie?
Bryan: That's what makes your head explode.
Doug: I don't like that at all.
Bryan: So stuff like that. Road trips.
Doug: Last night I ended up diagnosing a problem in the ice cream machine at Joe Beef. There's a little bit of business that goes on.
Bryan: It's hard not to. But part of this particular trip was because of my move out west. It's like the last opportunity to drive up here.
When did you first come up to Montreal?
Doug: Four or five years ago.
Bryan: Well I started coming before that. It all stemmed from Gourmet magazine [the Montreal issue, March 2006]. For me, I had never been to Montreal before, wheels started spinning, trips started being planned in my brain, opportunities.
Doug: Bryan's an event planner.
Bryan: So that first trip, with my ex, we went to Au Pied de Cochon, we didn't go to Joe Beef.
Doug: Probably 2006 or so.
Bryan: Yeah. We went to Club Chasse et Pêche.
Doug: Bar Le Stud?
Bryan: Bar Le Stud. I think we went to this Spanish tapas place, just to mix it up. And we stayed at the Gault. It just felt so … Parisian.
So when Doug and I decided to make our first trip up here, Joe Beef was at the top of the list because I had never been there and it had such a prominence in the magazine. So we made a reservation and it wasn't ready on time and somehow they caught on who we were. Because Fred [Morin] had just been to New York or something like that? So we stood in the corner, this is when the sandwich place was next door -
Bryan: Right. And the bar was in the back of the restaurant right at the kitchen. So we just stood in the corner and I remember Vanya [Filipovic] gave us drinks and we were watching Fred and he had a little tiny, like a blini machine. Making these little tiny pancakes and we were like, "Oh, it looks like you have some nice smoked salmon there" and he said "Yes, and they're for you." And he just gave us the plate. So we sat there - or stood there - just drinking and eating and watching them cook, for like half an hour until - we didn't even sit at a table, we just moved up to the bar. Either that meal or the next trip John Bil happened to be there. He worked at the bar, so we met him. And ever since then it's the place where we have to eat. Maybe to the detriment of exploring.
Doug: So much of the coming up here now is to -
Bryan: It's more about visiting friends.
Doug: Now we have to come up and see Marco (Marc-Olivier Frappier) and Vanya, in addition to Fred and Dave.
Bryan: Or Martin [Picard].
Doug: Yeah, it's taken on a life of it's own. It's hilarious to see Picard every time we come up because he's like a feral child in a way. If I saw him naked running through the woods it wouldn't surprise me at all.
Bryan: That was a funny trip too because the first time we ate at, um -
Doug: Cabane à sucre.
Bryan: At Au Pied de Cochon here in the city. It was a little too much, a little overwhelming. Our waiter was, the sommelier, I think he was the other owner? He sat us down and waited on us and we didn't even know about the sugar shack until we were sitting at the bar at Joe Beef and they said, "Oh yeah, you should go." Well, ok, we leave tomorrow …
Doug: … on Easter but let's drive up anyhow.
Bryan: Then they said they don't take reservations. Just show up.
Doug: Wrong! Oh no, it's been reserved for six months.
Bryan: So we show up the next day, Easter Sunday, and it was that same guy, from Au Pied de Cochon.
Doug: And it wasn't a matter of pulling strings either but he said, "Oh we do have two seats, go right up to the bar." We ended up in the best seats in the house.
Bryan: It all worked out. Except for the fact that we had to drive seven hours back to New York. After that meal.
Doug: Last year, when we were up here for an MMA fight, we didn't have a reservation. We were at the fight and Fred texted "You're eating at the sugar shack tomorrow."
Bryan: He was with one of the guys.
Doug: Right. So I said, "OK, can we bring [Washington D.C. chefs] Spike Mendelsohn [a Montreal native] and Mike Isabella?" We went from having no plans the next day to eating in the evaporator room, where it's 36 degrees [Farenheit], with a big propane heat gun blasting on Spike's girlfriend. Like a jet engine.
Did you bundle up under furs?
Doug: Plus they had changed their policy since our first time there.
Bryan: Like it had to be a table of eight.
Doug: You have to buy tables now, right? We drank a fairly mighty amount but didn't feel drunk because it was so cold. It was survival drinking.
Bryan: But just to have the five of us -
Doug: A private meal.
Bryan: Overlooking the kitchen, surrounded by -
Doug: Completely by surprise.
Doug: It was definitely one of those moments, where all five of us were like, we cannot believe what happens in our lives. Mike and Spike are both grateful guys for what Bravolebrities has brought them but that moment, I think we were all just humbled and … starving.
Bryan: Yeah for me it was just one of the moments where you feel you've made the right decisions.
Doug: This is all working out great!
Bryan: This is all working out. And it's still a hoot. And it's still weird. And I think as long as it is, then we'll keep doing it. We never wanted it to be a gimmick.
Doug: I love when people say, "It's such great marketing research you guys did to figure out there was a need and how to market it this way." That's all complete bullshit. It was all just something we decided to do, kind of the wrong way.
Bryan: And I think you're actually seeing our sense of humour, if you get to know us, it's not that far off from what social media portrays us to be.
The way you both use social media - Twitter, Instagram - comes across as very natural and unpretentious.
Doug: We want to throw the kind of party that we want to throw. If people want to come to the party, great. But we're not trying to put out - we're not trying to send out different invitations to the same party. We're not saying it's a cha-cha party and a kid's birthday party and a bris and a, you know, it's just our thing.
Bryan: I would go to a cha-cha bris. I'd be afraid of missing my mark but ...
Can we end on the Big Gay Ice Cream cookbook?
Doug: We had a lot of offers to do a book. And we actually nearly signed a contract but pulled out because we couldn't figure out what we wanted our book to be. But then when The Art of Living According to Joe Beef came out and it had sort of a non-linear narrative to it, we started to feel like, wait -
Bryan: It helped us shape …
Doug: - there is a book in us! They'll be nothing alike but …
Bryan: It really helped us focus our vision, which we'd rattled around in our heads for a few years actually.
Doug: It took us another two years, or at least a year, to realize we were thanked in it. We were flipping through it and I said to Bryan, wait a minute! And after I started crying 'cause everything makes me cry. I think they [Dave and Fred] were thanking all these things that barely existed to them. They thanked Twitter, they thanked us as a concept because they barely even knew us at that point.
Bryan: Gold Bond.
Doug: Yeah. Yeah. Gold Bond.
Bryan: We're in the same paragraph as Gold Bond. But if you want news, our book comes out next year.
Doug: It's really gonna look amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.