By Chloe Olewitz
Blue Marble Ice Cream is delicious. Their stores are charming and warm, serving coffee in the mornings and ice cream all day long with the goal of becoming inclusive, welcoming spaces in their communities. Blue Marble is available in 15 states at a few hundred retailers including Whole Foods and Fairway, and is served at the Barclays Center, in first class on JetBlue flights, and in the cafeteria at Facebook. They provide certified organic products flavored with local, responsibly-sourced ingredients to almost 100 restaurants across the United States.
But if one thing makes Blue Marble truly special, it’s Blue Marble Dreams.
Blue Marble Dreams is now a fully independent nonprofit organization, functioning separately from the for-profit Blue Marble Ice Cream side of the business. Since Blue Marble Ice Cream’s profits aren’t quite high enough to simultaneously fuel the business’ own growth and fund international development projects, Blue Marble Dreams manages a fund of donations and generous contributions from individuals, organizations, foundations, and corporations. And the spark of Blue Marble Dreams was ignited way back in 2008 with a single unsolicited request.
Within Blue Marble Ice Cream’s first year, the company’s co-founders were approached by a Rwandan woman named Kiki Odile Katese, who asked for help starting an ice cream shop in her community. Ingoma Nshya, the cooperative of women drummers in Butare, Rwanda, that Katese represents, have become the full owners and operators of their town’s first ice cream shop, called Inzozi Nziza, which translates to Sweet Dreams. A documentary named after the shop made the rounds of international film festivals in 2012 and 2013, following the women drummers turned ice cream makers and business owners and their determination to bring ice cream to Rwanda.
Blue Marble Dreams’ second project was a store in Haiti, and was again a concept that arose organically from within the local community. Bèl Rèv opened in Port au Prince in September 2016, through a dedicated partnership with Haiti 155, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization committed to supporting lasting social and economic change in Haiti. Since Bèl Rèv is still in its early stages, Blue Marble Dreams is still involved closely in monitoring the store’s operations in order to provide them with the resources and support they need to build a lasting viable business that is eventually entirely self-sufficient.
The products served in Rwanda and Haiti are completely different from Blue Marble Ice Cream’s products served in the US, from production methods to the ingredients themselves. “You can’t even get cream in Rwanda or in Haiti,” explains Jennie Dundas, co-founder and CEO of Blue Marble Ice Cream. “It starts with the cows, which have to be a certain breed and have to have a certain level of health. Their diets have to be nutrient-rich in order to even produce milk that is high enough in butterfat.” And even if cows’ diets in Rwanda and Haiti could reach required butterfat levels, Dundas says there were two dairy separators (which separate out cream and milk) in all of Rwanda when they first arrived to open the shop, and neither were operational.
In Rwanda, Inzozi Nziza’s soft-serve ice cream is made daily on a stovetop using fresh fruits and local milk. Bèl Rèv ice cream is completely dairy-free because milk is so prohibitively expensive in Haiti. When they first visited Rwanda, Dundas says she realized you could find higher-end restaurants that catered to tourists with gelato imported from Italy, for example. But locals couldn’t afford the cost of such a high luxury product. “In Rwanda, we wanted an ice cream to cost the same as a Coca Cola,” says Dundas. “Not everyone will be able to afford it, in fact most people still won’t. But you have a certain class of people that can afford a Coca Cola or they can afford a beer, and if they can afford that then they can afford an ice cream too.”
From the very beginning, Blue Marble Dreams wanted to make ice cream available in the communities that needed a taste of what ice cream represents more than they needed a new frozen dessert. The challenge was to formulate a product that could work economically, remaining accessible to locals and also supporting and sustaining the businesses themselves, paying fair wages to employees, and with any luck, making profits that will eventually benefit the community. “Otherwise, there’s no point.”
Inzozi Nziza has been running smoothly as a self-reliant operation since 2013, three years after opening its doors. Dundas says that neither store is particularly profitable, but Inzozi Nziza is already paying the women who work in the store and sharing profits amongst the women owners. Bèl Rèv is still climbing towards this level of sustainability. But Dundas also emphasizes that it’s important to keep in mind the original goal of opening these stores.
“It would be great if they were profitable, but the goal is really to create jobs so that women can support their families, which in many cases are very extended—it’s a lot of people being supported—and then also to provide this space where people feel they can go. It’s safe, they can experience joy. That was the main selling point for us in Rwanda. Kiki said: ‘there’s nowhere to go to just take a break and feel happy. Our children only see us still suffering from PTSD.’ At the time, it was only 17 years after the Rwandan genocide. She said: ‘We don’t have enough positive, inspired experiences where you can just sit and dream.’”
“The act of eating ice cream in and of itself is a very powerful cultural act,” Dundas says. “Ice cream is a symbol of joy and happiness, togetherness, family and friends. But just to say, ‘I deserve this, my children deserve this,’ so they can internalize that feeling, they can see their siblings and their parents enjoying something, that is what Kiki wanted to create. The folks in Haiti asked us to partner with them when they were still suffering from the trauma of the earthquake. This life is so depressing. We’re not solving world peace, there are a lot of things that come in line ahead of us, clean water, healthcare, education—but this is another piece of the fabric, another piece of the quilt that people need.”
186 Underhill Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Photos: Chia Messina