Listen to The Nitty-Gritty with Robyn Sue Fisher of Smitten Ice Cream here.

Ice cream has a special place in the American psyche. Soft, sweet, creamy and cold: these qualities make it nearly universally loved, especially by kids. For Robyn Sue Fisher, ice cream wasn’t just a dessert reserved for special occasions; it was a family ritual, ingrained in some of her fondest childhood memories. “I grew up believing that I had two stomachs,” she says, “and one of my stomach’s was solely reserved for ice cream.” This passion for the frozen treat would come to a fore later in her life, in the form of Smitten Ice Cream.

After a brief stint in consulting post-college (it was long enough, however, to realize that she felt straight-jacketed in office buildings), Robyn was accepted to the MBA program at Stanford. While taking entrepreneurship classes there, she delved into the ice cream industry (duh); not only because of the nostalgia she felt for the wholesome product from her younger years, but because she found that the industry itself seemed ready for disruption, lacking any real innovation. Most ice cream purveyors were focused on shelf-life and cost, meaning they came with a lot of preservatives that sacrificed quality and taste.

Robyn wanted to re-create the flavor-first product that she remembered as a kid. And as it turned out, freezing to-order was the solution; ice cream is best when you combine fresh ingredients immediately prior to serving. But how does one scale a to-order model, especially when the product is one that melts before your eyes? The answer was liquid nitrogen; it’s a common gas (we breathe it all the time), stable, and able to hit -321 degrees Fahrenheit (super cold freezing process=smaller ice crystals, smaller ice crystals=smoother ice cream).

Robyn began prototyping, and eventually traveled around the country, testing mixers topping $10,000 in order to bring her liquid nitrogen-based product to life. Yet, every offering on the market froze ice cream unevenly; something that was a surefire roadblock to delivering a consistently creamy, amazing scoop. So Robyn decided, like a true entrepreneur, to build a machine herself; one that could perfect the process of freezing ice cream to-order.

It took a lot of R&D for Robyn to develop her patented contraption (fittingly called the Brrr™ Machine)—including experimentation in her backyard at Stanford, a stint at Penn State’s Ice Cream School, and the help of a former aerospace engineer. It wasn’t just smooth sailing after she finally got the machine right either; as with most aspiring food entrepreneurs, she started off selling Smitten Ice Cream in a scrappy fashion. Unlike most however, she was doing it out of a Red Radio Flyer wagon—with off-road wheels no less—and a liquid nitrogen-based mixer tethered to the mobile operation, offering up her made-to-order desserts to customers on the streets of San Francisco.

And yet, her persistence has paid off. Smitten Ice Cream, the churned-to-order ice cream company that Robyn founded, currently has eight locations (with two more on the way) in the Bay Area and Los Angeles with 120 employees, and she’s looking to scale the company up. The secret to Smitten Ice Cream’s success (aside from the Brrr™ Machine, which creates arguably the smoothest, creamiest and most delicious ice cream in the country)? “Do one thing, and one thing only, better than anyone else.”

In the eighth episode of The Nitty-Gritty, we sat down with Robyn to discuss the process of turning a childhood dream into a thriving business, the importance of naive optimism, and the science behind creating the perfect scoop. Robyn also discusses the various challenges she faced along the way, such as the difficult decision between a job as a special agent for the FBI and starting Smitten Ice Cream (seriously).

Want to hear more? Tune into our latest Nitty-Gritty installment, where Robyn details her journey to reinvent the ice cream industry in under an hour.

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