— With her sunny affect and prettier-than-the-girl-next-door looks, Diana Hardeman doesn’t seem like a drug dealer. Nor does she seem like the kind of girl who would want to exclude you from trying her homemade ice cream.
MilkMade, her small New York-based ice cream membership club, currently boasts a waiting list more than 1,500 names long, amid a snowballing buzz of exclusivity, addictiveness, hipster craftiness and in-the-know-ness that may be driving its popularity.
While Hardeman is grateful for the attention, she maintains that it is the quality of her product, rather than the hype, that makes MilkMade so popular. With so many willing to pay $15 to $17 a pint, one thing is certain: This frozen treat is one hot ticket.
And if last year’s offbeat flavors were any indication of what’s to come in 2011, the waiting list and the buzz will continue growing:
MilkMade’s March 2011 flavors promise to be incredible too: Irish Car Bomb and Sugar On Snow — the latter inspired by an old-fashioned maple-syrup making process .
A sweet hobby gets scooped
A self-proclaimed ice cream addict, Hardeman often used to buy the frosty treat en route home from her job as consultant for an alternative energy company. Dissatisfied with both her job and the local bodega’s selection, Hardeman began making her own ice cream as a “creative outlet,” sharing it with her roommate and serving it to friends.
In late 2009, she brought a few pints of her product to a party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that was written about in a New York magazine column. MilkMade’s ice cream — then barely a business — was referenced in the article and the brief mention prompted more than 700 inquiries.
Hardeman quickly put together a website and a business model, and began renting space in a commercial kitchen. Out of an unassuming hipster gathering, MilkMade was born.
Since its somewhat haphazard inception in December 2009, MilkMade has come into its own. A member can sign up for a three-month period. Each month, they’ll receive one or two pints of that month’s flavors delivered right to their door.
For $50, the member gets one pint a month for three months; for $90, two pints per month. Sound expensive? The New York Times thought so, calling MilkMade the country’s
priciest ice cream. Hardeman admits MilkMade is expensive, but points out that delivery in included in the price, which is not the case for her competitors.
Hardeman also gets many of her ingredients locally — dairy from Ronnybrook Farms and eggs from Red Jacket Orchards . Her small, sixth-floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan’s East Village is her test kitchen, where she often conducts tastings with her friends to determine the best variations of the next month’s flavors.
MilkMade tries to consistently use the finest and most local ingredients. For example, for her red velvet ice cream Hardeman tapped Cake Man Raven, reputed to have the city’s best red velvet cake. For Black Hearts Party, one of February’s flavors, she enlisted Mast Brothers’ Chocolate to provide 90 percent cacao dark chocolate to create the lushest chocolate ice cream. She even buys her dry ice from a Manhattan distributor.
Willing to pay
For MilkMade members, the quality of the ice cream and its ingredients are worth the price. The hype may draw them in, but it’s the taste that keeps them coming back: MilkMade has a 30-40 percent renewal rate.
Sara Soto has been an enthusiastic MilkMade member for one and a half years — approximately 20 deliveries. “There are so many favorite flavors, and they've improved so drastically,” said Soto, whose favorite flavor is the salted caramel. “As soon as the ice cream comes in, my boyfriend and I eat it immediately. It’s hard to keep the pints past the first day we get them.”
Current members have priority over those on the waiting list, but for Soto, “exclusivity is a non-factor.” Instead, “it’s something to look forward to every month, it’s super convenient, and I don't think the price point is that crazy. I would pay about anything for really amazing ice cream.”
MilkMade currently has 150 members, a number determined by the capacity of its ice cream machines and its delivery capabilities. Current processes allow for 20 pints to be crafted at a time.
Hardeman is entertaining the idea of outside investment in order to expand MilkMade’s scale. By summer 2011, she hopes to have 500 memberships.
Waitlisted patron Sarah Berger can’t wait to get in the club. She remembers that it was love at first lick when she discovered MilkMade at an ice cream festival where Hardeman ran a booth last summer. “I thought that signing up for a three-month ice cream delivery would be a fun and unique splurge,” she said. “The quality of the ice cream when we tasted it last year was excellent, and I try to support local businesses.”
A new drug?
Hardeman makes most of her deliveries by bike, and rents a Zipcar during bad weather. She texts members when she’s on her way, and they’re often waiting at the door, spoon in hand. For busier members, she offers timeslots during which they can pick up the pints rather than have them delivered.
Recently, a member wistfully noted at a pickup: “Man, if this was 10 years ago, I would’ve been picking up my drugs here.”