Q & A with Aaron Tung, Marketing Director and Ivoire Lloyd, Marketing Coordinator at DF Mavens
When did the company get started?
FalFoods Worldwide, DF Mavens’ parent company, has been around since around May 2013. FalFoods Worldwide is a conglomerate expert in a few different types of foods. FalFoods Worldwide makes dairy-free ice cream, coffee, and offers business-to-business services.
In starting the DF Mavens brand, the original founder’s intent was to take on a challenge. He felt that he could make a vegan ice cream better than anyone else, the texture of dairy ice cream without compromising flavor. DF Mavens has been manufactured out of this facility in Astoria, Queens since the very start of FalFoods Worldwide. We make small batches of dairy-free ice cream in addition to full butter fat ice cream, gelatos and novelties. It’s a full-on factory and a lot of fun things come out of here.
In addition, DF Mavens just opened a retail store in the East Village at 37 St. Marks Pl., where all the products are vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free.
What does DF Mavens specialize in?
DF Mavens currently specializes in four lines of products: the soy collection, the coconut collection, no sugar added, and the almond collection.
How big is the DF Mavens manufacturing facility?
FalFoods and DF Mavens occupies an 18,000 sq. ft. space.
How many employees did you have when DF Mavens got started?
The DF Mavens brand started with about 20 employees. Currently to date, we have about 35 with an additional 12 at the DF Mavens retail store.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Something that separates us from any other factory is that we’re the only factory in New York State that is able to make its own ice cream base. A lot of equipment and investment went into this process. Our equipment includes a VAT pasteurizer, homogenizer, sanitary mix tanks, continuous freezer, batch freezer, cup filler, fruit feeder and variegator. Our Director of Worldwide Plant Operations, Sotero San Miguel, also has a Processing Plan Superintendent certification, and a Principles of HACCP-CODEX certification.
Many companies will say they make their ice cream from scratch, but many actually buy their base from an outside supplier (like us!). So, that’s something very unique about our manufacturing capabilities.
Since we’re one of the only companies making our own base, our ice cream bases are sold to other businesses through our co-packing line, Desserts that Matter. We currently co-pack for about 5-10 other companies.
What types of ingredients to you use?
When it comes to ingredients, we try to use local and high quality ingredients. Since our ice cream is small batch, we aren’t trying to make a million gallons of ice cream a day. We charge a premium, so we look for the best ingredients possible. We look for ingredients that are all-natural and organic if possible, non-GMO verified, and traceability is an important factor. The small batch process has allowed us to fill a niche market, where we create a fine product using the finest ingredients.
Are you able to find a lot of local ingredients?
Yes, Upstate New York has been great as a source for local dairy, for our non-vegan ice creams. We use a lot of local producers of vegan chocolates, which is a big market in NYC. Of course, certain ingredients like an Alphonso Mango will need to be frozen and shipped from India, for instance. So, our ingredients are from diverse sources, but we’re always looking for the best ingredients possible.
How has your industry changed since DF Mavens got started?
One change that we’ve noticed is that although dairy-free ice cream caters toward individuals with dietary restrictions, everyone that’s tried our ice cream is satisfied. They’ll say “this doesn’t taste dairy-free.” We’ve attended several events where we top all of our competitors, even dairy ice creams.
In addition, we’ve noticed that allergies are changing all the time. Keeping up with new preferences and dietary restrictions has always been a challenge. You really can’t be everything to everyone. We’ll find that more and more ingredients are being banned by certain retailers. For instance, Whole Foods will ban Carrageenan and other food stabilizers, so we have to adapt to that rapidly changing market which can be a challenge. But we’ve learned that there’s always room for progression. For instance, we’re going to work on a cashew nut collection soon. While we might not be able to satisfy everyone, we’re always trying to give people more options.
Can you point to anything specifically that’s contributed to your company’s success?
There are a few! We always try to meet needs and understand people’s preferences: Communication with our customers is key. We like to call everyone a member of the DF Mavens family. We reach out using social media, and respond to everyone via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter within 2 hours. We’re frequently at trade shows, ice cream pop-up shops, and local fairs and events. In addition, we do 40 demos a month at Whole Foods and other retailers in New Jersey and Long Island. We’re always trying to reach as many consumers as possible.
Who are your main clients?
We primarily use food distributers, who are able to make deliveries to stores and retailers who just don’t have the volume to pick up a whole pallet of ice cream from us directly. Recently, we got into Fresh Direct, which has been really helpful and has increased our distribution direct-to-customer. We’re grateful that a lot of retailers have shown us support, taking an initial loss in their margins too to help us get our products on their shelves at a promotional rate. So altogether, retailers and distributers at all levels have been worked with us to get our product out to customers.
What is DF Mavens’ geographical reach?
We’re primarily in the NYC tri-state area. At Whole Foods, we’re currently in stores in the North East region. But we’re slowly gaining distribution in the South and recently were picked up by a large retailer out West. We’re currently gearing up for the ice cream season, which is between April-September, and we’re hoping to expand our national reach during that time.
Do you hire additional employees during the “Ice Cream Season?”
No, generally our production team stays constant year-round. We’re always hiring, developing and growing. We look for people who are passionate about what we do, but they don’t necessarily need a background in food manufacturing. We are a food startup, so as we figure things out as a business, there’s plenty of room for growth and opportunity. Employees that are willing to be risk averse and deal with uncertainty are often more patient, and do better with the chaos of working at a startup. Patience and creativity goes a long way in this workplace.
Do many of your employees live in Queens?
I would say the 75% of workers in the factory live in Queens. A few live in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, New Jersey and West Chester.
What are the challenges of operating in NYC?
New York has all its challenges. For those of us who live here, we know it’s not an easy city to live and work in, and running a business can be even more difficult. There’s always a lot of competition in New York, sometimes friendly and sometimes not. The government can present challenges too, including high taxes, regulations and violations. And finally, delivering in Manhattan and transportation can be a huge barrier.
But of course, we have access to some of the most talented people in the world which is always great for building a business. And being Made in NYC means a lot. When we’re out in California, for instance, we take a lot of pride in saying we’re from NYC. We see that a lot of people respect DF Mavens for operating in such a tough business climate. People know that to be successful in NYC, you can make it anywhere.
We’re definitely going to work on a cashew-milk line collection to diversify our products. And of course, we’re always working on new flavors and at the DF Mavens store, where we offer exclusive flavors. For instance, we launched a rosewater flavor for Valentine ’s Day in addition to a very popular strawberry coconut flavor. For retailers, we’re going to come out with a Bananas Foster flavor soon. In general, we respond to holidays, customer requests and feedback, trying out new flavors at the DF Mavens store. If the flavor works, it works! And if it doesn’t, we stop production. Our products are about 90% stationary and 10% creative new products.
DF Mavens is a great brand that has a passionate following. But though it’s growing, the vegan population is very small niche in the market. So, we have aspirations to develop full dairy lines, in addition to gelatos and sorbets. A lot is possible in this factory, we can make almost anything. So we’re also thinking about moving into baked goods, bonbons, chocolate desserts and novelties.