Colibrí Sweets: Legit, Dairy-free Ice Cream
There aren’t many places serving legit, dairy-free ice cream. Colibrí Sweets does it right, filling a long-neglected niche, and delighting those who had long since given up on ever indulging, like everyone else. Kicked off two summers ago by two Mukilteo middle school teachers, Colibrí (meaning hummingbird in Spanish) is a godsend for the lactose intolerant, the health conscious, the ice-cream-loving kid in all of us.
Alphonse and Emily Leopold serves their plant-based, mostly vegan/soy-free ice cream in pints at the Everett Farmers Market (Sunday) and Edmonds Summer Market (Saturday), with unbridled joy and love, which market-goers feel down to their soul. They’re the reason many make the trek every weekend, some from as far away as Renton and beyond.
It’s hard to believe this ice cream is sourced as farm-to-table as possible, much less made with the best ingredients and best of intentions. It sure tastes way better than the mass-produced supermarket stuff, rich, pure, guilt-free.
On August 14, Welcome Magazine went straight to the source, Emily Leopold, for the rest of the story.
What got you both into making dairy-free ice cream?
Several years ago, we got curious about how the foods we ate were affecting our health. Because of all the conflicting information that exists in the wellness world, we had to figure things out for ourselves. One of our experiments was eliminating dairy, which helped each of us in different ways. When researching more about why dairy might be problematic for us, we learned about the big dairy business in this country. As a result, for both health and ethical reasons, we have become very picky about the dairy that we consume (which is very little). We are not fans of most dairy-free ice cream, but we were inspired when we discovered that brands like Frankie & Jo’s and Fiddlehead (check them out if you haven’t!) were producing superb products without dairy.
A separate thread of the story is that we’ve had many food business ideas over the years: we love good food, and Al has experience owning and running restaurants and I run nutrition cooking classes with my culinary nutrition certification. The problem with all our ideas was that they each required one of us (if not both) to quit our teaching jobs. We didn’t want to do that.
When we considered the idea of making our own ice cream, we realized that it lent itself well to being a seasonal business, which didn’t interfere (at least not too much) with our school year.
The idea came up in August  and by December, we decided to move forward. We bought our ice cream cart in early January, before we had even started to make the ice cream. We were confident it would all work out.
What’s in Colibri Sweets’ ice cream to make up for a lack of dairy?
Top secret… just kidding. We love to share, so that others can experiment too. We use coconut milk and cacao butter (not cow butter…as people sometimes mistakenly hear). These are both high in natural fats that allow us to get a creamy ice cream texture without the crazy additives that many non-dairy products use to generate good texture.
Where can people find you right now?
Colibri will make a few more market appearances this summer at the Everett Farmers Market and then we are planning to do monthly pop-ups, which will be announced on our social media. Once September hits, we transition our focus away from ice cream to our teaching jobs.
Any plans on going year-’round?
Again, monthly pop-ups are currently the plan. Fingers crossed that the school year isn’t so brutal as to deter us [smiles].
What goes into the making of your dairy-free ice cream, before and during COVID-19?
Our production before and after COVID hasn’t varied greatly, as many of the safety precautions that are now mandatory were already in place for us. A few differences would be the addition of temperature-taking before production and stricter protocol at our commercial kitchen.
Alphonse is really the mastermind behind our recipes, so when we come up with a flavor that we want to try, he works through the chemistry of it all (fat content relative to sugar, how to avoid ice crystals, etc.) and then we run an experimental batch. It almost always tastes amazing coming out of the ice cream machine, but the key is waiting to see how it freezes. That’s often where a batch will fail.
A lot of prep happens before we even get to production, because the sourcing of our ingredients is important to us. For example, when we wanted to make mochi ice cream, but couldn’t find mochi that met our standards, we had to decide whether to attempt making our own or scratch the idea (we made our own).
The biggest difference caused by COVID (sort of related?) has been pinting all our ice cream. In a typical year, we would make big batches which are then scooped at the markets. If people wanted to order a pint, we would pack it right there in front of them. However, because we are not scooping this year, we have to pre-pack everything in our commercial kitchen which is time-consuming (time = kitchen fees). Furthermore, we’ve had to spend a lot more money on packaging (pints and stickers).
How did COVID-19 affect your small business? What encouraged you to keep going, to find a way?
Less people at the markets + a product (pints) with a lower profit margin (compared to scoops) + more packaging + more kitchen time = less profits.
So why did we choose to open this summer? Well, because we are a new business with a strong following, we didn’t want to lose our momentum, even if that means Colibri is less profitable in the short term. We also really enjoy being at the markets and we are committed to the markets staying open. They are such an invaluable resource for communities, and we want to be part of that in whatever way possible. In the face of unpredictability and great change, community is essential. And communities are only as strong as their participating members.
What goes into deciding the flavors, where do you get your ideas from?
Flavor ideas just pop into our heads at random moments or they are inspired by some food/drink that we’ve just had. For example, I drink Golden Milk and I thought, “Hey! This would be a great ice cream flavor.”
What are your most popular flavors (Matcha is one I’m dying to try) and how can people preorder them before they sell out?
Minty Chip is our most popular flavor, followed closely by Chocolate Peanut Butter, Coconut Latte, Blueberry Lavender, and Cookie Fudge Ripple. Those flavors are almost always on the menu, because people come for them. Another flavor that developed a bit of a cult following this year was Golden Milk, based on the traditional Indian turmeric drink.
Our pre-orders are done through our website: http://colibri-sweets.square.site and close a day or so before the market, so that we can get organized on our end. Pre-order sales will be an essential element of our monthly pop-ups during the school year.
Any new flavors on the horizon for next farmers market season?
What happens when the farmers markets close, when do you start preparing for next spring/summer?
Well, this year our goal is to do monthly pop-ups, so that we can stay active during the year. But to prepare for next summer, we start applying for markets and events in January and February. We work on accounting, licenses, ordering ingredients and packaging, and recipe experimentation from February-April. And then in late May, we begin producing for our June markets.
You’re a favorite at Everett’s Farmers Market, because of how friendly you both are. Next to your dairy-free ice cream, your warm, friendliness is a huge draw. What does it mean to you both to be able to do this for the public, even with the COVID adjustments?
We feel strongly that the changes needed in society start on the smaller, community level. It’s easy to feel frustrated with the current state of our world, but a lot of that helplessness starts to dissipate when you just do what you can. Small joys, like being recognized at a market or savoring a treat, can help us all feel more grounded.
What’s a good day to you?
Almost every day at the market is a good day. Things that make it good include meeting new customers who have allergies or food restrictions and them realizing that our product is safe for them. We also love when there are lulls and we can chat with new people that we meet. (We’ve become great friends with some of our customers). We love trading with other vendors, and we feel like royalty when we walk away with strawberries from Hayton Farms, Prana Greens mix from Anonda Farm, Lions Mane mushrooms from Skagit Gourmet Mushrooms, and more. We also enjoy the sunshine…and of course, high sales help too [smiles].
How does Colibri try to be as farm-to-table as possible? Why is sourcing naturally, locally, seasonally so important, even in ice cream?
Sourcing is important, regardless of the product, because it’s not just about what we are putting into our bodies, but also (maybe even more so?) about the well-being of those who produced it. It’s all connected. The quote we have been displaying this year at our market booth reads: “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself [Sealth-Chief Seattle].” On the other end of every product are the farmers and laborers who grew and harvested the ingredients. Organic practices are better for the people growing the food (safer) and are more sustainable for our soil. Our society is dangerously disconnected from the land. Conventional (non-organic) farming has created an expectation for “perfect” and abundant food that is not sustainable. For those people who are privileged to have enough money to buy organic products, they are not only supporting their own health by avoiding excess toxins, but also the health of others (farmers) and of the land. It’s also important to note that many small, local farms cannot afford to be certified organic, even though they are using organic practices. The beauty of sourcing locally and shopping at farmers markets is that you can talk with and even visit the farms to find out about their practices.
Colibrí wants to support our local farmers, but our main ingredients cannot be grown in the Pacific Northwest: coconuts, sugar cane, and cacao. Because of that, we have chosen to work with companies who are certified organic.