Thanksgiving dinners can be a time of reflection and gratitude, but in the case of Dylan Finger and his wife, Angela Fernandez, Thanksgiving 2017 sparked a business idea.
“We went to a family Thanksgiving, where my wife, who is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, brought a vegan chocolate mousse; she was vegan at the time,” says Finger, Angie’s Epicurean’s Co-Founder. “We were looking for something we could do together.”
Although Finger is a real estate developer by trade, with a history in franchising, he was interested in starting another food venture. “The main reason I came to the U.S. was to bring Sweets From Heaven, which is a
South African candy company we made public, to the United States,” Finger explains. “We used soft-serve machines in the stores
back in the ’90s that were rented.”
It was around 2017 when the couple visited a market in the U.S. that was selling plant-based
soft-serve ice cream made with almond milk. “There was a huge line of customers, but Angie and I tried the ice cream, and it was
just okay,” Finger says. “We came back weeks later and saw the same long line, so I told her we should try to make ice cream. My wife is very talented, and when I see her creating food, she is in her element.”
Finger and Fernandez officially launched Angie’s Epicurean in January 2018. The couple then started testing and reading up on the science of ice cream: binders, fat and emulsifiers. The challenge was replacing dairy with plant- based ingredients without using sugar. “We basically turned our dining room into a lab,” Finger says. “It was a lot of trial and error. We tried different options, like date syrup, and much of it was a disaster. Angie had all these superfoods and ingredients; some were good, some turned the product icy. Then she got better and better.”
As Finger and Fernandez learned more about the industry and suppliers, they continued with R&D until they perfected the product. “She refined the recipe, and we decided to create [not just a business] but a brand,” Finger says.
The result was a plant-based ice cream brand that could accommodate kosher, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free and non-GMO diets. Flavors include the traditional vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, then veer off into the signature mango lassi, passion fruit and basil, and cappuccino. Sauce options vary by location and range from the quintessential caramel and strawberry to condensed milk, guava and date syrup. Toppings range from sprinkles to cacao nibs to gummy bears and even rose petals.
The couple found a boutique marketing firm that had worked on another vegan concept to assist with their story, message and artwork. “It was expensive but important,” Finger says. “While testing and creating the brand, we needed to figure out how to bring it to market.”
Finger, having been involved with many brick-and-mortar stores throughout his real estate career, was wary of spending thousands of dollars on a store, hoping it would work. “I didn’t want to take the risk,” he says. It turned out he didn’t have to. Finger leveraged his relationship with a successful fellow real estate developer in Miami who owned a quarter of the city’s Wynwood Arts District. The formerly dangerous, industrial neighborhood had been transformed into some of the priciest real estate in the country. Part of the property included the Mana Wynwood Convention Center, which was formerly an industrial warehouse.
Finger saw opportunity with the venue’s shows and events but wanted to start with a mobile concept. “We needed something we could move around to take advantage of events and capitalize on access,” he says.
The couple felt that traditional food trucks didn’t match the upscale brand
they sought to create. They also considered building out a restaurant in a shipping container, but didn’t like that option, either. “Because our brand was European, we looked at what that continent was doing with mobile ice cream,” Finger says.
Finger and Fernandez came upon vintage trucks from France that were being used for fast food in the United Kingdom. With further research, he discovered a British company that restored old trucks for exactly the use the couple was planning.
“So we planned a trip and drove from London to seven different places, including Wales and the border of Scotland,” Finger recalls. “The last place we found outside London was the one that worked. They had done an incredible job restoring vintage trucks.”
The couple ordered a restored vintage box truck and had it shipped to the U.S. They then found a company in the States that could build it out with electrical connections, windows, lights, air conditioning and equipment. “I did my rounds to check out food truck builders in south Florida and found a place to do it really well,” Finger says. “This company worked on trucks for the military. They were not cheap but were really good. They designed the entire truck, building it out in six months.”
As the truck was being imported and built out, the couple started researching different ice cream equipment. Due to the very compact footprint, this was easier said than done. “It was when I was looking for dipping cabinets that would fit that I met John McCabe of Carpigiani,” Finger says. “He educated us on the company’s many equipment options.”
McCabe, Executive Sales Consultant at Carpigiani North America, an Ali Group company, met with the couple about developing the business. As the truck was being built out, he helped Finger and Fernandez create the display case and provided insight on equipment that would work best for the brand.
Later on, the company would find new production space.
“We found the [production] space from someone I worked with who owned 70 properties in downtown Miami; one was an old food hall from the ’80s that used to be a sandwich shop,” Finger says. “It was a 250-square-foot space with a counter and tiny back of house. We renovated the electrical and plumbing in order to put the Carpigiani Maestro machine there.”
Angie’s Epicurean integrated Carpigiani’s Maestro batch freezer, which provides more than 40 programs for creating gelato, pastry, ice cream and chocolate. The machine’s compact size was ideal for the mobile operation. Available in three sizes, the machine’s high-efficiency technology provides up to 30% water consumption and electricity savings compared with other batch freezers. It also has Hot-Cold-Dynamic Adaptive technology to automatically recognize the quantity and type of mixture. This modulates the cold and hot gas, which optimizes the heat exchange during the freezing cycle. This technology also avoids potentially burning the product during the processing cycle.
“This is a very efficient batch freezer that efficiently heat treats base mixes, which extends the shelf life of ice cream when it’s displayed,” McCabe explains.
For making its mixes, Angie’s Epicurean also chose Carpigiani’s Pastomaster pasteurizer, which is not only easy to use and manage but also comes with an exchanger pump for high micronization of fat globules. This ensures a creamy and stable product. The equipment provides easily managed minimum filling levels with no risk of mix burning. It also has pastry functions for producing toppings and inclusions.
When Angie’s Epicurean opened in December 2019 with the food truck and small production space, it was an immediate success. “The minute we opened, sales were booming,” Finger says. “Because I knew from prior experience with Sweets From Heaven that toppings were a great profit margin, we offered superfood toppings with the vegan, gluten-free and plant-based ice cream. Our challenge was that if we blindfolded you, you wouldn’t know it was vegan, and we achieved that.”
Unfortunately, a short time after the brand launched, COVID reared its ugly head. “We thankfully didn’t have a brick-and-mortar store at that time, so when the pandemic hit, we looked at the big picture,” Finger says. “We were focused on building the brand and creating local awareness.”
When things began opening up in October 2020, the couple was approached to operate a six-month pop-up store at a mall. Then a real estate developer friend suggested a truck location in a West Palm Beach, Fla., spot. “It was a prime location in a square, and we were so successful there that we ordered another truck so we could park one there permanently, with another mobile truck designated for event requests,” Finger says.
Because they were dealing with vintage trucks, there were issues along the way. For example, due to the strong power requirements for refrigeration, a bigger generator was needed. “It was a bit of a logistical nightmare, with trucks breaking down and tow trucks involved,” Finger says.
The couple took a trip to South Africa, where they came upon an ornate Italian ice cream cart outside a restaurant.
“It was super busy, but we did some sleuthing to see who the equipment manufacturer was, and it was Carpigiani,” Finger says. “We ended up buying one of the carts, rebranding it and incorporating a topping station that is also a freezer from the company.”
“He is using Carpigiani’s customized Il Carrettino Classic ISA display cart for several locations and special events,” McCabe explains.
The couple also incorporated Carpigiani’s compact ISA OneShow Free Gelato Case on the side of the truck.
After debuting the rebranded carts, the concept began taking off. This led to Finger and Fernandez being approached by hospitality service provider Centerplate, a Sodexo company, which handles foodservice for the Miami Beach Convention Center and a number of U.S. stadiums, including Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
This in turn led to Angie’s Epicurean’s mobile activation at the Miami Open, 2022 Miami Grand Prix, annual Miami Swim Week, Latin Grammy Awards and other events. Its other mobile cart was available for weddings, showers and corporate events.
Angie’s Epicurean has since worked with such established brands as Hublot, Breitling and Instagram. It was also selected by the University of Florida’s MBA program for its graduate students to perform an entrepreneurial growth study as part of their final exam. “We received so many inquiries for events, so we ordered more Carpigiani machines to keep up,” Finger says. “We were getting double booked on weekends, doing pop-ups at malls and activations. We’d spend six to eight months at some locations.”
The business eventually outgrew its 250-square-foot production space, so the couple began looking for something bigger, preferably a commercial kitchen that needed minimal changes. “Luckily, we found a 2,000-square-foot bakery that received a $1 million renovation in 2017,” Finger says. “It had similar branding to Angie’s; the company made vegan cupcakes for Whole Foods and was moving to a bigger facility.”
Finger and Fernandez instantly fell in love with the space, but it had already been leased to a taco company. When this business had issues with the zoning codes, the couple was able to negotiate a lease with favorable terms.
This enabled the business to expand into wholesale. In addition to three Florida locations in Miami, West Palm Beach and Aventura, it will now provide distribution to supermarkets from Orlando to south Florida. “This brand is innovative and growing. The product is fantastic, and they do a great job marketing,” McCabe says. “It’s an ongoing partnership working together as they continue to grow.”
At press time, Angie’s Epicurean was in the process of opening its main kitchen to expand production to hotels, resorts, supermarkets and restaurants.
“Dylan and Angie will be purchasing the large Carpigiani LB 1002 G RTX Batch Freezer to expand their production in their new production facility,” McCabe says. “Angie’s Epicurean goes all out; they know how to market and spend a lot of time on the branding and promotion of their premium products, and it shows.