Neal Gottlieb doesn't understand why people like mint ice cream.
"It's like eating toothpaste," he says.
That might be one of the few things Gottlieb doesn't get about ice cream, though. After all, as the founder of Three Twins, he's pretty much a self-made expert.
We recently sat down with Gottlieb over a couple of pints (beer, not ice cream) at Mad Dog in the Fog to discuss San Francisco's exploding ice cream scene, his decision to open a scoop shop in the Lower Haight, and his company's sweet, sweet plans for the future.
Gottlieb, a New Jersey native, didn't exactly set out to become a California ice cream mogul.
He earned his undergraduate degree in Consumer Economics and Housing from Cornell University in 1999, then moved to San Francisco to work at GAP. He spent a couple of years at the company, working his way into a role in finance, but eventually realized that he wanted to strike out on his own.
So, he quit.
An eight-month stint at the Peace Corps in Morocco followed, after which Gottlieb returned to California with the goal of starting some sort of green business.
He considered going to business school – even taking the GMATs and applying to several schools — but ultimately decided instead to devote the money he would have spent on tuition to launching a company.
Initially, Gottlieb didn't have a specific business idea in mind. But he knew he wanted to accomplish three specific goals.
"One, to not go broke," he laughs. "Two, to make good, organic stuff accessible to people. And three, to build a major national brand."
Note: no mention of a lifelong passion for ice cream.
"I had never made ice cream in my life before starting Three Twins," he says.
It just so happened that an organic food business, and specifically ice cream, fit all of Gottlieb's criteria.
So he began fleshing out the idea while staying in San Rafael with this twin brother Carl and Carl's fiancé Liz (who herself is, coincidentally, a twin). With the help of a business planning class, he wrote a plan for an organic ice cream company. Gottlieb dubbed it "Three Twins" after his supportive household.
Despite the tribute, though, he's the only one actually involved in the company.
The Early Days of Three Twins
The first Three Twins scoop shop opened in August of 2005 in San Rafael – "a terrible location," Gottlieb says.
He calls the location "terrible" because it's on a relatively quiet street far from the 101. Not to mention the fact that between the freeway and Three Twins lies Silbermann's - a beloved ice cream shop that's been in the neighborhood since 1966.
So, why'd Gottlieb choose the location?
"I had looked around the Bay area for a retail space for over six months, but considering my limited financial resources and complete lack of ice cream experience, I wasn't exactly a hot commodity for landlords to rent to," he says.
"I ultimately found the space by offering friends a year of free ice cream for finding a space for me. When presented with the space in April 2005, I felt that it was more important to get into the business than to wait around and hope that a better space would become available."