Meet Neal Gottlieb, Founder of Three Twins Ice Cream

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."

Flickr/In April, Three Twins began distributing pints to many Whole Foods stores throughout the West Coast. You can also find their flavors in a growing number of corner stores, markets, and restaurants in San Francisco, with a larger nationwide presence in the works. And they're starting to make inroads in the New York City area, where the market for such products seems to be ripe.

"In a lot of these bodegas, we're completely replacing non-organic ice cream," Gottlieb says gleefully.

Pints aside, the Petaluma factory means Three Twins can make its own "mix" – the sugar, cream, and egg combination that serves as the base of all ice cream. It's a luxury that other ice cream shops in San Francisco can't afford. Instead, they have to buy their mix from third parties.

To celebrate their homemade mix, Three Twins now offers "mixshakes" – milkshakes using mix instead of milk. You can even order "shots" of the stuff – just be sure to pack your sweet tooth.

Oh, and Three Twins will soon be selling the mix to other ice cream makers in the Bay Area.


But wait, these folks are supposed to compete, not cooperate — right?

Gottlieb insists there's no rivalry between the different ice cream makers. After all, when Three Twins arrived on the scene five years ago, the Bay Area artisanal ice cream scene was pretty lonely. Ici didn't open in Berkeley until September of 2006, Bi-Rite Creamery opened January 2009.

"I would be happy to comment on those other fellows if I knew who they were or what they do, but I do not," he jokes.

In reality, Gottlieb is happy to have more players in the game. It's a sign of growing ice cream enthusiasm in the Bay Area which benefits everyone, at least in theory.

The Truck

Oh, one more thing setting Three Twins apart? This summer, to achieve true ice-cream-man cred, Gottlieb located an old ice cream truck in Connecticut, bought it, drove it back across the country to California, painted it Three Twins green, and named it Carl, after his brother.


He plans to park the truck at events and street food festivals, and spread visibility for the brand. Operating it as an actual neighborhood-trolling ice cream truck would be virtually impossible due to San Francisco's arcane permitting laws, Gottlieb says. Not exactly the most progressive city, at least in some respects.

"I mean,

With all this success and growth — 40-plus employees now and counting — how's he feeling?

"I am more excited and optimistic about the future of the company than ever. In the last 8 months, we've gone from being a rather localized brand selling our ice cream to a handful of restaurants and groceries in the Bay area to selling to over 300 stores throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and New York. And this is just the beginning."

You'd think he might celebrate with the occasional hot fudge sundae or banana split — but for someone who seemingly lives, breathes, and drives ice cream, Neal Gottlieb surprisingly doesn't eat it very often.

"I haven't bought ice cream for myself in maybe two years," he says.

Why not?

"Two reasons. I don't want to get sick of it, and I don't want to become fat because of it."

So far, becoming fat doesn't seem to be a problem.

And if he's getting sick of it, it sure doesn't show.