Funn Times at Secret Scoop Thai Gelato
A couple weekends ago, I spent the afternoon with Funn Fisher at her Berkeley-based gelato and sorbet scoop shop. The humble store is tucked away on a side street off University Avenue, about a ten-minute walk away from the University of California, Berkeley’s main campus. Passersby are immediately drawn to the bright pink words, “Secret Scoop Thai Gelato,” which Funn hand painted on the windows.
As soon as I got there, Funn insisted that I begin trying her gelatos, which she handcrafts with inspiration from foods from her native Thailand. I tried chocolate lemongrass (one of her original creations—a refreshing and lighter version of traditional chocolate), roasted coconut, Thai iced tea (made from tea brewed in house), and black sesame. She also brought out a taro and oreo flavor, which wasn’t in the main ice cream display. Since the display can only can hold eight flavors at a time, Funn sometimes has a few flavors in her kitchen so be sure to ask when you stop by!
Funn also has a number of sorbet flavors that you will not find in a more traditional gelato store—like chili mango (which has a nice spicy kick at the end), jackfruit and jasmine (made with real jackfruit that Funn purchases in local Asian supermarkets), and salted tamarind (my favorite—a unique blend of tamarind pulp and a healthy pinch of salt). She also let me try the soursop ginger, which was another flavor she was experimenting with. I asked Funn about the “Play It Safe” flavor—mixed berry. She laughingly responded, “Those are for the Americans who just want the traditional Italian experience.” She tells me she always has one flavor that appeals to these less adventurous customers. She does not aim to compete with the Italian gelato stores. She instead invites the local community to learn about the “secret” flavors she enjoyed from ingredients back at home in Bangkok that evoke a sense of nostalgia for her.
After she fills me up with samples, Funn and I sit down to chat more about Secret Scoop and the ups and downs of running a scoop shop. Funn tells me she always loved eating ice cream when she was growing up in Thailand. As a child, she would wait every day for the local vendor, Golden Bamboo, to come by with a tuk tuk (a small three-wheel rickshaw) carrying delicious coconut, taro, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream. The ice cream was often served in khanom pang ai tiim (a traditional Thai bread bun), which she initially sold as an alternative to a cone in her shop. She eventually removed it from the menu because customers could not get used to the idea of eating ice cream in a bun. This was unfortunate for me because I would have loved to try it!
As she got older, she became more health-conscious and learned that gelato was slightly healthier than ice cream because of its lower fat content. When she first started her store, she wanted to make ice cream that had 0% added sugar and 0% fat, but her friends suggested she needed to have a good balance of both. Now she uses brown sugar to supplement the natural sugars in the real fruit. She tells me that many of her customers appreciate that her gelato and sorbet is not as sweet and rich as the Italian alternative.
So why did Funn decide to start a Thai-inspired gelato shop? When she moved to the U.S. to pursue her Master’s degree in Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008, she found herself missing the flavors and fruits from home and began churning her own gelato from her own small Cuisinart ice cream maker. Until that point, Funn, who had been an architect before moving to the U.S., had had no experience running her own ice cream store. She invited friends over who eventually encouraged her to branch out and set up pop-up stands at local festivals and craft fairs, which she began doing in 2013. Thus began her second career as an ice cream entrepreneur. While the revenues generated from the festivals were decent, customers often asked if she had a physical location, which got her thinking about whether it was time for her to establish a storefront.
Four years after selling her first cone, she took the plunge and opened her physical location in March 2017—completely self-funded. It took her seven months to get the store off the ground because she had to build a kitchen / clean room from scratch because it was easier than trying to find a location that was already built for ice cream making. She also had to navigate the maze of small business regulations. She learned about the new permits she had to obtain and how to manage the costs of obtaining them, which she noted were very high for a small business. She pointed out the slight absurdity in needing a separate permit to pre-package pints (but not to scoop ice cream into pints directly from her display freezer).
Secret Scoop will soon be celebrating its two-year anniversary, and so I asked Funn to reflect on the past two years. She admits, “it’s been hard,” but that she has learned a lot about the business of ice cream and the management of employees. After a full year of operations, she recalibrated her hours in response to seasonal fluctuation (winter means fewer customers). She hired two part-time employees to help her make the gelato and sorbet and run the shop while she is working at her day job as a Lead UX Designer. And she made more cost-efficient decisions on what she would sell in the scoop shop. To ensure quality, she still purchases many of the ingredients herself from local Asian supermarkets and the Trader Joe’s right down the street. At this time, she has no plans to quit her day job because she loves her career and feels more secure having the stable cash flow to continue investing into the business, but she hopes to open a smaller pop-up stand in a building on a street with more foot traffic.
After our lengthy chat, I realized I had not yet ordered anything! I opted for the Thai Iced Tea and Taro and Oreo gelato in a pandan waffle bowl (non-dairy) and topped off the scoops with a savory house-made coconut pandan sticky rice. The savoriness of the rice perfectly complemented the sweetness of my gelato. That was my first sticky rice / ice cream experience, and it was life-changing. I can’t wait to indulge again.
Towards the end of our time together, Funn’s husband and five-month-old son stopped by to say hi. When I asked Funn when her son would be introduced to gelato, she and her husband smiled and replied, “definitely sorbet soon.”