Sweet Ritual: A Beacon of Frozen Vegan Delights in the Land of Barbecue

My grandparents were life-long Austin residents, and my father was raised here as well.  I grew up a couple of hours away, but we visited Austin regularly.  I’d sit in the backseat, rolling my eyes as my grandfather pointed out the baseball field that was once a dairy farm, sighing deeply when my dad drove us past his elementary school for the hundredth time.

I’ve lived here for over 12 years,  and somewhere along the way I developed the same tendency to reminiscence while cruising around town.  Oh look, that’s where The Showdown Saloon used to be!  I got kicked out of that place for being underage.  Before this was EZ’s , it was burger joint called 2J’s. Their secret sauce was to die-for. I’m know my passengers find it obnoxious, but you if you ride with me, you’re getting the tour.

On one such tour several years ago , I insisted that my date (who was from out of state) and  pull into to Toy Joy.  My grandparents lived near by, and I was always trying to sucker someone into taking me shopping there as a kid. It’s a classic Keep Austin Weird establishment– a place where you can spend hours pursuing an unbelievable collection of  zany and hard-to-find toys.  My date was was much more enthusiastic about the vegan soft-serve offered in the store’s cafe than the toys.  I can’t recall what flavor we had, but I do remember that is was super delicious. Win-win.

So, I was pleased when I recently learned that Amelia Railey (the lady behind that unforgettable ice cream) and pal Valerie Ward had opened Sweet Ritual, a vegan ice cream parlor serving up shakes, sundaes and fun soft-serve flavors .   I asked for an interview, and  Amelia and Valerie gave me the scoop (ha!) :

Photo by Jon Bolden

Please tell me your back story.  How did you two get together and conceive Sweet Ritual?

We first met when Amelia lived in Oregon and was planning her move to Austin.  She was interested in the co-op where Valerie lived, and sent a paper doll version of herself as a representative for her phone meeting at the co-op.  Valerie fed the paper doll whiskey and hoped that such a cool girl would move into the co-op. Amelia ended up moving into another of the many awesome co-ops in Austin, but that (obviously) wasn’t the end of the story.  We kept running into each other through a series of coincidences, both online and in person, until one day Valerie went into Toy Joy, where Amelia was working, and asked to be friends.

In the summer of 2010, after a fruitful trip to the City-Wide Garage Sale for doilies and other dainties, Amelia mentioned that she wanted to start a vegan ice cream parlor.  Amelia had developed her own recipe for delicious vegan soft serve in 2008 under the auspices of the Toy Joy café.  Soon she was creating exciting new flavors on a weekly basis (Lemon! Peanut butter! Chocolate lavender!) and dreaming of a space of her own, where customers could come and sit and enjoy her creations in a beautiful setting.  Valerie was instantly intrigued.  She had worked for Austin’s own sweet empire, Amy’s Ice Cream, for two years, assisting in opening in several new locations and managing the new flagship location when it opened.  Valerie had since moved on to other creative endeavors, but was itching to have a business of her own.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I understand you used KickStarter to help raise funds.  Please tell me about that experience and what advice you have for other startups interested in going that route?

We used the crowd-sourcing platform of Kickstarter to reach out to our community for financial support in the start-up phase of Sweet Ritual. In the scheme of things, we didn’t raise a whole heck of a lot of money, but it sure helped to get the word out about our shop! We had funders from Germany, New Zealand, as well as many people in our home town of Austin. It helped that we had a reputation for our product beforehand. I’ve seen many Kickstarters for unknown companies aim to raise $10,000 with no prior relationship or reputation in the community. Restaurants and food are notoriously difficult to get funding for, since the tangible end product can only travel so far. In our case, there is no way to easily ship ice cream.

Photo by Jon Bolden

Walk me through a typical daily routine at Sweet Ritual.

We spend the first two hours of the day prepping homemade sauces like salted caramel, chocolate syrup and strawberry compote. Our menu is 100% vegan and it’s very difficult to find commercially available items that don’t have animal products in them, so the best way to offer quality and value is to make them ourselves. We also prep waffle cone batter and hand make 20-30 waffle cones. We open up shop at noon, and sell ice cream and coffee to the masses until we close at 10pm. In down times during the day, we network on Twitter, post photos on Instagram and Facebook, place orders, and do inventory. When we’re not in the shop, we’re traveling to get restaurant supplies, groceries, or shopping at antique stores for fixtures.

Red Hot Vegan, photo courtesy of Sweet Ritual

What’s your favorite menu item?

I’m partial to the Red Hot Vegan – a sundae with spicy chocolate sauce, graham crackers, and vegan marshmallows that are toasted with a gun that shoots fire!

How do you go about developing new flavors?

In addition to “veganizing” old favorites, like Tin Roof Sundae and Rocky Road, we search a lot on gourmet websites with favorites like Earl Gray ice cream and Lavender Chocolate. Really, whatever sounds good, we try and experiment!

What advice do you have for others starting their own business?  What do you wish you had known before going into business for yourselves?

If you’re a workaholic who enjoys being busy, starting a business could be a good move. A new business is like a newborn baby – it needs constant attention and sometimes the directions it takes can be kind of alien and confusing. It’s hard sometimes not to take criticism personally.

These days, everyone with a smart phone is a food blogger (even if it’s just a post on Instagram) so we want our product to be exceptional, every time it goes out of our shop. Reading critical or hurtful comments on Yelp can be a setback as well, but we try and use all criticism as a tool to grow. Overall, the response to Sweet Ritual has been overwhelmingly positive! We have been published in lots of publications, including VegNews, which was a real honor. Just six months into our endeavor, we were voted “Best Way to Treat Yourself” by the Austin Chronicle Restaurant poll by both critics and the readers. We’re excited to see what the future will bring.

Visit Sweet Ritual’s website to check out their menu and happenings.  You can also find the latest on their Facebook page and on Twitter.   They are located at 45th and Duval inside Daily Juice.  If you’re in town, I’m happy to give you a lift, but I’ll be pointing out landmarks like the giant fork in front of Hyde Park Bar and Grill and talking up the vegetarian Reuben at Mother’s Cafe

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