The Secrets to Entrepreneurial Success in Brooklyn

01/30/2013 4:00 AM |

Laura O’Neill

She’s the cofounder of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and the co-owner of the restaurant
Selamat Pagi.


The success of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream—the little food truck empire that could—is a Brooklyn entrepreneurial legend… But rather than bask in the glow of artisanal glory, O’Neill went ahead and opened a new restaurant, Selamat Pagi—because that’s what entrepreneurs do.

What neighborhood do you live in?
I live in Greenpoint. I moved here almost six years ago from Melbourne. I didn’t know anything about New York when I moved here but luckily happened upon this little slice of heaven.

For people who may be unfamiliar with Van Leeuwen, how would you describe what it is you do?

I run Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream with my two partners, Ben and Pete. We started up in 2008 and sell our ice cream from six trucks and three stores around the city. We make our ice cream right here in Greenpoint, using only fresh milk and cream, cane sugar, egg yolks and the best fruits, nuts, chocolate and spices we can find from small producers, locally and from around the world. We also recently opened a restaurant in Greenpoint called Selamat Pagi. We serve traditional and inspired dishes from the island of Bali and will soon be adding an awesome beer and wine list.

What do you do that’s different from similar businesses?
We make super-simple, traditional ice cream the way you might make it at home, only on a larger scale. Our ice creams celebrate ingredients perfected by nature, not science. We have applied the same ideals and dedication to our restaurant kitchen.

Why did you get into the food business?
I love food. Who doesn’t?! Ninety percent of what comes out of my mouth is about food. To be able to make a career out of something I’m passionate about, and with a product I’m truly proud of, is awesome.

Why start up in Brooklyn?
The three of us all lived together on Driggs Avenue when we were getting started. Our kitchen was our lab and our couch was our office. We now have our ice cream production and real office out the back of Selamat Pagi. We are really proud to be a part of the awesome Brooklyn food scene.

Is this your dream job? Or do you wish you could be doing something else?
For sure, I feel really lucky to be doing something I love. We have an amazing team, and have a lot of fun. Even though we work almost all the time, we have the flexibility to do the things we want like travel, music and dancing in the dark on Tuesday nights at No Lights, No Lycra (plug!).

What’s the biggest difference between an ice cream store and an Indonesian restaurant?
The restaurant is definitely very hands on; customers’ expectations are higher than that of an ice cream store and everything is super fast-paced. It’s a lot like theater: setting the stage, playing the roles, etc.

What surprised you the most about the restaurant business?
I think we were surprised by how much work it is to successfully operate day in, day out. The restaurant was kind of a wild dream that came to fruition because we had this great storefront sitting empty. We kinda thought “sure, let’s open a place and serve awesome Indonesian food…” Then we opened and suddenly had a full-scale, busy restaurant on our hands. It’s been really fun, but it is a lot of work.

Which of your personal characteristics make you ideally suited to pull this off? And which don’t? 
Pros: I’m a worker bee and super pragmatic. Cons: I’m a really good sleeper and am often running late.

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