In 2016, a Richmond, Virginia chef named Hannah Pollack thought that perhaps it might be fun to learn to make ice cream for her restaurant’s menu. Operating out of a humble, now defunct downtown RVA joint named Greenleaf’s Pool Room, Pollack settled on an ice cream sandwich as her delivery vehicle of choice. She had never produced ice cream before, calling the subsequent experiment “simply trial and error.” Cookies were rolled, baked and individually cut by hand with a cookie cutter, and each sandwich received the individual attention of the chef as it was slipped into a paper sleeve. Customers responded immediately, demanding more sandwiches in a wider array of flavors. Before she knew it, the chef was being inundated in side orders for the sandwiches, and what started as a whim began to feel like a potentially lucrative business.
“When we started, the response from the community was so quick, and that demand is really what gave us the confidence to take the next step,” said Pollack, who today runs Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches from a production facility south of the James River in Richmond, alongside her husband, fellow chef and restaurateur Xavier Meers. “And once we started to sell the sandwiches, methods of distribution began to open up that we didn’t even know existed.”
That’s something of an understatement, when it comes to the expansion the company has since undergone. After founding Nightingale in 2016, the company’s DIY ethos carried it through the early years as Meers and Pollack first got their ice cream sandwiches into local RVA mainstays, breweries and watering holes, producing a few hundred sandwiches per week. By 2019, they had moved production into a local commissary, hiring more employees and upping production to several thousand ice cream sandwiches per day. But the era of the COVID-19 pandemic truly saw Nightingale become ascendant as not just a local or regional but burgeoning national brand, as new distributors and marketplaces eagerly snapped up however many sandwiches Pollack and Meers were able to produce. Today, six years after those first experimental sandwiches at Greenleaf’s, the business can produce a gaudy 12,000 ice cream sandwiches each and every weekday. They’re being sold in more than 20 states along the entirety of the east coast, along with inroads into markets such as Texas and California, and the pace of expansion is only quickening. Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches has become a burgeoning ice cream empire, while the quality of the product has only improved.
And frankly, I can make that claim as a longtime Nightingale customer. Living in Richmond since 2019, it has been wild to see a seemingly shoestring, local ice cream company become a potential powerhouse whose products are now being sold in chains such as Walmart and The Fresh Market from Maine to Florida. Back in 2019, Nightingale seemed like a quaint Richmond institution you’d be lucky to find at a specialty foods store, or in the cooler at your neighborhood brewery. Today, they’re making collaboration sandwiches with Nicky Hilton and overnighting boxes of ice cream to individual buyers all over the country.
What makes a Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwich so compelling, you might wonder? Well, it comes down to the interplay between the company’s slightly chewy, signature cookies and its densely textured ice cream, and the flavor combinations that are possible as the company explores a wide range of both. Top seller Cookie Monster, for instance, is a chocolate chip cookie that sandwiches cookies ‘n cream ice cream, for a double dose of America’s favorite things, while the Fat Banana combines peanut butter cookies with banana ice cream, with half the sandwich additionally dipped in chocolate. But that’s really only dipping a toe into the more esoteric flavor combinations that Nightingale has explored, from their fabulous (and tart) take on Key Lime Pie (brown sugar cookies, Key Lime ice cream), to Chocolate French Roast (chocolate brownie cookies, coffee ice cream), to even the likes of Miso Churro, which is made with cinnamon brown sugar cookies, white miso ice cream and crumbled churro pieces. It’s these more eclectic flavors that Pollack and Meers, as chefs, have always been most passionate about.
“For me, my favorite flavor is the Lavender Earl Gray,” said Pollack, surrounded by invoices and bills in an office adorned with portraits of Leslie Knope and Dolly Parton. “We first made it years ago, and then finally brought it back this year as one of our seasonal flavors. It’s a chocolate brownie cookie, and then we steep lavender and Earl Gray tea to make a tea-infused ice cream. I love the balance of it, between the rich chocolate and light ice cream. I think it’s maybe the most beautiful sandwich we’ve made, though it’s never been the biggest seller.”
Meers, meanwhile, is probably the company’s local face, the very portrait of the ebullient and gregarious entrepreneur. A native of Brussels, Belgium, with a taste for rich food and real vanilla, he’s owned, operated and cheffed at several fondly remembered RVA restaurants, making Nightingale deliveries in the early days between lunch and dinner shifts of his popular Brux’l Cafe. When it became clear that Nightingale represented a major opportunity, however, Meers hung up his chef’s hat to focus entirely on growing the brand, and can still be found at local breweries promoting the sandwiches, even though they’re now being sold in 20 states. His enthusiasm is infectious, though he finds himself unable to pick a single sandwich as his favorite.
“The biggest sellers are good of course, and The Classic is still one of my favorites because I love true vanilla ice cream,” he said. “We used to make a black forest cherry one as well, that reminded me of Germany. But I love the Chocolate Blackout, the Orange Creamsicle … I love so many of them. I can’t choose.”
When Nightingale moved its production to the south side of Richmond in 2019, they were ahead of the local curve, becoming charter members of the newly renovated and opened Hatch Kitchen, a collaborative commissary space now utilized by numerous local food companies, food trucks and caterers. Today, Hatch Kitchen consists of numerous buildings in the same industrial park, undergoing various phases of renovation to make them functional for food businesses that require easy access to features such as industrial refrigeration and packaging lines. Nightingale has long since moved out of its initial incubator kitchen—where Meers still seems to know the name of every single chef making everything from prepackaged salads to burritos—and into a building next door, where it has steadily expanded to occupy more and more space. It’s not hard to see Meer’s ambition to eventually make the entire building a facility that does nothing but make ice cream sandwiches.
Stepping inside that production space, one is met by a bustle of activity and a maze of wheeled baking racks, each stacked with molds that contain a fraction of the roughly 22,000-24,000 cookies that Nightingale is currently baking every day. Five days a week, the roughly 35 workers here are entirely focused on cookies and ice cream … except when they’re doing something like baking the sheet cakes that are then blended into the Birthday Cake sandwich, or the homemade fudge, or the honeycomb candy used to make the Hilton collaboration, Nicky’s Blondie. Touring alongside Meers, I walked by one worker wielding a huge knife, hacking away at a bin full of honeycomb candy shards, working up a sweat as she knocked them into pieces.
“This flavor, it’s a lot of extra work,” he quipped. “Probably the first and last time you’re going to see this one.”
The remarkable thing, though, is just how many aspects of the process remain performed by hand, or via surprisingly low-tech apparatus, even after all of Nightingale’s growth. Freshly made ice cream sluices from a machine into a bin, where a worker with a spatula mixes in crushed cookie pieces by hand. At the same time in the packaging area, an entire team works diligently to hand-wrap box after box of Nicky’s Blondie sandwiches in the company’s easily recognized brown paper wrappers. Thankfully, they don’t have to do this every day—the larger Nightingale brands can use a packaging machine, but that requires the purchase of thousands upon thousands of labels for each roll. For a limited time sandwich like the Hilton collab? That means hours of hand-wrapping sandwiches, in the name of offering a unique product.
The proof, though, is in the results as the Nightingale brand continues to thrive. This year, they launched their four-packs of “Chomp by Nightingale,” single-serving mini sandwiches that are being sold exclusively via several hundred Walmart locations. On the rest of the East Coast, they’ve found a rabid fanbase via upscale grocery chains such as The Fresh Market, offering a product that stands out for both its quality and the sheer diversity of flavor options. Even the pandemic didn’t slow Nightingale down—quite the opposite.
And so, don’t be surprised if you soon see the brown paper wrapper and friendly bird silhouette of Nightingale in a grocery frozen section near you. Produced by chefs, powered by passion and still somehow mixed by hand, it’s a sweet treat that has taken the art of the ice cream sandwich to the next level.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more food and drink writing.