We’re all thrilled to be a part of the Miami renaissance, but truth be told, some of us can’t even put a finger on what exactly this entails. It was during one of our visits to a new business on the Biscayne corridor of Edgewater that we met face-to-face with the embodiment of the new Miami generation — and she’s keeping things hella cool.
Twenty-four year old Luisa “Lulu” Santos is the warm, genuine, and caring heart behind new nitrogen ice cream shop, Lulu’s. And yes, you read that right, she is only a year shy of graduating from Georgetown University, and already a business owner. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as being too young to be a business owner but yeah [chuckles] definitely younger than average,” she humbly begins as she sits down at one of the treated upcycled pallet wood cafe tables, designed by local woodsmith Scotty Wonders, whose work you’ll recognize from Zak The Baker.
Like any good ice cream parlor, the space is cozy and inviting, reminiscent of an pastoral Etsy shop, including a mint wall garden and white daisies in small flute vases adorning every table and countertop. On the wall above the counter where the five bright red Kitchen Aid mixers to churn your creation of choice — blasted by a cloud of frost from the tanked nitrogen tabs — you’ll see her childhood nickname stencilled in moss. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of her DIY project.
It all started little over a year and a half ago, when Santos’ sister discovered this method of making ice cream, which she quickly shared. Hailing from the molecular gastronomy movement, the tanked nitrogen freezes the emulsion of ingredients almost instantly, trading the bigger ice crystals from the longer freezing process for smaller ones that yield a velvety, creamy, smoother texture.
Santos was hooked on the idea instantly, and took it upon herself to learn all about the technique. “I’m one of those hands-on people, so after a few weeks of research I found a place that was three hours away from school where I could rent a small tank [of nitrogen] for me to take home,” she said. So she rented a zipcar and took her roommates on a ride. The next day, they had offered her on-campus home to host a trick-or-treat event for a tutoring program they volunteered for, and insisted that instead of buying candy, they buy the necessary ingredients to provide 150 students with fresh strawberry and chocolate ice cream for the evening. This was November 2013; the official beginning of Lulu’s catering.
“From there it feels like a blur looking back on it, it was just a lot of networking with everyone I knew telling them: ‘This is a bug I have in my head what do you think? Do you have any suggestions? I think it could be a business but I don’t know what determines a viable business,’” she said. But first she needed equipment. She had experimented mixing by hand, but knew she needed the mixers. By putting the word out, she got two donated for the cause — one by a mentor and another by a professor. Soon she began serving Lulu’s ice cream at the Georgetown University farmer’s market, pitching herself as a caterer which eventually yielded to bigger events including “the big score,” the Georgetown University reunion picnic. “We had to pull through! They asked, and I knew it was too big of an opportunity to pass, because we could pitch our new business idea to so many alumni who could believe in our story,” she remembers. Santos and her team served over two thousand potential investors.
Business picked up enough to open a brick-and-mortar shop, and Miami was calling the young entrepreneur back. “On trips back, when I would be home from break, Miami just started to look like an entirely different place. I’d find myself going out in places like Wynwood and other upcoming neighborhoods and I thought ‘What is happening? This wasn’t here when I was growing up!’ You know, the energy, the vibe that you feel all around the city was incredible,” she said. “It’s really about being a part of what’s happening in Miami. It’s the place I call home; I get it, I understand it, and I want to grow with it, so it felt like the perfect place to do it,” Not to mention, it’s warm year-round — perfect for ice cream.
But starting a business was no easy feat. She found that there was a lack of information and places to go for getting the paperwork going. “Figuring out technicalities was a challenge. Like once your plans are approved, what division do you apply to for your license? Where do you find this information? The online process can be so overwhelming. It is literally a maze, and a maze that leads in different paths depending on who you talk to,” she explained. Ever resourceful, Santos reached out to kindred spirits for guidance in her quest. Fellow young kickass female entrepreneur Jessica Sanchez, owner of Loba restaurant, proved to be a helpful local mentor.
She also actively and continuously reached out to the City of Miami through social media, in hopes to establish a more direct approach for future business owners to have a path to follow. “It’s so much time wasted on both ends, because if you actually speak to the right person, I have found them to be very helpful. The problem is that when you get there, there’s no like ‘Hey, if you want to get plans approved, this is your checklist’ — it doesn’t exist. If you look at my Twitter feed, you’ll see that I tweet them all the time like ‘I would love to put together this list for you I just need your approval,’ so I think I might just do it, print it and go spam their office,” she jokes. As more entrepreneurs look to get their start in Miami, it may not be a bad idea.
Reaching out to the movers and shakers in Miami has yielded her best results, so when it came to sourcing her ingredients, Margie Pikarsky of Bee Haven Farm became her “guide through Homestead.” Which is why, even though she continues to maintain a weekly menu, Lulu’s offers a wildcard from time to time. “She called me yesterday and was like ‘hey we’ve got two boxes of lychees, do you want us to deliver them on Saturday?’ When opportunities like that present themselves, we’ll throw it on the menu and offer however many batches we can make with that fruit. I think people will appreciate that if they understand the value of directly sourcing ingredients,” she says. And it’s something she takes very seriously.
Fruits are not the only thing Santos sources directly. After all, the main ingredient in ice cream is milk and cream. Her ingenuity pushes new boundaries when she divulged her jaw-dropping business strategy: She bought the cow to get the milk preservative free. “The day after we did Downtown Recess, we went to adopt a cow. I visited a lot of farms and Dakin Dairy stood out as the most sustainable that we could find locally, because it’s hard to find local dairy, especially in warmer weather.” Her adopted bovine, a one-ton beauty named Lulu, naturally, assures customers that her product is “the freshest ice cream because it’s made in-house and frozen in front of you.”
We know your heart is probably melting right about now, so here’s some good news. Lulu’s official grand opening occurs this Sunday, May 31st, from noon to 4 p.m., where you’ll get the chance to meet Luisa and her entire founding team, and become an instant regular.
“This is the dream I had, and I’m so grateful that everyone was able to see my vision and join in the adventure”.
Paula Echevarria is a gregarious locavore and multimedia freelance journalist.