By Christina Bruce
Five years ago, Victoria Lai accepted what she thought was her dream job. She left a law career in New York City to work at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a presidential appointee working on immigration issues.
Even as a teenager in Houston, Lai, the daughter of first-generation Chinese parents, knew she wanted to make her mark in Washington. She picked Wellesley, the seedbed for women in leadership, for college. She worked on the John Kerry presidential campaign as director of outreach to Asian-American voters. She was, as she puts it, “Doing all the right things.”
Although it wasn’t on her resume, she also happened to have a talent for making ice cream.
But that side interest turned into a future she couldn’t have imagined for herself when she walked into the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters in downtown D.C. (USIS is a branch of the DHS). “I’m the type of person who always had a five-year and a ten-year plan,” Lai says, but “it was really deflating to find my dream job and then realize it wasn’t everything that I wanted it to be.”
Sitting for a chat a few weeks ago at a table in the airy D.C. riverfront store, Ice Cream Jubilee, that she opened just over a year ago, she reflects on how a home hobby morphed into a thriving business and a huge detour from the national policy career she’d always imagined.
Lai’s love of ice cream is attached to a warm childhood memory. Her father, a neurologist who often worked through dinnertime, would share ice cream with Victoria and her sister when he got home at night. “It’s what brought our family together when my dad was really busy,” Lai says. “
Lai started making her own ice cream in her un-air-conditioned apartment in New York as a way of indulging her creative side, and continued the habit when she moved to D.C., featuring her creations on a blog that would eventually provide the name for her brand. Even though she had gone so far as to rent a commercial kitchen in D.C.’s NoMa district and was selling her ice cream to two local grocery stores, the pursuit remained firmly “on the side” in her mind.
Things changed when she entered the D.C. Scoop competition in 2013. Making more ice cream than she ever had before—13 gallons, double her usual weekly output—she toted it to D.C.’s Union Market and gave out samples to some 8,000 attendees in blazing July heat. In a field of more than 15 vendors, she won the people’s choice award. “I just didn’t think that I was in that league,” Lai says.
Weeks later, the developers of a waterfront site at Navy Yard, an area booming with new housing and restaurants just a short walk from the Nationals ballpark, asked her if she would be interested in opening an ice cream shop.
When she visited, she found the site fluorescent-lit, with papered-over windows. Even so, she could appreciate how much sunlight the towering floor-to-ceiling windows would bring in, and the beauty of the river view beyond. “If I’m going to dedicate myself to long hours every week, I might as well do it somewhere as beautiful as this,” she thought. “This is where I want to be. It was that conclusion that made me take the leap.” Today, she still feels that same sense of uncertainty about a five-year plan, but in a different way: “I’m sort of at a loss for what’s going to come, but only because there are many more directions to go,” she says.
The Navy Yard waterfront still has a bit of the empty, almost-too-clean feeling of a neighborhood that’s still being redeveloped. Modern glass-front apartments, a movie theater, and a winery/event space are all underway. On a sunny weekday afternoon, a group of construction workers from a site nearby comes into the store, and Lai pauses her conversation to make sure one of her employees hands out water.
In running her business, Lai has lots of emotional and practical support from her husband, Howard Yoon, and 10-year-old stepson, Ian. Yoon, a literary agent who has also blogged about food, helps develop Ice Cream Jubilee’s signature unusual flavors, such as maple rye pecan and salty apple pie. Ian puts stickers on pint lids, cleans the windows (at least, as far as he can reach), and recently opened a pop-up root beer float stand outside the shop.
“My relationship with Ian has grown as the store has grown,” says Lai, who married Yoon this past January after meeting him at a supper club event in 2011. And he’s learning plenty about hard work. “When a kid sees the line and hears the crowd and waits up till 11 p.m. for me to come home,” she says, “that’s a whole lot more tangible than me doing a really hard negotiation or being on an airplane all the time.”
Every week at Ice Cream Jubilee brings new challenges: Whole Foods has already upped its order from early July, and the store broke sales records when its first birthday celebration, National Ice Cream Day, and the arrival of Taylor Swift for two shows at Nationals Park all coincided during the week of July 12.
Meeting the demand is a challenge, given that production happens out of the store and storage is limited. Lai says she has already doubled staff from last year and rearranged the store to fit customers in a double-length line at the counter. Still, Lai is launching a mail order delivery option soon (“I joke that once we do that, then my mom can be a quarter of our sales”) and eyeing locations for a second store.
She’s also constantly coming up with new, sophisticated, and offbeat flavors—Dark and Stormy, based on the cocktail, was one of her recent favorites—and she’s dedicated to using high-quality, local cream. But Lai is also committed to keeping prices as low as possible, and being family-friendly.
“If a family comes here and there is no pink ice cream, somebody’s world is going to get destroyed,” she says. “We hear that all the time: ‘What do you have that’s pink?’”
That’s why a freezer full of cool, new flavors must always have room for good old vanilla and, of course, strawberry.
“Pink ice cream with rainbow sprinkles cures a lot of problems,” Lai says. “If life can be that easy, let’s smooth that over for people.”
Photographs by Jeffrey Morris