Food trucks are all the rage in the culinary world—and they're no longer limited to hot dogs and tacos.
All you have to do is turn your television to the Food Network to see that from Los Angeles to New York, local and gourmet creations are being dished out to the hungry masses from mobile restaurants—and Tucson is no exception regarding this trend.
Isabella's Ice Cream is one of the latest additions to the local scene—and it's putting a twist on the traditional ice cream truck. Dominic and Kristel Johnson, founders of the "cold, creamy and green" business, say that they were inspired, in more than one way, by the Arizona sun.
"When we first moved here (to Sahuarita), we thought, 'Wow, an ice cream truck would really be a great business with so many families in the area,'" says Dominic.
His wife, Kristel, chimes in, saying that the biggest challenge was building an ice cream truck that wasn't going to be "creepy."
Isabella's is definitely not creepy.
The Johnsons found an old Ford Model T on eBay and figured it would be the perfect solution—a curiosity for adults and kids alike. Dominic finished the build with reclaimed basketball flooring from McKale Center, as well as an electric motor. The final touch was a 1920s-inspired paint job, ragtime music and the perfect name—after their oldest daughter, Isabella.
Reclaimed wood wasn't the only eco-friendly addition to the truck. Global Solar Energy found out about the Johnsons' project and provided thin-film solar panels to install on the Model T's roof. SunDanzer then helped Dominic retrofit the freezer to run on solar power.
"We've been so blessed with getting lots of help through this whole process," says Kristel.
They'll probably need more help, considering their ambitious expansion plans. A second Model T is in the process of being built and retrofitted, and they've already certified and hired two drivers to operate the trucks, she says.
"We're hoping to see how many of the trucks Tucson will support, and then hopefully branch out into other areas," says Dominic. "The goal is in five years to take it outside of Arizona."
Of course, the biggest draw to Isabella's Ice Cream isn't the unique vehicle, nor is it the sustainable business model. It's the ice cream, and it's definitely worth a visit. Neither Kristel nor Dominic have any previous restaurant experience, but they knew that they wanted to create a quality product that they would be comfortable serving to their own kids, says Kristel.
"We've got a single creamery making our ice cream, and I create the flavors," she says. "There are five ingredients in my ice cream: eggs, sugar, cream, milk and the flavor, which we use only natural ingredients for. So mint has real mint in it, and peach comes from real peaches."
Isabella's has six to eight flavors on rotation at any given time, and they are definitely delicious. I tried samples of the mint chocolate chip, peach, lemon, coffee, chocolate and cinnamon flavors. The ice cream is made using the French-pot method, resulting in a rich, dense and creamy product; the 4-ounce cups are more than plenty for a sweet snack.
Kristel and Dominic also felt it was important to source sustainable materials for the ice cream packaging, using biodegradable cups, spoons and lids.
"It's been a real learning experience for us," she says. "We've joined the Tucson Clean Cities coalition, and it's been great meeting all the other vendors, even though we're kind of unique there."
Of course, Isabella's Ice Cream truck is just one unique local addition to the food-truck craze. You can check out more great trucks thanks to the Tucson Weekly's own Adam Borowitz, who has gotten in on the action by featuring the "Food Truck Diaries" series on The Range, our daily dispatch. (Click on the Chow page at TucsonWeekly.com to see all of Adam's tasty entries.)
Kristel and Dominic are now learning how to incorporate social media into their business, and are hoping to use Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their locations, like many of the high-profile food trucks in Los Angeles are doing. Dominic says they're also throwing around the idea of hooking a GPS unit to each of their trucks, so that there's a real-time feed of each truck's position on the Internet.
They say that they are hoping to have the second Tucson truck on the road by summertime, and are looking for local businesses interested in teaming up—but in the meantime, you can check their website, Twitter feed or Facebook profile to see what flavors they're dreaming up, and where they'll be dishing up their next scoops.