Category Archives: Profiles

FoMu: An Alternative Ice Cream Experience

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(Astrid Lium photos)

Vegan ice cream sounds like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. But this ostensible contradiction bears a striking resemblance to the original milky treat. With the help of FoMu (as in “faux moo”), the non-dairy alternative is quickly scooping out a niche in Boston’s ice cream market.

FoMu is a specialty shop offering vegan-friendly alternatives to the usual ice cream options. According to co-owner Deena Jalal, “it is like ice cream for foodies.” At the two store locations, customers of all dietary backgrounds can choose from unconventional flavors like avocado, Thai chili peanut, and rice honey lavender alongside the more traditional vanilla bean or chocolate.

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Jalal and her husband, Hin Tang, opened the first FoMu alternative ice cream shop and café in Allston on May 30, 2012, but the idea was a decade in the making. Jalal believes that the business move was a fateful one.

“The universe just aligned us right,” she says. “And it flowed.”

Jalal and Tang initially embarked on more conventional career paths––in marketing and finance, respectively. But the entrepreneurial couple had dreams that transcended life in corporate America.

“For years we said, ‘we’ll open an ice cream place someday,’ ” Jalal recalls. “We always had the dream in the back of our heads.”

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The duo created their local, vegan, non-dairy, gluten-free product with widespread dietary restrictions in mind. They have a growing number of friends and family members with allergies and lactose intolerance, whom they wanted to accommodate while also creating a healthy treat with broader appeal.

Jalal and Tang started with coconut milk because of the health benefits, flavor, and low rate of coconut allergies. Containing omega fatty acids, vitamins B and C, potassium, manganese, phosphorous, and zinc, coconut provided a natural, healthy alternative to cow’s milk.

“It’s a cure for everything,” Jalal says.

They added almond and cashew-based blends for some frozen creams, and a soy base for the soft serve options. Agave and unrefined organic cane sugar provide the sweetness. Gluten-free cones and toppings are available for the wheat-free customers. FoMu’s kitchen is located in Watertown, where small batches of ice cream are made daily and delivered. Local partners include Taza chocolate, George Howell coffee, MEM Tea, and Bonnieville cookies.

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The couple started by selling their product to local cafés, including Veggie Planet and Life Alive. The demand grew quickly, prompting Jalal and Tang to open their own shop. They found a space in a predominantly vegetarian corner of Allston, near other vegan-friendly restaurants like Grasshopper and Deep Ellum.

The name, which is self-explanatory, also has a sense of humor. “More effort went into that name than our own son’s name!” Jalal says with a laugh. “We wanted to embody what we were putting out with something abstract and obvious.”

They applied the same thoughtfulness and fun to the dynamic menu, which expands and changes slightly with the seasons. The inspirations generally come from foods and beverages that Jalal, Tang, and their loved ones enjoy. Paying homage to a friend who frequently ordered dark n’ stormy cocktails, they transformed the rum-based drink into an ice cream flavor. Thai peanut stemmed from Jalal’s love of Thai food. Salted caramel, the shop’s biggest seller, seemed like an obvious choice.

But not all of the experiments translated so well. “Unfortunately, sriracha didn’t work out,” Jalal says. “It was too garlicky, and that’s gross.”

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FoMu immediately attracted a loyal following of vegans, lactose intolerant customers, alternative foodies with a sweet tooth, and health-conscious parents treating their kids. Regulars began to encourage a second location in the funky, vegetarian-friendly neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Taking their advice, the co-owners found a vacant space on Centre Street. They opened the second shop in the former shoe store, Got Sole, on April 16, 2013.

Jalal attributes FoMu’s popularity to the alternative options it provides, as well as the overall quality of their product. She notes that many of the patrons are animal-free for varying reasons, both personal and political. Many first-time patrons don’t realize that the ice cream is non-dairy.

“Across the board, people come in, they try it, and they like it,” Jalal says. “We use good ingredients. There’s not a lot of crap in it.”

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The friendly atmosphere and unconventional flavors attract employees along with customers. FoMu’s staff currently includes about 30 workers. Some of them, like Vanessa Saravia, started as patrons.

She discovered the shop while doing laundry in the neighborhood and started working there in June. Saravia moved from her home in California to attend Boston College, and began to miss the robust food culture that she believes Boston lacks. FoMu helped assuage the homesickness with its tight-knit community and unique flavors.

“It’s like ice cream with personality,” she says. “I’m not even vegan, but I still come in here on my days off.”

Her favorite parts of her job include the mandatory ice cream tasting and the connections she makes with customers, particularly the weekend regulars. When she started, Saravia recalls the patience and reassurance of the patrons, who recognized her as the new girl in the shop. They offered encouragement rather than frustration when she was learning the ropes.

Her weeklong training included an education of the shop’s health-conscious philosophy; a crash course in the ingredients and health benefits; a hands-on apprenticeship of the specialty coffees; and, of course, taste testing the goods.

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(FoMu co-workers Vanessa Saravia [left] and Megan Ramette take a break at the Allston shop.)

Saravia’s co-worker, Megan Ramette, offers samples to an eclectic crowd of customers on a Sunday afternoon. A six-person, three-generation family stands in line, trying bites of cardamom pistachio and cherry amaretto before placing their final orders. Tattooed men in black tee shirts with skulls and eagles sample the smaller variety of nut blends. Bespectacled hipsters in skinny jeans test out the chunky chocolate flavors.

Ramette offers each one with a smile and asks every patron if they would like to try another.

“I get tons of questions and requests for lots of samples,” she says. “You can try as many as you’d like. You want to know what you’re gonna get, right?”

Roxbury resident Jacquinn Williams frequents Jamaica Plain’s restaurant-strewn Centre Street, where she first discovered FoMu. Both lactose and soy-intolerant, Williams embraces the vegan ice cream option, and returns to the shop regularly. Her favorite flavors include saffron rosewater, honey lavender, maple walnut, and mango habanero.

“Life for me is all about reading [food] labels and avoiding most fast food and semi-slow food eateries,” she says. “If I could eat [at FoMu] every day and not be fat, I would.”

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(A small cup serving of bourbon maple walnut ice cream)

Jalal acknowledges that FoMu doesn’t appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t shake her confidence in the product. She doesn’t deem J.P. Licks, located just blocks away in Jamaica Plain, a competitor. There is enough room in the neighborhood for the traditional and alternative non-dairy counterparts.

“We really are such a specialty product,” says Jalal. “We’re supplementing, not competing, with a healthier, more conscious product.”

With two retail shops established and a growing fan base, Jalal and Tang remain open to expanding their retail and wholesale sales. The goals include more Boston locations as well as business at high-end grocers like Whole Foods.

The couple take the same laid-back and open-minded approach to the future in the same way they have every other step of the process. Again, Jalal emphasizes the importance of not forcing circumstances and simply letting them flow. In the meantime, she spends every day between the two shops, doing what she loves.

“I have an awesome job,” Jalal says. “It’s ice cream!”

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Leadership Conference Brings Women Together

This article originally appeared as a May 2, 2012 post on Michele Norris’ website: http://michele-norris.com/news/michele-norris-opens-afternoon-for-simmons-leadership-conference-boston/

On the heels of International Women’s Month was a women’s leadership conference at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center.

Sponsored by Simmons College, the 33rd annual Leadership Conference last month featured an array of inspiring women from different walks of life. The longest-running women’s leadership forum in the country, the event reached its maximum capacity and attracted about 2500 attendees.

The theme this year was “Innovation and Impact,” and a list of notable women discussed various ramifications of those overarching concepts. The speakers represented a variety of backgrounds, from entrepreneurs and athletes to money managers and media personalities. A unifying factor was the encouragement of women to excel in any field.

According to Joyce Kolligian, the conference’s executive director, “This year’s roster included some of the nation’s most visionary change-makers who recognized and seized opportunities that have altered the course of their industry or profession.”

The 2012 keynote speakers of the all-day conference included Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) and former president and CEO of eBay; tennis pioneer Billie Jean King; Robin Chase, former CEO of Zipcar and founder of GoLoco; and Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) program “All Things Considered.”

Previous guests of the conference hail from a range of fields and have included Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison, ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In the Corporate Marketplace area were booths set up by the conference’s business and media sponsors, including Cisco, TD Bank, Philips, EMC² and HP. Held in the ballrooms and conference rooms were different talks, which Whitman kicked off with opening remarks at 8am.

The following 10 hours included discussions, book signings, lunch and lectures. Over the course of the day, a dozen influential women shared their insights and tips on leadership, business, success and balance in life

Norris, the first African American female host for NPR, opened the afternoon talk with thoughts on feminism, race relations and recent advancements toward equality. Noting the sheer size of the cavernous room, she commented on the seemingly endless space filled by strong women. “It just keeps going and going!”

The 50-year-old radio personality underscored the importance of not taking such advancements for granted. “Even within some of our lifetimes, it would have been hard to imagine a room like this,” she said.

Before delving into the topics addressed by her 2010 “accidental” family memoir, “The Grace of Silence,” Norris balanced the serious talk with a light-hearted anecdote. The mother of two explained how her kids plead over dinner, “Mommy, can we have the radio voice?” Norris joked that she provides the coveted “radio voice” only after they have cleaned their rooms.

The bulk of her talk related to the discussion of racism, particularly within her own family, as it appears in her book. “I wanted to write a book about how other people talk about race,” she said. When Norris listened to the conversation closer to home, she realized how little of it she had heard before. “I was writing the wrong book,” she concluded.

The result was a collection of first-hand accounts from her parents and extended family about racism. Her family faced discrimination in a predominantly white Minnesotan neighborhood; her grandmother traveled the country as an “itinerant Aunt Jemima”; her father was shot while on his way to take a class about the Constitution.

Other speakers at the event included Vernice Armour, third-generation Marine and the first African American female combat pilot in U.S. military history; Carmen Wong Ulrich, a finance expert, author, public speaker and former host of CNBC’s program “On the Money”; and Rhonda Kallman, who helped launch The Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager) and New Century Brewing Co.

Moderators of the conference included Jill Avery, assistant professor of marketing at the Simmons School of Management, and Dr. Teresa Nelson, the Elizabeth J. McCandless Professor of Entrepreneurship Chair and director of the School of Management’s Entrepreneurship Program.

Proceeds from the Leadership Conference go toward Simmons graduate scholarships.

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Filmmaker Alberta Chu: The Science of Art

Oct 31, 2012

Filmmaker Alberta Chu: The Science of Art

Filmmaker Alberta Chu: The Science of Art

Boston-based documentary filmmaker Alberta Chu loves to combine two passions––art and science––in her work. She does it yet again in her latest film, Lightning Dreams: The Electrum at Gibbs Farm (2011), which premieres November 7 at Boston’s Museum of Science. Alberta’s fourth documentary, Lightning Dreams highlights the story of Alan Gibbs, one of New Zealand’s most prolific art patrons.

She took the time to talk with me about her career path, the journey leading up to this film, and the voice that she hopes to offer her subjects in the fields of art and science.

ASTRID LIUM: How did you get involved with documentary filmmaking?

ALBERTA CHU: I started out as a biologist, [and] I worked as a researcher in L.A. at a biotech company. I had always wanted to get into journalism, and I thought maybe science documentaries could be a way for me to use my science background and break into documentary or journalism. I started a science consulting company, [where] scientists who were tops in their fields would consult with Hollywood screenwriters and set decorators for accuracy. We worked on one of the X-Men films to develop the Wolverine character [and] help them figure out what his supernatural powers would be. It was a way for them to bounce ideas off scientists and get more creative.

How did working as a researcher lead to documentary films?

I did a segment on volcano research. As a researcher there were tons of stories being produced all the time, and I met tons of producers and directors. Most of the stories I would pitch were science, and on one of the shoots I was producing for Sci-Fi Channel I met Greg Leyh, the guy in my film that is premiering at the Museum of Science. I found out that he was building the world’s biggest tesla coil for this billionaire art collector in New Zealand. I pitched it around L.A., but no one wanted to do it, so I decided to make an independent documentary film called The Electrum about the project in the year 2000 about the Electrum sculpture. That film played at a lot of festivals, aired on PBS, won a bunch of awards.

What is the documentary about?

The film was about a quirky group of scientists and engineers that build the world’s largest tesla coil, which ends up in New Zealand. But the guy who commissioned it––the billionaire–– gave me permission to do the film but he didn’t want to be in it. He was very private at the time. His name is Alan Gibbs and he’s … just totally cool. He’s building a giant sculpture park and the reason he likes art is the likes the mental sparring with the artists. He likes to push them to do better work. He pushes everyone around him, you can see why he’s so successful because he never settles for anything. He’s always pushing for more … so that’s why he’s the owner of the world’s biggest tesla coil!

How is your relationship with Alan?

He’s bigger than life. It’s been so interesting to have interactions with him, and he likes my films. So he’s been sort of like my patron, in a way. So he invited me to do the Serra film (2003-04), then the Anish Kapoor film (2009-10). Then he asked me to do a film about the Electrum sculpture in 2010, about 10 years after the original film was made. He wanted this new film to include his perspective. The new film, Lightning Dreams, is about the conception and the whole story of the sculpture.

Why do you do the work you do?

I make films about scientists and artists because they see things that aren’t there yet. They’re envisioning the future and I think that’s really inspiring. They inspire me to make films about them, and my hope is that my films will inspire other people to push boundaries of what’s known and unknown and to look and wonder and dream themselves. Because that’s the only thing that humans can do that computers can’t. There’s something about creativity that’s impossible to articulate. I mean science and art really are the same thing and they have become very divergent in today’s culture.

How do you choose the topics for your documentaries?

I’m about making films about creative people that are changing the world for the better, who want to make a difference. I make films about scientists that are making a difference, trying to make the world a better place. If I can give a voice … I can help them announce their victories and inspire people to help with what they’re doing. I can help them get out their important messages because they are doing very important work. A lot of time they can’t explain it to a regular audience, and I can help.

Do you feel like you’re a translator in some way?

Yes, translating ideas and concepts for a general audience, totally. I hope to be. And same with artists.

It can be a challenge, though.

Yeah, it’s hard to create something. It’s not easy, none of it’s easy, it’s all work. It can be very rewarding work, but if I can help a scientist or artist expose their labors and their victories … and their failures to a wider audience, that’s what I’m about — finding the most interesting creative people in the world, and telling stories that really inspire people to create.

– Interview by Astrid Lium, Twitter: @astridspeak

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