Meet the gutsy woman behind a very sweet company.
Today, Unpeeled profiles Hannah Pollack of Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches, an inspiring artisan pastry chef and savvy entrepreneur with taste, guts, and hustle in equal measure.
If you’ve ever had the distinct pleasure of sampling one — or preferably, all — of Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwich Company’s artisan creations (they ship nationwide!), you’d know that a particularly talented and thoughtful person must be behind flavors like butter pecan, chocolate blackout, and peaches and cinnamon.
And you’d be right. Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches’s Hannah Pollack is the fine-dining pastry chef, former Marine, and savvy entrepreneur and businessperson who — along with her husband — helms this sweet, fast-growing business.
I loved talking to Hannah. Read on as she shares practical advice for entrepreneurs, her story, and (of course) her tips for making a great ice cream sandwich at home.
Ed. Note: This interview took place on June 15, 2021. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.
The Interview: Hannah Pollack of Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches
Lisa Ruland: By way of background, where did you grow up?
Hannah Pollack: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve been here most of my life. I left home when I was 17 to join the Marines. I was stationed in a very dry, desert place called 29 Palms, which is in California, near Las Vegas.
I came back to Richmond when I was 19. I was only in the Marines for two years because I got bacterial meningitis and I had really serious health problems. I was hospitalized, and they thought I wasn’t going to make it. The hospital actually called my parents and told them to come out to see me because they thought I might die.
Oh my goodness. That sounds incredibly scary. And you went through all that only to realize that the illness took such toll you had to leave the Marines? What was that kind of mental shift like?
When I got back to Richmond, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I went to nursing school because I knew it was a good career, and my mom had been a nurse. But just as I was getting into it, I knew it just wasn’t for me.
But I always loved to cook. I love working with my hands, and was always cooking for my family and researching recipes or working in restaurants. So I decided to go to culinary school. I loved it. It really clicked.
What is basic training like?
Well, it’s rough. Especially in the Marines. The boot camp is 13 weeks. Marine bootcamp is the hardest and the longest. You have to just keep your head down, don’t cause a lot of trouble, fly under the radar and keep your mouth shut and do what they tell you.
So it wasn’t bad. Plus, I have always loved physical activity and working out. Of course, I was in the best shape of my life while I was there. And it’s hard doing all that work, but you’re all in it together.
The move into ice cream sandwiches seems like a nice change! How did the journey to Nightingale Ice Cream happen?
My husband [Xavier Meers] and I were both chefs in a restaurant. I would make ice cream sandwiches in between shifts, and he would deliver them. And it got to a point where it was growing so quickly that we both decided to leave our jobs and focus full time.
Doing that was scary. We lost the cushion of our salaries from our other jobs. But we really believed in it right from the beginning. We believed in the quality of the product in our recipes. We could see the growth of our business in Richmond, and saw what it could become if we kept going with it.
Entrepreneurs inspire me so much because they seem to have this amazing hustle, and this sense of just diving right in without necessarily having all the answers first. What advice would you give other food entrepreneurs?
A lot of it is just making it work. You’re never going to have your perfect set up. You’re never going to have every piece in place. You’re going to have to organize yourself and do the best you can, but you have to be flexible and just make it work and give it your all.
Also, don’t lock yourself into a certain position. For example, I’m the president of the company, but I’ll still go help out on the production line and just do whatever it takes. It is not, “It’s that other person’s job,” because it is your job. It’s your job to keep the whole ship moving. You’re responsible for the whole and the parts of it.
Keep moving forward and keep an eye on growing your company. Because if you get stuck in the day-to-day tasks, you’ll never move forward.
As the entrepreneur, you’re the driving force of your business. You also have to find good, key people that you trust. And that will help you as you’re growing. You can’t do everything yourself. It’s hard to let go, but you have to learn to delegate.
It’s clear how much work you put into the company. When did — does — having the business seem really hard?
When you give something everything you’ve got, all the time, it’s natural that you will wear out. And that happens to me occasionally. Especially during our busy season, which is the summer. All the problems that all seem to come up at once. Keeping everyone motivated, and just dealing with the day-to-day issues that come up occasionally grinds you down. You feel like, “I can’t just deal with another thing going wrong.” But you keep going.
On the flip side, when does this job seem great?
It is so satisfying to see our staff working. A couple years ago, I made every sandwich all by myself. And to see the company grow, to see this great staff of managers and supervisors and our marketing and production team at work, is just so fulfilling to me. I love that we built that and we are working together.
It occurred to me that both as a Marine and a food professional, you jumped into two fields largely dominated by men. And the chef space is still very male dominated. Could you share any thoughts about that, about overcoming sexism, needing to prove yourself, harassment, and the like?
The Marines was definitely male dominated, and you [women] really do feel the need to prove yourself. And also, there’s so much physical activity in the military and you’re always striving to be your best.
As a female business owner, I get frustrated sometimes because a lot of the people I deal with are men, and sometimes I get that “pat on the head” attitude. That really frustrates me.
I think it is changing, and it’s not as hard as it used to be. It is my business and you really need to fight for yourself, man or woman, when you’re starting a business. But you really need to be on the lookout for someone who may be trying to take advantage of you being new, or, as a woman, that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
I have to be more direct. I know my business. I already know what we need, like pricing or what kind of packaging or ingredients. I don’t need someone else to tell me that. I have to be direct. I lay out very specifically what I need. I need to make it known that I am not asking for your opinion.
Your ice cream sandwich flavors are just very, very cool. I wonder about the process of developing new flavors. Does lightning strike? Do you have a more scientific brainstorming process?
We have quite a large menu of flavors, and we’ve come up with those over time. We test out what works and doesn’t work. Once a year, around fall or winter time when we start to slow down, we have a brainstorming session. We taste all the existing flavors and see if we can improve them in any way, because I think that’s one factor, too: constantly improving. And we test new flavors and plan what we’re going to introduce next year.
Almost once a month, we do a seasonal flavor. For July, we’re doing a red, white, blue cheesecake ice cream sandwich. August will be birthday cake sandwiches. So we’ll plan that a year before and work through the tasting and any issues.
Where do you see Nightingale growing?
I really think our brand can be nationwide in grocery stores. We really have the product for it, and in gourmet grocery stores is where I see us, too.
OK, I have a few “speed round” questions that I ask everyone. First, what do you typically have for breakfast?
Coffee. Just coffee. I’m trying to switch to having a nice healthy smoothie, though.
Fill in the blank. Other than turkey, it’s just not Thanksgiving without what dish on the table?
Green bean casserole. I started off making it myself with the mushroom sauce, like the old-fashioned way from the can, with the fried onions. But my husband (who is a Belgian chef) makes it by sautéing a bunch of different types of mushrooms, then he adds cognac and flambés it. Then we sauté shallots and garlic and put it over fresh green beans, and of course top it with the French fried onions.
Umm, wow. That sounds incredible. Finally: What is a dish that feels like love to you?
I would say actually there is a recipe for baked beans that I used to make for Thanksgiving. My mom always makes it for any get-together that we have. And that is always something special for me. It’s just a very homey recipe. You sauté onions, garlic, and bacon and add cans of baked beans. Then you make a homemade barbecue sauce that you fold into it. Then, you top it with more bacon and bake it.
Whenever we get together with family, my mom always bakes it, just for me. It’s so bad for you. But it’s just so good.
And of course, I have to ask about making ice cream sandwiches at home. Any tips for home cooks for making a really good ice cream sandwich?
When you get your cookie, whatever that is, make sure it’s chewy and not brittle. Because if they’re too brittle, it won’t be a good ice cream sandwich.
And also, you can use a mold or even a cookie cutter, and that would make nice, neat-looking sandwich.