It was late. Lori Phillips was up working on her thesis, in the midst of getting her doctorate degree in immunology from Stanford University. But a half-joke, half-business idea she had been throwing around with friends -- to create a gourmet version of Klondike's classic Choco Taco frozen dessert and sell it out of a food truck -- interrupted her thoughts.
In April, Phillips' idea became a reality when she launched Rocko's Ice Cream Tacos, peddling her carefully created, all-organic treats out of a cart, and eventually, a full-fledged food truck, around the Bay Area.
For those who have missed out on the dessert Phillips is riffing on, Choco Tacos have three main components: a sweet waffle cone shell, vanilla ice cream and a chocolate-nut coating to top the whole thing off.
Rocko's Ice Cream Tacos take that to the next level, transforming the mass-produced, artificially flavored treat with Bay Area sensibilities. Rocko's taco shells are made with wheat and barley that Phillips gets from a local farmer's market. The ice cream is organic, made locally by a Redwood City woman, and comes in a range of flavors beyond vanilla -- including chocolate, espresso, salted caramel, mint chip, strawberry, peanut butter and vegan chocolate chip. Flavors like strawberry are only offered when the ingredients are in season.
The coating is made with chocolate from San Francisco luxury chocolate-maker TCHO. All coffee, chocolate and sugar is fair trade and everything is purchased as locally as possible, Phillips said.
Customers can order any combination of flavors like salted caramel dipped in dark chocolate; espresso dipped in white chocolate or strawberry dipped in peanut butter, and add toppings like cocoa nibs, almonds, pistachios or even bacon. The tacos are made on the spot, something made possible through the increasingly-popular use of liquid nitrogen, which allows for rapid freezing.
"The ceiling is high," she said. "There are a lot of things that you can do with this idea."
Phillips seems like such a natural within the Bay Area sweets world that it's hard to imagine her doing anything else. But the East Palo Alto resident is a neuro-scientist by training.
Phillips grew up in Union City and got her undergraduate degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in chemistry. She came to Stanford to get her doctorate in immunology, spending six years working on stem cell transplantation for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. But she was drawn to entrepreneurship, and a Stanford business school crash course on all-things-startup roped her in.
"So I just decided that I was just going to start a business myself," she said. "And science businesses are exponentially more difficult to start than food businesses. ... A food business was really easy for me to do on the budget that I had and the spare time that I had, which wasn't much, while finishing up my PhD and writing my thesis. I was able to get together the idea and start working on the recipes."
Her goal was to make something delicious that people could also feel good about putting in their bodies, with ingredients they could trust. After buying the waffle iron that fateful night, she spent time tinkering with recipes for the waffle-taco shell, never abandoning her scientific tendencies.
"Cooking is very similar to science," she said. "You look at different protocols that are out there to do it; you decide on one, give it a try, tweak it. So that's what I did with waffle cone recipes."
Once she perfected the recipe, she started making the tacos for friends and garnered enough support to purchase a cart. She started at the Palo Alto farmers market on Saturdays and eventually got into various foodie gatherings like Off the Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco (Rocko's is there every Friday evening) as well as Sunnyvale and Oakland's Jack of All Trades Market. The Rocko's Facebook page (facebook.com/RockosIceCreamTacos) has updates on where to find the truck.
This spring, she graduated to a white food truck with an outline of the face of Phillips' dog, the maltese-chihuahua mix that is the company's namesake, emblazoned on the side. The extra space means the menu addition of frozen bananas ($2), ice cream cake pops ($3, in flavors like red velvet, banana cake, devil's food, tiramisu and vanilla), and coffee and hot chocolate ($3). Tacos are $3.50 each, with chocolate dip included; toppings are an extra 50 to 75 cents.
Though Phillips wants to keep the Rocko's offerings simple as to not overwhelm customers, it's clear she's also eager to expand. She said she dreams of developing a chocolate flavored taco shell or a stroopwafel cone based on the Dutch dessert, a thin waffle-cookie sandwich with a caramel-like filling in the middle. She said she'd love to open a brick-and-mortar shop, which would allow her wild, Choco Taco-fueled dreams to become reality.
Rocko's Ice Cream Tacos is scheduled to be at the Los Altos Art & Wine festival all day on Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13. The festival is located in downtown Los Altos at Main and State streets from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Festival information is at downtownlosaltos.org. Updates on other places to find the Rocko's truck are on Facebook at facebook.com/RockosIceCreamTacos.
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