Sweet spot

Tin Pot Creamery taps owner's passion for baked goods and ice cream

Editor's note: This story was published on June 21, 2013.

Instead of using "best" or "sincerely," Becky Sunseri signs off on emails with such phrases as "Three Cheers for Ice Cream," or "Still Cheering for Ice Cream."

A mini cupcake charm hangs on her key ring. She arrives at an interview on a recent afternoon with freshly baked TCHO chocolate and sea-salt cookies in her purse.

Needless to say, ice cream and baked goods are her thing.

Sunseri, a former Facebook pastry chef with a degree in nutritional science from Cornell University, merged these two sweet worlds in a newly opened artisan ice cream shop, Tin Pot Creamery, at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto.

At Tin Pot, everything — the ice cream, the toppings, the cones, the baked good add-ins — are made in-house with locally grown, organic ingredients.

The 18-flavor menu is three-tiered, split into smooth ice creams (anything that doesn't have any add-ins, such as Earl Grey or vanilla-bean ice cream), light mix-ins (such as toasted coconut with real pieces of toasted coconut, or fresh mint chip with Tin Pot's house-made chocolate chips mixed in) and what Sunseri calls "premium inclusion flavors." Those include cheesecake with dark cherries and almond toffee, bourbon with oatmeal pecan cookies and, one of Sunseri's favorites, Earl Grey tea with shortbread.

"I'm really particular about flavor," said Sunseri, a bubbly 27-year-old whose excitement level visibly rises as she talks about ice cream. "I really think that if something is called strawberry, it should taste so much like real strawberries. Or if it's called coffee, you should get hit with coffee."

She elaborated on Tin Pot's coffee ice cream, which has a deceptively light color. "But then you taste it and it's like POW! It's coffee."

Sunseri said the shop's menu will feature a core of nine staple ice cream flavors and that the other nine will be rotated out depending on the season, what ingredients are available and what customers want. She added that there will always be one vegan flavor, one sorbet and gluten-free options.

Tin Pot is open to suggestions, said Sunseri, hoping that customer feedback and flavor suggestions will help shape the menu.

And beyond frozen treats, customers can find cones made in-house (and made directly in front of customers at the shop), all-natural toppings, decadent sauces, a selection of baked goods made by Sunseri, coffee from San Francisco's Four Barrel Coffee, and affogatos — a scoop of vanilla ice cream (made from Mexican vanilla beans) doused in a shot of espresso.

Tin Pot represents a long-awaited goal for Sunseri: to open her own brick-and-mortar ice cream shop in Town & Country, specifically.

In 2008, Sunseri moved from her home state of Illinois to San Francisco with her then-boyfriend, now her husband. She took a job in sales and client operations at a startup. "Very quickly I realized it wasn't the right fit," she said of the job. "I just missed being creative. And I didn't even know that was something that I needed so much in my life until I didn't have it."

So she started volunteering for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and eventually started taking night and weekend pastry classes at Tante Marie's Cooking School.

"I just felt like something lit inside of me there," she said. "I didn't go into it intending like, 'Oh, this is what I'm going to do for a career.' I just went into it needing something in my life that was exciting. About halfway through I realized I wanted to try to make it work."

After finishing pastry school, Sunseri worked as an intern at Noe Valley Bakery in San Francisco and launched her first business venture, selling baked goods to local coffee shops. She remembers taking Caltrain down to one such shop in Redwood City, terrified that someone would trample or sit on her carefully constructed tartlets.

But a solo baking and delivery business was unsustainable, so Sunseri eventually headed to Facebook to work with her mentor and the company's executive pastry chef, Shannon Griffin. She moved to Los Altos with her husband and worked at Facebook for two years, planning menus a month in advance and baking hundreds of different desserts every day.

In a chance meeting at Facebook with her now-business partner (who wishes to remain anonymous), Sunseri said they talked for two-and-a-half hours about ice cream, swapping stories about driving up to San Francisco for the sole purpose of eating ice cream. Tin Pot, named for the first recorded receptacle used to make ice cream, was born.

"We decided that we wanted to take some of the concepts from the city and bring them here, but then also make it really for this area — so make it family-friendly and have really great ice cream and baked goods that people can just feel good about eating," she said. "It's wholesome, but still a treat."

However, getting a space at Town & Country, which Sunseri had long lusted after for its accessibility, location and vibe, proved difficult.

So she and her business partner launched a monthly delivery service. From San Francisco to San Jose, ice cream lovers would receive a desired number of quarts each month ($18 per quart or $32 for two), leaving the flavor choices in Sunseri's hands. She delivered all the ice cream herself, spending 13 hours in San Francisco one day, she said.

Amy Wang and her fiance, Skot York, both Menlo Park residents with "tremendous sweet tooths," were early Tin Pot delivery recipients. They met Becky through a mutual friend who worked at Facebook at the time.

"We asked Becky early on to keep us in the loop so that we would know when her ice cream would be available," Wang said. "When she tested the delivery concept, there was no question that we would sign up for it."

Deliveries, along with a small catering service, were halted earlier this year so Sunseri could focus on opening the brick-and-mortar store, but she said she hopes to re-start both once they're settled in Palo Alto.

Wang said that Tin Pot's brick-and-mortar arrival holds extra significance in an area that she said lacks quality, fun ice cream shops. It's also separated from the rest in flavor and care.

"(Becky's) flavor combinations have hit the mark every time and I find that I don't actually have to eat a lot of the ice cream to feel satisfied because of how creamy the ice cream is and how intricate the flavors are," Wang said. "It's just really, really good ice cream and you can tell how much care goes into it."

Though Sunseri is a flavor perfectionist, she said some of her best concoctions have been created as a result of breaking the rules. She says that each flavor has its own story, and posts as many of those as she can on her blog. One of her favorites is "The Unlikely Tale of Salted Butterscotch Ice Cream."

Sunseri — at this point still conducting science-like dessert experiments in her kitchen at home in Los Altos — had planned to make salted caramel ice cream, but she ran out of white sugar. The next best thing she had on hand? Brown sugar.

"I had been told, and I knew, that if you add cream and brown sugar it can curdle. It can be a mess. I did it anyway. And that's the way that I got this amazing flavor — by breaking the rules in order to create something that's really powerful."

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