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Last summer, only a few weeks after moving to D.C., I tried the best ice cream I have ever eaten. No joke. It was from a cart parked on the sidewalk near the CVS on 17th Street NW, tucked inconspicuously under a white umbrella. A cheerful sign with a bright orange ice cream cone hung out on the sidewalk to lure in hot passersby. The cart operation, called Happy Ice Cream, is a sister concept to Happy Gyro, co-owner Anne Marler explains via email.
When there is a great ice cream cone around, I just can’t help myself. I am a bee to honey. Let’s put it this way. As a sixth grader in California, I used my $5 weekly allowance on a $4.25 scoop every Tuesday from a fancy place that opened near the school bus stop. I pocketed the leftover 75 cents for an extra scoop of fresh mint chip or Earl Grey or some other dressed-up classic every month and a half. I kept this up until I graduated high school and moved away, seven years later.
I’ve had some legendary scoops—from L.A.’s Sweet Rose Creamery, Oregon-based Salt and Straw, Morgenstern’s in New York, and Santa Barbara, California’s McConnell’s—but the Happy Ice Cream cart blew my mind. The flavors are fresh, exciting—Basque Cheesecake, Oatmeal Cookie with Shaved Chocolate, Mango Sorbet—though its makers try to harness the pleasure of eating ice cream as a kid. As Ben Brunner, the creative mind behind the ice cream cart, puts it, he develops his ice cream to “create a sense of nostalgia, to bring people back to their childhood.”
Brunner is from Green Bay, Wisconsin, but he moved to D.C. more than 10 years ago when his partner was doing a graduate program at Georgetown. In D.C., Brunner became a sous chef at Komi, the upscale Mediterranean restaurant that became the more casual Happy Gyro beginning in 2019. He’s been working in its kitchen ever since.
At Komi, Brunner dabbled in pastry and started to play with ice cream. But when Komi became Happy Gyro, Brunner began searching for somewhere to “focus my passions. Ice cream was an easy decision.” He formally launched Happy Ice Cream in the summer of 2021.
“It has always been part of my life, coming from Wisconsin,” he says.
Like Brunner, the cart itself comes from the midwest; it was custom built for Happy Ice Cream. Brunner says the manufacturer makes “quality and handmade carts, with an old school vibe.” He selected it because he wanted to create something classic, retro—something you’re unlikely to see on the D.C. streets. “I like the simplicity of it,” he says. “You don’t see ice cream carts like this any more.”
But though his ice cream cart nods to his roots, Brunner also works to build connections in the D.C. food scene. Sometimes the cart is at an event or a pop-up, like at the Line Hotel, Bold Fork Books, or Sonny’s. “Getting out into the city, introducing other pockets of the city to the ice cream was always something we wanted to do,” he says. The cart will often visit D.C. restaurants where Brunner has a relationship with the staff. Usually businesses request that the cart visit, but sometimes Brunner reaches out to propose a pop-up. Marler says “it’s definitely a two-way road.” They bought an even tinier substitute cart to park on 17th Street NW when the bigger cart is out on the town.
“People stay at this restaurant a long time. They’re good people,” he says of Komi and Happy Gyro. “A lot of desserts that were on the Komi menu morphed into an ice cream flavor,” Brunner says.
During our conversation, Marler, who co-owns both Happy Gyro and Happy Ice Cream with her husband, Johnny Monis, brought samples of two flavors: olive oil with cocoa crumble—which Brunner says is “by far” his favorite—and strawberry, polenta, and buttermilk. He instructed me to try the olive oil first. It is perfect in the simple homemade vanilla kind of way but with a flavor punch and nuance, creamy and rich. The cookie crumble makes it approachable, and the drizzle of fresh olive oil adds depth.
I had to pause scarfing down the olive oil to try the strawberry before it melted too much in early June heat. It tasted like the shortcake bars of my childhood. Brunner says that was his inspiration.
Brunner leads ice cream flavor development, but he describes the ice cream making process as “super collaborative.” The Happy Gyro kitchen is tiny, so everyone pitches in on the Happy Ice Cream venture. “A lot of it is trial and error, seeing what sticks and what flavors work well together,” Brunner says. He is drawn to the eggier custard style ice cream which, he says, is “big in the midwest.” But when developing flavors for Happy Ice Cream, he chooses what is best for each individual flavor. “We let the ingredients sing,” he says.
The flavors “skew seasonal,” Brunner says. You won’t find strawberry ice cream out of strawberry season because, as he explains, “it’s just not as good.” Brunner sources a lot of his ingredients from local farms and farmers. During our interview, he wore a green hat with the words “Good Fortune Farm” printed on it. “That’s an old friend that works with us, Mike in Brandywine, Maryland,” he says. “We get a lot of our strawberries from there.”
The cart has only four scoop flavors available at a time, and they rotate daily. Marler says they usually have around 12 pint flavors available for sale, too. Pints are assembled in the small Happy Gyro kitchen, and are “thoughtfully layered” during the packaging process, Brunner says. Mix-ins get added between layers of ice cream (so, for instance, the flavor would be strawberry ice cream then the polenta mix-in added on top, under another layer of ice cream). He likes the “balance of ice cream and texture.”
Despite the cart’s limited size, Happy Ice Cream is not about to drop the cart to become a brick-and-mortar scoop shop (though pints are sold in the Happy Giro space when the cart isn’t out front). Brunner likes how approachable a cart is, and its mobility. He gets animated when he describes interacting with customers: “Being at the cart is a blast. The immediate reaction people have is amazing.”
Everyone I’ve encountered working at the cart is warm, recognizing me and my friends, chatting with customers about their babies or dogs. And despite its small scale, the cart serves a lot of people through the summer months. “On a busy and hot Saturday, 300 people can stop by the cart. It gets brutal under the sun, but the whole Komi team pitches in to scoop,” Brunner says. Happy Ice Cream’s cart runs in the spring, summer, and fall for scoops, when weather allows; a single is $6. They offer pints year round in Happy Gyro’s brick-and-mortar storefront. You’ll find the cart on 17th St. NW between P and Church streets NW Tuesday through Friday, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Saturday from 12:30 to 8:30 p.m., unless they run out of ice cream first. (Which, be advised, happens. Word to the wise: check their Instagram before going.)