by Stacey Wilson '96
At first it may seem a stretch that once-aspiring physical therapist Lisa Herlinger is now Portland’s premier purveyor of all-natural ice cream sandwiches. But who better than an exercise science major to design, develop, and sell calories—which are, after all, just harmless units of measurement—in such wonderfully delicious packages?
“I also have always loved food and the restaurant culture,” says Herlinger, “so I really wanted to figure out what I could do to combine all of these things.”
Seeking inspiration, Herlinger moved to Colorado after graduation and dabbled in catering and health-food retail before ultimately attending the Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Steamboat Springs. After a six-month internship at Oregon’s Sunriver Resort in 2001, Herlinger moved to Portland and worked as a cook at various restaurants and catered in her spare time.
But it was a trip to California in 2003 that ultimately brought fate and food together for her. “I was there for three months hanging out with UPS friends and cooking and catering,” she says. “I went to an ice cream sandwich shop in L.A. and there was a line around the block. It dawned on me that there really weren’t any good, natural ice cream sandwiches available in the Northwest. As someone who’s always loved ice cream, I was totally inspired.”
Back in Portland, Herlinger brushed up on her business acumen by taking a “Food Business 101” course and began experimenting with ice cream sandwich recipes after-hours in the kitchen of a café where she worked as a day cook. In the meantime she spent a lot of time in the freezer section in local grocery stores. “I was totally obsessed with seeing what ice cream sandwiches they had,” she says. “Everywhere I went it was mostly those old, sticky sandwiches with the wax paper that taste like freezer burn. They are nasty!”
After getting rave reviews from friends for her first two recipes (lemon cookie with honey lavender ice cream; dark chocolate cookie with fresh Oregon-grown mint ice cream), Herlinger decided to try selling the $3 treats at farmers markets in Portland where all-natural, all-local, and hormone-free dairy desserts were both in fashion and in high-demand. She named her treats “Ruby Jewel” after her favorite lake in Colorado’s Never Summer Wilderness area.
By November of 2004, Herlinger was poised to enter Portland’s first-ever “American Food Fight” at the city’s Food Innovation Center. For this venture, Herlinger enlisted friends Mike Smith ’95 and Josh Hindson ’95 to help her develop a business plan and to design Ruby Jewel’s eye-catching graphics, which appear on the sandwich packaging and her signature pink T-shirts (The shirts and sandwiches are available online at www.rubyjewel.com). Out of 87 aspiring entrepreneurs, Herlinger was awarded $2,500 worth of product-development services.
As her treats fly off the shelves of 12 Portland-area natural food stores, the buzz around Herlinger’s enterprise continues to grow. Already receiving steady press in papers such as The Oregonian and Willamette Week, Herlinger earned a coveted profile on the Food Network program “Recipe for Success” last December.
To keep up with increasing demand, Herlinger now has a commercial kitchen facility in north Portland, one very busy full-time employee, four new flavors in the works, and plans to continue expanding her dairy empire northward and beyond. “I told all my UPS friends in Seattle, which is a big group, to call Whole Foods up there and request that they stock Ruby Jewel Treats,” says Herlinger. “I talked to the manager recently and he said they can barely keep the sandwiches stocked. I pretended to be shocked and said, ‘No way, that’s amazing! How did that happen?’”