Emma Taylor, owner of Milk Sugar Love in Jersey City, has been passionate about ice cream since she was a little girl. Like most New Jersey natives, her summers were spent down the Shore where she soaked up the sun, wiggled her toes in the sand, and enjoyed copious amounts of Kohr Brothers soft serve. It was these cherished childhood memories that inspired her to quit her job, go back to school, and eventually open Milk Sugar Love in 2013—an artisanal ice cream shop.
Nestled in a small storefront in Hamilton Park, the first Milk Sugar Love location opened with the hope of bringing locally sourced, organic ice cream to the citizens of Historic Downtown JC. For three years, Taylor churned out her unique takes on classic ice cream favorites in the tiny back kitchen of the parlor. By partnering with local farmers, bakers, and coffee shops, Taylor began to craft one-of-a-kind flavors such as raspberry rose, carrot cake, and sour cream fig. With crowds of customers regularly gathering to try her bold sweet treats, Taylor realized that Milk Sugar Love was quickly outgrowing its little shop on McWilliams Place.
Since establishing Milk Sugar Love, Taylor has owned and operated her own food truck and in 2019, she took the opportunity to open a second store in the Jersey City Heights neighborhood. While her beloved food truck has since been retired, patrons come in droves to visit both Milk Sugar Love locations to satisfy their sweet tooth. I recently spoke with Taylor, who detailed her exciting journey from art director to chef-owner of her business. She also shared where she draws inspiration for her eccentric flavors, what the future of Milk Sugar Love looks like to her, and much more!
1. What made you want to resign from your art director position at Condé Nast and pursue a pastry degree? After graduating, what inspired you to open your own ice cream shop?
I loved graphic design and art directing, but I definitely didn’t love working in a corporate environment. I felt so weighed down creatively with the touch-bases and reports and sign-offs. So I explored my options, taking as many classes in as many fields as I possibly could. I ended up in a pie baking course at ICE in New York and everything finally felt right. It wasn’t the pie, it was the kitchen. I loved working in a tight-knit team, being constantly in motion, working to move my body a little more efficiently with every task. I loved the way that making food brought immediate connection with the person enjoying the food. It was incredibly satisfying.
After I graduated, I worked at Gramercy Tavern for almost two years, building skills and dreaming about opening my own business. I grew up going to Ocean City, NJ almost every summer and I have the best memories of sand, sun, and Kohr Brothers soft serve on the boardwalk. Plus, my birthday is in June and I always had an ice cream cake growing up. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make ice cream in my home state, to open a modern ice cream shop with flavors inspired by my love of travel and restaurant experience.
2. You opened the first Milk Sugar Love location in Hamilton Park in 2013 and started your own ice cream truck after winning the grant contest in 2016. Why did you decide to open a second location and give up the truck? What was this transition from one stationary location and a mobile vendor to two physical stores like?
I decided to sell the truck because operating two stores and a truck was simply too much for me. I was never able to find someone I could trust to drive the truck so it ended up being me taking on that work. Operating the truck was a truly humbling experience because outdoor vending is so very hard—early mornings, late nights, long lines, brutal weather. But I made some ride-or-die friends during the years and I am so grateful for the experience. Also, without the truck, I never would have been able to save up the money I needed to open a second store.
Opening a second store has been more challenging than I could ever have imagined. It was my first time managing a demo and build out from scratch and I learned so much through those six months. (The shop in The Heights used to be a pawn shop and was covered floor to ceiling inside with metal that had to be welded off!) I’ve grown so much in my ability to trust and delegate. I simply can’t do it all anymore and having the right team in place is absolutely essential.
3. On your website, it says that your love of travel and experience working in restaurants influences your ice cream flavors. With traveling being put on pause recently, where have you been drawing your inspiration from?
I miss traveling so much right now! When I did travel, I was planning trips around what I wanted to eat and where, going someplace new every time. Since I’m not traveling right now, it’s so great to live in such a diverse city; my team and I are always talking about the foods we grew up with and what they would taste like as ice cream.
4. At Milk Sugar Love, you offer a variety of ice creams, baked goods, and coffee to your customers. What made you decide to use organic, locally-sourced ingredients for your ice cream? Do the ingredients used in your pastries and the coffee you serve also come from local vendors?
Making food from scratch, using only simple, high-quality, locally sourced ingredients is at the core of my business because I believe that small businesses can make their communities stronger and more sustainable by hiring and sourcing locally. Our fruits, vegetables, and honey come from farmers I originally met when I was only vending at farmer’s markets with the cart in Jersey City and Hoboken. Our coffee comes from Parlor Coffee in Brooklyn.
5. How long does it usually take to create a new flavor and what’s the process like? I’d imagine some batches don’t come out as well as you’d like the first time around.
I make two new flavors every Friday, just in time for the weekend. I plan out a month of flavors at a time so I can make sure I can get all the ingredients I need in time to run the flavor. It also gives me time to work on collaborative flavors with other small businesses. This past Friday we made a Maple ‘Nola Latte (think flavors of maple syrup, brown sugar, and chicory) based on a coffee drink from my favorite coffee shop in Jersey City, Treehouse Coffee. Now and then some flavors just don’t end up coming together, but I’ve found all the advance planning I do gives me the time I need to work everything out.
6. All those delicious flavors must be tempting! What flavor has been a customer favorite? Do you have a favorite on the menu?
Carmen Rosa’s Dominican Cake is hands down the biggest customer favorite and no, it is not permanently on our menu. We work with Carmen Rosa’s Bakery on Coles Street to make this flavor. They make the cake, we make the ice cream, the guava jam, and the miniature meringues. Carmen Rosa’s Dominican cake is also my favorite flavor because I first made it four years ago specifically for my birthday.
7. Since opening Milk Sugar Love, what has been one of your favorite memories you’ve made or interactions you’ve had with a customer?
A favorite memory was definitely the ribbon cutting for the second store. Everything went wrong the morning of—a freezer stopped working, PSEG cut power to the building, I forgot the actual ribbon for the ribbon cutting at home. But as the mayor was lining everyone up to start, my friend and fellow small business owner, Debbie of MutleyCru Dog Play, showed up with my dog and he got to be in the ribbon-cutting pictures too.
8. 2020 was an extremely difficult year for everyone. What has it been like being a small-business owner during the pandemic? What’s been the response from the Jersey City community?
This past year was an all-out fight to stay in business. I closed both shops to the public, built out our online ordering platform on our website, and filled pickup and delivery orders from our walk-up windows. It was such a drastic change because the best part of going out to get ice cream is seeing its beautiful colors and textures in the dipping cabinet and getting to taste it before you make your decision. I can’t wait until our guests can experience that again. The community has stuck with us through all the changes though and I am humbled by all the kind words and support on social media Milk Sugar Love has received this year.
9. In 2021, Milk Sugar Love will celebrate its eighth year of serving special sweet treats to the JC community. What does the future of Milk Sugar Love look like to you?
I am so grateful we’ve made it through this past year and I am looking forward to as much recovery, rebuilding, and rest as I can get before the summer gets here. As for the future, expanding production capabilities is definitely the first priority. I still can’t believe we manage to make enough ice cream for both stores out of our tiny kitchen at Hamilton Park!
Main image by Evan Sung