Secrets of the Much-Imitated Breakfast

Not all of Humphry Slocombe’s flavors seem so weird after 10 years, but the Mission ice cream shop has shown true staying power — and they're throwing a big anniversary bash on Dec. 28.

“I remember being terrified,” Jake Godby recalls of the first day of Humphry Slocombe, the ice-cream shop he and cofounder Sean Vahey opened on Harrison Street in December 2008. “And I remember my mom calling a lot. We had, what, eight flavors?”

In those early days, the two of them worked every shift, open to close, six days a week, and they came in on Mondays to get other stuff done, too. They closed at 8 p.m., which feels almost bizarrely early considering that most people regard ice cream as dessert. But they just weren’t sure demand would be there. These days, some of Humphry Slocombe’s scoop shops, which now include locations in the Ferry Building, The Hive in Uptown Oakland, and Venice, now stay open as late as midnight. It wasn’t long, though, before Vahey and Godby hired a few staff, including one whose family lent the wall-mounted, two-headed calf that has become H.S.’s emblem. Another employee allegedly got the job because she kept Vahey’s drink replenished at their opening party.

“These girls are amazing,” Vahey says, only partly kidding. “But whoever keeps my Champagne full? That’s the one.”

Godby and Vahey were my bosses at my final back-of-house food position. I worked at Humphry Slocombe in the spring and summer of 2010, a heady period when The New York Times Magazine profiled the shop and the line could be 45 minutes long on a sunny day. As part of the vanguard of the foodie revolution, and with tens of thousands of Twitter followers almost right out of the gate, Humphry Slocombe and its puckish approach to a fairly staid dessert felt new and exciting. Remember when “Phish Food” seemed oh-so-radical? Instead, they have a tampon dispenser in the restroom, a faux-Warhol painting of soup cans that includes a “fetal kitten” flavor, and a brownie sundae topped with Balsamic Caramel ice cream, whipped cream, and amarena cherries that’s called a Gabba Gabba Hey.

Working there at that time was, to put it frankly, very difficult. Since ice cream needs to set in a blast freezer overnight, you effectively make tomorrow’s ice cream today, and nothing bummed me out quite like working without stopping for nine hours only to see the 12 flavors dwindle to eight, or even six. Perspiring heavily while making a tasty frozen treat was a perverse fact of life. I had a gross psychosomatic rash that looked like poison oak and would magically reappear on my right wrist within 10 minutes of entering the shop. (I have no food allergies that I’m aware of.) I love to cook, but it is not where my true talent lies.

And he denies it now, but at the time, Vahey suspected I might be behind a parody Twitter account that used the tagline “Edgy fuckin’ ice cream, bitches!” and sold flavors like Creole Blackened Peach Fuzz and Zebra Chorizo Pancake.

In the years since, Godby and Vahey have managed to delegate many of their original tasks. One of their major investors is Salt, the company that’s also involved with other late-aughts staples of S.F. dining, like Bacon Bacon.

“We just do what we’re good at,” Godby says. “I never have to deal with anything that’s an acronym again.”

“I still get in and scoop sometimes,” Vahey adds, “but I can’t ring anything up anymore.”

Remembering when their goals and ambitions were limited to “get it open, stay open, don’t cry,” they nonetheless have 75 employees now, many of whom are dedicated to packing pints and making cones. The best-selling flavor remains Secret Breakfast, a combination of toasted corn flakes and bourbon that is also a boon to the scoopers’ wrists, since the presence of alcohol means it never fully hardens. Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee remains a close second, and Malted Milk Chocolate isn’t far behind. (It’s difficult to make, but Chocolate Smoked Sea Salt was always my favorite flavor, and it’s usually found in pint form these days.)

Godby, whose last job before this was as a pastry chef at Coi, creates “90 percent” of the flavors himself, and some are more popular than others. The prosciutto ice cream that so repelled and attracted people way back when is more of a novelty than anything. It was always a struggle to get people interested in Salt & Pepper — which tastes fine enough on its own, but it’s strength is that it makes other flavors pop — and by Godby’s own admission, Brown Sugar Fennel could be described as “everybody who tastes it, loves it, but nobody wants to try it.” But others, like After School Special — chocolate-covered potato chips in vanilla ice cream, with a caramel ribbon, and originally only available at the now-defunct Valencia Street restaurant Spork — have thrived. A decade on, Humphry Slocombe is something of an O.G. player in what you might call “third-wave ice cream,” with more than a few imitators in other cities.

“There’s room for everyone,” Godby says, displaying a picture on his phone of an ice-cream shop in New York with an obvious Secret Breakfast knockoff. “But some people are a little more blatant about it. I feel like we were in front of a trend, and now people are following a trend.”

Ever the more extraverted of the two, Vahey adds, “It definitely feels like an honor to be listed up there with Bi-Rite.”

So if you ever stumble upon a boozy flavor called “Grandpa’s Breakfast” or “Breakfast of Champions,” you know where it came from. And for all the occasional hype, it is excellent ice cream — and they keep coming up with ideas. Harvey Milk (vanilla with honey and graham crackers) and an Earl-Grey-with-burnt-lemon flavor called Volta after the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name are also big, and along with many of the greatest hits they’ll be available all month in the run-up to the 10th anniversary, which culminates in a party on Friday, Dec. 28 from noon to midnight. The Mission shop will have free scoops — with a $1 suggested donation to the food-delivery nonprofit Project Open Hand — plus improved flavors like Government Cheez-It, a play on Jake’s pow-orange cheese ice cream, only with some enriched-flour Kellogg crackers in there. It’s part of a five-scoop “charcuterie board” for $7.50.

No matter what, it can’t freak people out more than the adorable, two-headed bovine monstrosity, which is still on loan from its original owners.

“I remember kids being startled and parents being like, ‘Don’t look!’ Then the kids are like, ‘Make me!’ I think we’re weirdos and it’s such a fun, weird thing to have.”

Humphry Slocombe’s 10th Anniversary Party, Friday, Dec. 28, noon-midnight, at 2790A Harrison St. Free, 415-550-5971 or humphryslocombe.com

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