Vaca’s Creamery, Chicago’s first vegan ice cream shop, is set to open a second location after a successful launch of their Noble Square walk-up location in 2021. The new parlor will open early next year in Lincoln Square on Lincoln Avenue between Lawrence and Leland where European bakeries and historic apothecaries easily coexist with fun general stores and indy book shops. It only makes sense that with this fiercely local, friendly strip, a vegan ice cream shop would be a fitting addition to the plaza.
The dream of Vaca’s Creamery first started in Austin, Texas where the owners Mariana Marinho and Dylan Sutcliff worked together at Sweet Ritual, a now-shuttered vegan ice cream shop, that built up a large following. After starting a gluten-free and vegan waffle cone business in Texas, the pair moved to Chicago during the early days of the pandemic to open a shop featuring desserts. “Chicago is the prototypical city for me,” says Sutcliff, who grew up about 50 miles west of the city in Yorkville. Traveling through the U.S. and abroad, he feels most at home in the Midwest.
When Vaca’s opened in May 2021 on a quiet residential street, few understood the market for vegan ice cream. That gave Vaca’s something to prove, and word of mouth produced long lines during summer months. Vaca’s was the unexpected hit Chicago didn’t see coming.
Marinho and Sutcliff saved money and researched for the best opportunity before they settled upon the idea of an ice cream shop featuring soft-serve made with a base of oat milk. “Vaca” means cow in Portugese, a nod to Brazilian-born Marinho’s native language: The owners’ vision was an ice cream shop where dairy cows are not harmed or exploited with the products sold.
Marinho, the chef, says that their new shop will feature soft-serve vanilla, chocolate, swirl, and seasonal varieties like the original location but also additional unique flavors with a dedicated machine just for taking pints home. Most items are also gluten-free. Cups, cones, sundaes, shakes with mix-ins (like cookie dough made by Avondale’s You’re a Cookie and peanut butter caramel sauce), and a wide selection of drinks will also be on the new menu. Most important to those who like ice cream but not shivering outside with it in the cold weather, the new location will have indoor seating for 12 to 16 people. Expanding from a 400-square-foot kitchen to a 1,000-square-foot space, formerly a Paciugo Gelato location, will create a lot more room for Vaca’s Creamery to bake and offer vegan and gluten-free pastries.
“We are hoping to create a cozy environment that feels like a nice destination for dessert or a coffee date on a cold day,” says Marinho, acknowledging that ice cream shops face business challenges during Chicago’s colder months. “Honestly, we are still figuring that out. It seems like it’s important to keep customers interested with new products, flavors, and warm things.”
A focus on ingredient quality, sourcing from vetted slavery-free businesses (slavery has plagued the chocolate industry), prioritizing compostable packaging, products from local businesses, and paying employees a living wage rather than relying on tipping means Vaca’s ice cream costs more than its competition. Vaca’s tries to keep their baked goods and coffee menu competitively priced.
But Marinho and Sutcliff are committed to maintaining ethical standards and say that customers appreciate the values of the shop. None of that means much, though, if the product isn’t quality, though, and as committed as the owners are to their ethics, they also want this to be soft-serve that has no compromise in flavor or texture. A second location shows that the gamble of opening a vegan soft-serve shop in a city known for long and cold winters may be paying off.
“It seems like vegans and people with allergies quickly spread the word to their omni friends because more and more, we hear people saying that they aren’t vegan or anything, they just love our ice cream,” Sutcliff says.
Vaca’s Creamery, 2324 W. Giddings Street, planned for a February opening