Neuro-anatomy tells us that the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, is directly connected to the limbic system, triggering memories and emotions with great immediacy.
That’s why Proust’s tiny almond-scented sponge cake gave rise to seven volumes of “Remembrance of Things Past.”
And why the heady aroma of saffron, almonds, cardamom and hot milk brings Reza Bhiwandiwalla back to a kitchen in Mumbai, where, during Eid and other festivals, he would have a glass of badam milk made from almonds as a special treat when he was a child.
Bhiwandiwalla, 28, who has lived in Atlanta since he was 12, and his brother Rehan, 24, have long been hungry for the flavors and smells of their early childhood. Many of the 20,000 ethnic Indians in metro Atlanta feel the same way.
Catering to that nostalgic urge, the brothers founded Icecream Walla to offer a time-tripping taste of the past in the form of ice creams with flavors such as Fresh Strawberry Malai, Badam Milk and Heartbeet Rose Petal.
It’s an attempt to connect their Indian childhood with their Atlanta present and to offer their ethnic brothers and sisters a cool scoop of Mumbai in the new world.
When a customer has a taste of Badam Milk, “it should remind him of the time he was at his grandmother’s house at a party and she made him a glass,” said Reza.
Using milk from grass-fed Georgia cows, they churn their dense, high-fat, hand-packed ice cream at a small factory in a business park in Stone Mountain. Inside the rental warehouse they’ve built an improbable self-enclosed kitchen out of what look like oversized plastic Lego blocks.
After two years of development and a half-million-dollar investment, they’ve placed Icecream Walla in about 40 Indian grocery stores and a handful of restaurants in Atlanta, and at stores in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
The brothers, both trim, athletic and crowned with shocks of thick black hair, have the benefit of support from a family that has been in the food business for three generations.
In India their paternal grandmother’s family exported beef. Their father, Parvez Bhiwandiwalla, started his own food distribution network before moving the family to the U.S. for the educational opportunities. In Atlanta, Reza and Rehan attended North Atlanta High School and were fascinated with local TV chef Alton Brown and his show “Good Eats.”
While in business school at Emory University, Reza knew he was fated to produce something edible as a business opportunity. He tried a variety of products — coffee drinks, juice drinks, milk drinks. He liked dairy products, but the milk drinks from his youth have a short shelf life, while ice cream lasts a lot longer. With an additional degree in dairy science from Cornell University, Reza got down to business.
Though Reza is the big brother, he and Rehan share equally in the ice cream’s parent company, Orchard Foods. Reza says of Rehan, who commutes to Canada to complete his MBA at the University of Toronto, “it wouldn’t have happened without him.”
It’s a family effort to get the product launched. Reza’s new wife, Mehrin, a resident in internal medicine, works 60 hours a week as a doctor, but comes to the factory on weekends to help.
Reza and Rehan’s mother, Charmaine Bhiwandiwalla, keeps everyone fed and handles the books. Currently the extended family all lives in the same house in northwest Atlanta, even though the new couple have a home next door. “I told them, you stay with me,” said Charmaine. “Things will be taken care of.”
Coming up with flavors is also a democratic process. “India has 2,000 years of culinary history, including the influence of the Mongols and Iran,” said Reza. “There are a lot of flavors that have been perfected in that time,” in particular some flavors that Westerners will find unusual.
One of those flavors comes from rose syrup, used in a variety of Indian sweets. “It’s an acquired taste,” said Rehan. Too much of it makes some Westerners feel like they’re eating perfume.
For their Heartbeet Rose they include beets and rose petals, which gives the ice cream an earthiness that counterbalances the high, pungent taste of rose oil.
Mango Lassi ice cream is yogurt based but creamy and bright. Strawberry Malai sparkles with the tart essence of fresh berries.
The brothers are also working on a new flavor, Cadbury’s Bournvita, based on a powdered chocolate milk flavoring well-loved in India. Typically, a few chunks of the undissolved mix settles in the bottom of the glass. The Walla version is an ice cream studded with those small exploding chocolate bombs, moist on the outside and still powdery on the inside.
Next year the brothers hope Icecream Walla will be available in 30 cities. But they’ve got some challenges ahead.
Right now their Italian batch-freezer cranks out about 300-500 gallons a day. To fulfill the coming orders they will soon need another freezer and a bigger factory.
And they will have to survive the dangers facing every small start-up.
Making a pricey, premium ice cream (at $5.99 a pint) is a “wire-walker sort of thing,” a dangerous balancing act, according to Keith Schroeder, founder of High Road Craft Ice Cream in Marietta. “I don’t know the specific data figures, but my presumption is that most fail,” he said. “In fact, it sort of makes me wonder what we’re doing here.”
But like High Road, Icecream Walla is blessed with creative flavors and great attention to detail.
“What I love about their product is how instantly Indian and nostalgic the ice cream and the flavors are, yet how approachable it is to an American palate,” chef Meherwan Irani of Decatur’s Chai Pani told Eater Atlanta, in an article about Icecream Walla.
For now, the business is still tiny. They drive their own refrigerated truck to make deliveries in Atlanta, placing proprietary freezers in restaurants, emblazoned with their logo, an Indian-style pedal-cart, accompanied by their name in Bollywood lettering. But they are determined to maintain quality control as the company grows.
“It’s doesn’t feel like a job,” said Reza. “It feels more like a mission.”