Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches’ eight-person female staff methodically moves through the process of making their daily inventory of 3,000 handmade ice cream sandwiches in the production space at Hatch Kitchen. “When we started, we would only make 100 a week, and that was so much,” says Hannah Pollack, laughing.
While working as executive chef at Greenleaf’s Pool Room, Pollack made an ice cream sandwich for dessert. Upon trying it, Meers immediately realized that that the sandwich, vanilla ice cream between two brownie cookies — now Nightingale’s “Classic” — had the potential to be more than a novelty treat and become a successful food product. “I knew from the moment I tried it,” he recalls. Pollack would return to her home kitchen after dinner service at Greenleaf’s and make as many ice cream sandwiches as she could, selling them to friends at other restaurants and markets. Between lunch and dinner shifts as executive chef at Brux’l Cafe, Meers would deliver them. They named their business Nightingale as an homage to its beginnings at Greenleaf’s: The pool hall is named for Ralph Greenleaf, a 20-time World Billiards Champion, and his wife, vaudeville actress Amelia Ruth Parker, was known as “The Oriental Nightingale.”
Pollack, 33, is the younger, slightly more serious half of Nightingale, a company she officially founded in 2016 with her husband, Brussels native Xavier Meers. The couple met while working together in the kitchen at the bygone Belle Vie restaurant in Midlothian, which Meers, 42, co-owned.
By November 2016, Pollack found herself physically unable to balance production and her full-time job, and after a nudge from the optimistic Meers, she quit Greenleaf’s to commit to Nightingale. Failure wasn’t an option. “Once you take that step, it scares you enough to where you think, ‘I have to make this work, there’s nothing to fall back on, no salary,’ ” Pollack says. “It was hard at first, but we wouldn’t be where we are if we were living both worlds.” Serendipitously, Performance Food Group, a Richmond-based food distributor, was looking to add local products to its lineup. Meers, a longstanding customer of PFG as a chef, had shared Nightingale’s sandwiches with a sales rep. Four months after Pollack left the restaurant world, Nightingale partnered with PFG for distribution — first in Virginia, then to the entire Mid-Atlantic region. They graduated to a commercial kitchen space at Westbury Pharmacy and began selling an average of 1,200 sandwiches a week to PFG. Today, their products, which include four signature flavors and a number of seasonal sandwiches, can be found in 12 states. For the last few years, they have worked to grow their business, collaborating on exclusive flavors with local breweries and restaurants. In the beginning of 2019, they became an anchor member of Hatch Kitchen, where they have a designated space and a large walk-in freezer constructed specifically for them. Now the charismatic Meers, who spent 25 years running restaurants and heading various kitchens, thrives as the face of the company at trade shows across the country. Pollack, who considers herself more introverted, has been pushed outside of her comfort zone by Nightingale’s quick growth. She’s no longer working 16-hour shifts making ice cream sandwiches and instead focuses on other facets of the business. “That was one thing, too, realizing that nobody is going to be like you or work like you,” Pollack says of the transition. “That’s one thing I would always struggle with, but you have to take a bit of a step back and realize what’s reasonable.” Although Nightingale is Richmond famous, and Pollack and Meers are local food celebrities, expanding outside the region and the state has had its challenges as they work to convince customers that their nostalgic, premium handmade treats, often made with local ingredients, are worth $4 per sandwich. “When we got further out, how hard of a push it was was surprising to us,” Pollack says. People would ask, “How much for an ice cream sandwich?” As demand has increased, they have invested in equipment to assist with production, transitioning from a KitchenAid ice cream maker to an industrial appliance, and from using an ice cream scoop and spatula to a recently purchased depositor and custom molds. In less than three years, Nightingale has grown from a culinary side project to a multistate operation eyeing half a million ice cream sandwiches sold this year. Meers and Pollack are working toward their goal of filling the cold cases at high-end markets and grocers across the country while holding onto their local Richmond roots. “I think the people involved with us strongly believe in us — they know the future can be something big and interesting,” Meers says. “You have to go and fight for it if you love it, and that’s what we do.”
Fat Banana: Peanut-butter cookie and banana ice cream dipped in chocolate
Classic: Chocolate brownie cookie and vanilla ice cream
Cookie Monster: Chocolate-chip cookie with cookies-and-cream ice cream
Chocolate Espresso: Chocolate brownie cookie with chocolate-espresso ice cream