Pursuing the perfect chocolate chip; Ice cream dessert corners the streets of New York

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Chipwich. "It's the street dessert of the year," according to Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times. And "the hottest item in New York this summer," in the opinion of the Daily News. The Chipwich has chocolate or vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies, the edge of which is covered by chocolate chips. It costs a dollar and has become a noontime staple for many New Yorkers.

Richard LaMotta, founder and inventor of the Chipwich and now chairman of the board, was a self-confessed "dunker" (of cookies in milk), obsessed with finding the perfect combination of chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. As he quickly discovered, it was not an easy job, as there are problems of melting ice cream, soggy cookies cyrstallization, and maintaining its freshness overnight. His search for the finest cookies, ice cream, and chips was to last 5 1/2 years.

Not that Mr. LaMotta needed to keep busy. He was an engineer for the early morning programs at CBS, was pursuing a law practice, and was a partner in an ice cream parlor in New Jersey. That parlor was to become his laboratory.

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When the then unnamed product made its debut there, Mr. LaMotta held a contest for its name. Six thousand children entered it, and two came up with the name Chipwich. The name stuck and was trademarked here and in 42 other countries.

The Chipwick took over 25 percent of the store's inventory. But the store could not live on Chipwiches alone and soon closed, leaving Mr. LaMotta with a tasty product but no one to eat it.

Mr. LaMotta then entered into an undisclosed contract with Quaker Oats, which producer Burry's cookies. The test marketing lasted two years and resulted in an offer to buy the product for almost a million dollars. Richard LaMotta said no. "I looked at it and said, it's not like writing a book which you can sell-cheap and then you write another. I'll never dream up another food product. It was my fantasy, so I'll see what I can do if I raise some money."

The Chipwich attack on New York City was carefully planned. Friends said it was the last place you should bring a new food item. But the LaMotta theory was that New York would indeed be the ultimate challenge and test, and -- he hoped -- the ultimate success.

"You know," Mr. LaMotta says, "If you have a new item you'll get a New Yorker one time. I'm a New Yorker and you'll get me once. If it's garbage, I'm not coming back. So I just put myself in the position of a buyer of my product. I'll make it pleasant, clean, and I'll get them the first time. It's a chic, sophisticated audience. You can't pull the wool over a New Yorker's eyes."

So Mr. LaMotta went for a classy look in a verding cart -- a cart that was "very different from anybody else's. The street debut of the Chipwich -- shinny carts, uniforms -- was costly but worth it.

The San Gennaro Street festival in September 1980 was a "monster success." Although the festival attracted a typical pastry-eating crowd, four vendors sold 16,000 pieces in 10 days. At the Third Avenue festival two carts sold 1,000 in one hour. At the Kentucky Derby, it was 20,000 pieces in four hours.

After the May 1 debut, "we became a soldout hit on the streets. We would sell out by 1 or 2 o'clock. Sold everything I could make in 24 hours."

National and international requests were also piling in -- everything from corporate office party orders to hotels and airlines. The Chipwich will be all over the United States in about 14 months. New York supermarkets will carry Chipwiches in packets of three this fall. Boston should see the Chipwich carts next spring, while warmer areas of the country will taste them sooner.

"It's not a matter of needing money," Mr. LaMotta says today. "We've been successful, we want to pick people who would keep the style and integrity of the product. That word integrity -- a lot of people have forgotten it."

The person-to-Chipwich contact is still made on the street by a group of singing, bell-ringing people who wear safari hats, aprons, and bow ties under a chocolate chip cookie umbrella.

"We hire maybe one applicant out of 20," Mr. LaMotta says. "We're looking for personality. Your size, shape, color, nothing matters except your personality and your willingness to want to go out there and hustle, work, and be personable. It's like a big family."

The day-to-day operation starts with groups of 15 salespeople meeting their managers in specially designated areas of the city. There they are given their cart and Chipwiches. Even their nails are checked. During the day, the manager allows them lunch and regular breaks. Later he makes sure that the cart is returned to the plant to be steamed out.

A lot of the Chipwich's success can be traced to LaMotta's childhood. "I remember when I was a kid -- the Chunky bar, they gave you a lot. I got my money's worth. the Haagen-Dazs quality of ice cream also inspired me. You eat a Chipwich and you know you've had something of quality. I could have saved a lot of money using emulsified and not imported chocolate chips and less than a quality bakery cookie, but I don't want my name associated with something that isn't quality.

"You want to believe that you are working hard and that you can get an opportunity, find a niche -- you can make it. In my case, it's sort of semiproof that it does happen."

Mr. LaMotta could now probably sit back in his niche and watch the world eat Chipwiches. But since he feels he has gotten a lot out of the system, he tries to give some of it back. Now that means listening to budding entrepreneurs and helping them along.

"Somebody may come to me with the weirdest idea in the world and I may not be interested, but boy I love to see that," he says. "I sit with him and say, Hey, did you ever think of this and this? I offer him whatever advice I can give him , or give him the righht direction. You've got to help other people go out there and do it.If you can lessen someone's heartaches in life just a little bit , then you've done something nice."

For enterprising business people, he offers some heartfelt advice:

"Do it, don't be afraid to give it your best shot. Don't be afraid of what the other people say as long as you can believe in your integrity. If you believe in what you have and can honestly say to yourself, I have something really fine, then get out there and believe it and sell it. And let your enthusiasm rub off on everybody you touch."

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