On a sweltering July day last summer, a customer made a remark to Ashley Dow that fundamentally changed the course of Sticky Sweet, the business she founded in January 2017 with her sister, Kelley Dow. The pair had spent the previous six months selling Thai-style sticky rice in three flavors from a stall in the Public Market House in downtown Portland. Then the heat hit.

“A customer made a comment about how she wished that she could top her sticky rice with a scoop of ice cream on a day as hot as that one,” Ashley recalled. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I bet I can make really good vegan ice cream.'”

Her instinct was spot on.

The Dow sisters whipped up a few batches of what they called sea salted maple to run as a special over the weekend. The dairy-free ice cream contained six mostly organic ingredients: coconut milk, cashews, Maine maple sugar, coconut sugar, coconut oil and Maine sea salt.

“People went crazy for it,” said Kelley. “And those who had tried our ice cream that weekend ended up telling everyone they knew. Before we knew it, people were coming into the Market House looking for the vegan ice cream.”

Ashley said the demand was too big to ignore, causing Sticky Sweet to pivot from sticky rice to vegan ice cream (which Sticky Sweet calls a “frozen plant-based treat.”)

“People just kept asking for it,” Ashley said, “and everyone who tried it was blown away by the fact that it was vegan.”

Soon they created new flavors (local roasted latte; chocolate nutter butter; mint chunky chip), added gluten-free cones and began selling pints in local stores. These days the Dow sisters are working overtime to fill orders for the Portland Food Co-op, Lois’ Natural Market Marketplace in Portland and Scarborough, Frinklepod Farm in Arundel, Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick, and Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport.

Kelley Dow, left, and Ashley Dow founded the Sticky Sweet vegan ice cream brand last year. Kelley’s cone is mint chunky chip and Ashley’s is double dark chocolate. Photo courtesy of Sticky Sweet

According to the Portland Food Co-op’s grocery manager Megan Banner Sutherland, the Sticky Sweet ice cream in the freezer case has brought in new customers who are looking for the frozen treat, which sells for $10.79 a pint.

“They deliver 30 pints on Tuesday, and it sells out by Thursday,” said Sutherland, who has tried to order more, but Sticky Sweet cannot supply additional pints for now. “It’s our number one selling item in the freezer.”

To keep pace with the surging demand, Sticky Sweet has closed its Public Market House stall, and the sisters are readying a scoop shop and production space at 119 Cumberland Ave., near Washington Avenue’s restaurant row.

The success of Sticky Sweet reflects a wider interest in the ice cream market in plant-based flavors. Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, Breyers and Halo Top have all added vegan lines in the past two years.

In May, Whole Foods Market launched a line of vegan ice creams under its house brand, 365 Everyday Value. Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s has been selling its own vegan ice cream pints for years. These new pints join established plant-based brands such as So Delicious, Coconut Bliss and NadaMoo! in the freezer case.

The price of vegan pints is comparable to that of other premium ice creams, with those that contain organic ingredients commanding the highest prices. While Halo Top charges the same amount for its vegan and cow’s milks ice creams, Ben & Jerry’s charges $1 more for its vegan pints.

Demand for plant-based ice cream is poised for further growth. A report from Future Market Insights predicts the plant-based ice cream market will expand at an annual growth rate of 9.3 percent through 2027.

Another local company positioned to benefit from the rising demand for plant-based ice cream is Rosanna’s in Portland. Rosanna’s delivers ice cream Wednesday through Sunday nights to addresses in Portland and South Portland. Last summer, Rosanna’s added vegan flavors made with coconut milk. Rosanna’s owner Salli Wason recently opened a temporary pint shop at 953 Congress St. (near Union Station Plaza) while she looks for a permanent scoop shop location.

Vegan raspberry fudge ripple is one of the plant-based flavors offered by Rosanna’s, which makes home deliveries in Portland and South Portland. Photo courtesy of Rosanna's Ice Cream

“I’ve definitely seen an increase in my vegan sales,” said Wason, who estimated plant-based pints make up 20 percent of her business. “People’s food sensitivities are increasing really fast in this country. And there’s more of a vegan contingent than there used to be.”

Rosanna’s pints (both vegan and non-vegan) cost $8.99 each with a minimum order of $12 for delivery.

Wason said she also has customers who eat dairy but will order vegan pints because they want a flavor that’s only available in the vegan line, such as horchata, fudge ripple or blueberry Oreo. Her customers know “vegan stuff done well can be just as good” as the alternative, Wason said.

Brunswick-based sauce maker MaineFlavor started selling vegan ice cream last summer and has seen demand grow. Made with organic nut milks from The Whole Almond and its own artisanal sauces, MaineFlavor vegan ice cream varieties include vanilla bean-cashew; spiced cashew-agave with intense cider swirl; and roasted rocky road almond with chocolate chips and vegan marshmallow bits.

Over the winter, owner Susan Purcell sold the ice cream at the indoor Brunswick Winter Farmers Market. This summer, she’s been setting up the MaineFlavor cart behind the Freeport Historical Society during warm days and when L.L. Bean is hosting a concert.

The MaineFlavor half-pints are also sold at Morning Glory Natural Foods, Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta and Handy’s in Yarmouth. The suggested retail price is $6 for a half-pint. Purcell said she’s had interest from other retailers and is ramping up production to take on new accounts while keeping up with expanding orders from the three stores she already supplies.

“There are a lot of people who are becoming dairy wary,” Purcell said. “It’s not like they’re allergic or made a big commitment (to avoid dairy), but they’re thinking they should do less dairy or choose a vegan alternative as long as it doesn’t compromise enjoyment.”

Here in Maine, we’re lucky to have multiple ice cream makers who know how to make dairy-free into a decadent, craveable treat.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila

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