A Little Word With Gabe Wolff – Tip Us The Wink
“I started daydreaming,” Gabriel Wolff tells me over a bottle of Honest Tea. The organic eatery we’re meeting in used to have an extensive menu of hot teas and espresso beverages, but they have since replaced it with a juice bar. It’s a cool New York evening and neither of us are interested in a whey protein green smoothie.
Just a few weeks earlier, I first met Gabe at the NYC Launch Party to raise money for Celiac Disease Center in Chicago.
Gabe, like many of the people I spoke with that night, has Celiac disease. He also has a dairy allergy, but that didn’t stop him from launching his own ice cream company.
Not what you expected, right?
Before the NYC Launch Party, I had never heard of Wink Frozen Desserts – the line of Top 8 Free, sugar-free, and fat-free ice creams Gabe developed in his dorm room at McGill University. One spoonful was all I needed to realize that Gabe had hit on something truly spectacular.
I ask Gabe where his idea for Wink started, and it’s just as surprising as his chosen profession.
“Food is kind of where my heart is,” he says. “I [grew up] on a steady diet of milanos and oreos.”
This, coming from the guy who is turning out allergen-free ice cream that totals only 100 calories per pint. That means a generous 1/2 cup serving is only 25 calories.
Of course, his family food history doesn’t end there. “[Our home] was filled with gluten and dairy,” Gabe emphasizes, noting that it wasn’t until his brother was diagnosed with Celiac disease that things started to change. A few years later, Gabe realized that he was also struggling with the rich, processed diet of his childhood. “I knew what the symptoms [of Celiac] were ahead of time [because of my brother]” and at 17, he was diagnosed with the same condition.
On top of that came the diagnosis of his dairy intolerance. In the year before college, Gabe’s diet changed dramatically. And it didn’t get any easier when he moved to Quebec to attend McGill.
You can only get by on grilled chicken Caesar salads, no dressing, no croutons, no cheese, for so long, Gabe remarks dryly. In Quebec, as an active McGill athlete, he quickly discovered that he had to prepare his own meals ahead of time in order to eat anything at all.
“Gluten-free [and] dairy-free foods in Quebec,” Gabe recalls, “were not easy to come by.” And when it came to sweets, the options were almost nonexistent.
Surrounded by fatty coconut ice creams, unappealing soy treats, and products loaded with artificial sweeteners and additives, Gabe felt deprived. “I thought, there has to be a better way to do this.”
Enter, Wink. After much experimentation, Gabe finally found the right combination of natural ingredients to create a healthy dessert everyone can enjoy. From his sister-in-law, who lives with Type 1 Diabetes, to his mother (whose struggles with her weight led her to have gastric bypass surgery) to he and his brother; Wink Frozen Desserts could satisfy all of their sweet tooths, despite the wide range of dietary restrictions.
Despite a strong reaction to the product, it hasn’t been easy for Gabe to get Wink to the public. “Imagine,” he says, “me, making ice cream in the basement of a Mexican restaurant.” Strange working conditions didn’t keep Gabe from building a loyal following. And before long, he was able to move out of the Mexican restaurant and into his own Connecticut-based factory. He’s not spending long hours in a cramped basement kitchen, surrounded by the oppressive smell of corn tortillas wafting, earthbound, from the restaurant above. But Gabe is still the sole person mixing batches of ice cream base for Wink. It’s a responsibility he has yet to trust to another person.
While the brand is still small, Gabe is already looking to expand his operation. “We definitely want to do other desserts,” Gabe tells me, conjuring images of classic ice cream-truck confections. “Hypo-allergenic ice cream novelty,” he calls it, describing Top 8 Free ice cream sandwiches and King Cones with no dairy or sugar.
“It’s a treat for everyone,” Gabe reiterates, and it’s clear that inside every pint of Wink is Gabe’s love for food, and his family. Creating a dessert they could all enjoy together was, after all, the motivating factor that followed him from New York to Canada, to the belly of a Mexican restaurant, and now – finally – his own New England headquarters. “[My] mission [is] to make ice cream and dessert guilt free and accessible for all, no matter the dietary restriction,” Gabe states.
After we met, Gabe sent the LWB office (my kitchen) a pretty spectacular treat. Encased in a Styrofoam cooler and a block of dry ice were five pints of Wink Frozen Dessert – one in each flavor. I sampled them for myself, and was instantly reminded why I had loved the treat the first time I tried it. Perfectly sweet, without any guilt, and as light as it is satisfying.
The Wink-consumer is a specialty niche in the organic crowd; the people who want to eat natural but, as Gabe describes it, are “allergic to X, Y, and Z.”
“People who buy our product don’t buy Haagan Dazs,” Wolff asserted, noting that there is just no way to get actual cookie dough into their Cocoa Dough ice cream. “It used to be Cookies and Cream,” he reveals. But the backlash from consumers who couldn’t find cookie bites in their frozen treat inspired Gabe and his team to change their game. “We [need to] manage peoples’ expectations.”
I decided that Wink was up for a true test. During my intimate Friends-giving feast, I brought out all five pints of Gabe’s frozen dessert for a trial from a particularly discerning panel. With no food allergies or diets of which to speak and, having just had their fill of pumpkin pie, I knew my friends would give the healthy treat an honest evaluation.
No one at the LWB round table thought Wink would stand up next to a pint of Ben & Jerry’s fish food or a scoop of handcrafted Italian gelato.
But like Gabe said, that’s not the point.
After a few bites, the lovely LWB taste-test team let down their old expectations and admitted that for 25 calories, this was a tasty and refreshing sweet that they wouldn’t feel the least bit bad about eating it every night. And then they went back for more.
Of the five classic flavors, Cake Batter was definitely the sweetest – and the favorite of the group – with Cinnamon Bun coming in at a close second.
The panel also agreed that Strawberry Shortcake would be a strong addition to the Wink lineup.
“Why’s it called Wink?” One of my panelists asked.
I took my spoon to one of the containers, and carved a wink into the top of the ice cream. I am doing my best to recall Gabe’s telling of the tale – the time he had sat around a McGill dorm room eating Wink with his friends, and someone had drawn a smiling face into their ice cream.
It’s like taking a bite out of a little secret, I tell my friends. It’s like you’re eating ice cream, only it has no sugar and no fat and practically no calories. It’s a “between you and me,” thing.
And between you and me, it’s a secret worth sharing. If you don’t see this adorable treat in your grocer’s freezer, tuck this little note in between the countless rows of Ben & Jerry’s and Haagan Dazs and keep your fingers crossed!
Thank you, to Gabe, for taking the time to sit with me and chat, and to the entire Wink team, for one of the sweetest bites I’ve had in a long time.
Until next time,