Nearly three years ago, brothers Leo San Luis and Paolo San Luis had a whimsical idea to escape the monotony of their 9-to-5 day day jobs and embark on opening a dessert shop with an ethnic twist.
And so it went: Leo left his job as a dental manager and Paolo quit working at a boba tea shop. Just six months later, Vampire Penguin, a trendy shaved snow shop, was born.
Vampire Penguin, which now boasts five Sacramento area locations, offers an eclectic menu of “shaved snow” – their take on the traditional Taiwanese frozen treat xue hua bing, or “snow ice.”
Before opening in 2013, Leo San Luis traveled to Taiwan to sample the dessert, which is traditionally served as a mound of flavored ice shavings topped with flavored syrups, condensed milk, fresh fruit, red adzuki beans and tapioca balls.
“I found Taiwanese snow ice to be a bit too hard and icy,” San Luis said. “I decided to make our product lighter, more airy – like biting into fresh, powdery snowfall.”
The brothers also hoped to present their customers with a wider selection of flavor combinations, offering ice flavors like cookies and cream and taro, and toppings including granola and jackfruit.
“When people first try Vampire Penguin, they get really thrown off,” San Luis said. “They usually have an idea of what shaved ice is, but what we’ve created is something that’s truly in a category of its own.”
At first, the brothers were apprehensive about how their product would be received by locals. Although shaved snow joints were popping up (and taking off) around the Bay Area, Sacramento was still relatively unfamiliar with the Taiwanese dessert, Leo San Luis said.
“We decided to play it safe, so we opened our first shop in the Little Saigon area,” San Luis said. “We knew the community there would be familiar with our product, and we’d have an existing customer base from Day One.”
The new addition to the community was received with enthusiasm from people of all backgrounds and quickly took off, San Luis said.
What has made Vampire Penguin so successful, he believes, is how gracefully their menu fuses the familiar with the unfamiliar.
“What we try to do with our shaved snow is to ignite a memory of something (the customer) once tasted, reconnect them with something familiar – then, we put our own unique twist on it,” he said.
The restaurant’s No. 1 seller, the strawberry cheesecake shaved snow, is made from a base of strawberry and vanilla shaved ice, then piled high with graham cracker crumbles, strawberries and raspberries. Finally, it’s drizzled with white chocolate, condensed milk and strawberry sauce.
“The strawberry cheesecake (shaved snow) really captures the idea of reconstructing a popular dessert, an American classic and putting new life into it,” San Luis said.
The brothers have made it a priority to reflect many cultures throughout their menu. For example, the Mexican candy shaved snow – which combines mango flavored ice with fresh fruit, chili powder and chamoy sauce – is reminiscent of mango con chile, a traditional Hispanic treat.
Within the next year, the San Luis brothers also plan to release several culturally diverse items, including penguin puffs, a take on Hong Kong egg waffles, and an entire menu of milk tea “potions.”
“What really sets us apart from our competition is that we focus on diversity,” Leo San Luis said. “A lot of the existing shaved snow shops target just one demographic, but we are influencing more than just one area of the population. It’s been our goal to consider everybody, to have something to offer every single customer.”
The San Luis brothers – Vampire Penguin shaved snow
What’s so special: It’s a fluffy, flavorful take on the beloved ballpark snow cone. Vampire Penguin ditches the syrups that tend to sink to the bottom of the dish, and instead shave each snow dish from a block of pre-flavored ice. The dessert is then garnished with an array of toppings, such as kiwi, lychee, caramel sauce, brownie bites, almonds and rainbow sprinkles.
The local connection: The chain – which now spans as far west as San Mateo and as far east as Reno – opened their first shop in south Sacramento in October 2013. Vampire Penguin operates five Sacramento area locations: in the Little Saigon neighborhood, downtown, Natomas, Elk Grove and Rocklin. They hope to soon reopen in Davis, according to co-founder Leo San Luis.
Expectations: The San Luis brothers plan to keep expanding. They hope to add a variety of culturally diverse items to their menu – many of which are outside of the bounds of shaved snow. According to Leo San Luis, the dream is to open a location in Las Vegas, where they would offer an exclusive menu of alcoholic shaved snow dishes.
Quote: “I think what’s particularly special about Vampire Penguin is we welcome creativity. We want to be involved in the community in terms of arts, music and culture just as much as we want to reflect creativity in our dessert. Our menu has personality, and each store has its own personality as well.”
Leo San Luis of Vampire Penguin