Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: ‘Shaved snow’ outlets opening in a flurry

Sacramento-based Vampire Penguin hopes that its “shaved snow” treats become a defining product in the frozen dessert market.
Sacramento-based Vampire Penguin hopes that its “shaved snow” treats become a defining product in the frozen dessert market.

If the San Luis brothers have their way, Vampire Penguin will be to shaved snow what the beloved Icee bear is to frozen slushees.

Vampire Penguin, which opened on Halloween 2013 as a stand-alone shop on Stockton Boulevard, is undergoing a rapid expansion with its icy treats. Two new locations have opened around the Sacramento area in the past two weeks: a shop at Ninth and J streets in Sacramento, and another in downtown Davis. An Elk Grove location of Vampire Penguin is expected to open before 2015 arrives. Berkeley will get its bite of the Vampire Penguin in February.

That’s five Vampire Penguin shops on track to open within a year and a half. Paolo San Luis and his brother Leo, who co-founded Vampire Penguin, are banking that their cool treats will become a hot product in California and beyond. The ultimate goal: a licensing deal to establish their brand on the biggest possible scale, with proprietary ingredients and methods that can easily be used for franchising.

Paolo San Luis talks about Vampire Penguin’s proprietary “shaved snow” like he’s about to make a pitch on TV’s “Shark Tank.”

“In a romantic sense, we want to brand shaved ice,” said San Luis. “Vampire Penguin will be associated with shaved snow, like how Starbucks is dominant in the coffee industry. We want to create our own category in desserts besides (frozen) yogurt and ice cream.”

The San Luises know that sweet, icy treats are a universally beloved confection, whether it’s the customary snow cone after a Little League game or a sip of Slurpee on a scorching day.

Cultures around the world have their own spins on shaved ice. In Hawaii, “shave ice” has a snowy consistency, unlike the rougher texture of snow cones made of crushed ice, and sometimes comes loaded with a scoop of azuki beans or ice cream. The Philippines have halo halo, which combines shaved ice with evaporated milk and colorful toppings of fruits, tapioca balls and more. In Italy, it’s the sorbet-like “water ice.”

Vampire Penguin takes a Taiwanese approach, a la xue hua bing. Instead of starting with plain ol’ ice, the process begins with an ice cream-like blend of fruit concentrates and non-dairy cream, which is shaved into fine, fluffy ribbons. Toppings might include fresh fruit, drizzles of chocolate or strawberry syrup, almond slices and even gummy worms.

“We took inspiration from each culture that’s doing shaved ice and brought it to Vampire Penguin,” said San Luis. “But when you shave it, it has the consistency of fresh fallen snow, like when you’re in Lake Tahoe and you stick your tongue out when it’s snowing. We’ve just got these wacky combinations.”

Managing their rapidly expanding business remains a challenge for these young entrepreneurs. Vampire Penguin marks the first business venture for the pair; Paolo is 30, brother Leo is 27. They’ve already had a few setbacks, including problems with an architect, and they butted heads with investors. The newly opened Sacramento-area stores were supposed to debut six months ago.

“We originally wanted the first store to be in Davis, but it wasn’t feasible at the time,” said Paolo San Luis. “We wanted to be part of that Davis lifestyle. Back then, it was a bunch of hippies, but now it’s a cool thing to be in Davis.”

The San Luises are thinking beyond mere frozen treats for their Vampire Penguin brand. They’ve created a whole storyline behind their mascot, with possibilities for comic books, stuffed animals and other merchandise.

“The Vampire Penguin lives in the North Pole,” said San Luis. “Even though there are no other penguins, he lives there because he’s a vampire. He has a best friend who’s a walrus. He has tusks, so he thinks he’s a vampire.

“We’re trying to play with the concept of yin and yang,” San Luis added. “A penguin is black and white. The shaved snow isn’t ice cream, it’s somewhere in between. It’s deliciously confusing. There’s definitely a lot of avenues to expand this brand.”

But for now, the San Luis brothers are focused on getting these latest Vampire Penguin shops off the ground. They’re confident that all kinds of people will want to sink their teeth into their shaved snow.

“We’re a group of young guys trying to be aggressive in the market,” said San Luis. “It’s a melting pot of customers.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.