written by Michelle DeVona
Restaurateur Micah Camden has done it again. Best known as co-founder of Blue Star Donuts, Little Big Burger and Boxer Ramen, he’s also behind Super Deluxe, a drive-thru burger joint that has had fast food zealots smitten since it opened this year. Despite all this, Camden’s latest project, Little Bean—a chickpea ice cream company—may be his wildest yet.
As he neared 40 years old, Camden realized he couldn’t eat the way he did in his younger days, especially when it came to dairy and gluten. “I’ve always had an aversion to soy because of the Monsanto stigma. When I started going down the rabbit hole of what a dairy replacement could be or should be, I was able to find out that the genetic properties of a soybean was almost identical to that of a chickpea. And I thought to myself, this is the bean.”
Curious what would happen if he treated a chickpea like a soybean, Camden started experimenting. He watched a video that went through the process of making soy milk and then tried the same thing with chickpeas. The result was not what he was hoping for. “I could tell it still tasted like a bean. So I started to research what makes a bean taste like a bean and treat the beans in such a way naturally to get rid of that flavor,” he explained.
After tinkering a little more, Camden figured out how to rid chickpea milk of the strange bean taste and instead accentuate its naturally sweet, nutty flavor. And this is where he reached the turning point. “I thought, well what can you make with milk?” Camden continued. “And then it came to me—ice cream. It was just a light bulb that exploded.”
While Camden knew he needed to cut back on dairy, dairy-free ice creams never filled the void for him. Nut-based ice cream doesn’t freeze well, and it’s impossible to escape the coconut flavor. “It’s never just strawberry ice cream, it’s always strawberry-coconut,” he said. “What makes Little Bean unique is, in the non-dairy world of ice creams like coconut or almond, you have to use stabilizers because there’s not a rich juxtaposition of starches, natural proteins and fats. Since a chickpea is not a modified bean, it already has all of those, so chickpea ice cream is healthy by virtue of what it doesn’t have in it—there are only five ingredients.”
Camden gets his chickpeas from Washington, and with its proximity to Oregon, this cuts down on the carbon footprint. Plus, chickpeas are a sustainable crop and can grow even in drought.
Creating a non-dairy ice cream business was unfamiliar territory, so Camden hired a team of board members to help with the branding, marketing and production. “Most people associate chickpea with hummus, so I needed someone to help me explain chickpea ice cream,” he said. As owner of several non-vegan restaurants, however, Camden hesitates to advertise his ice cream as vegan. “I created something awesomely vegan. However, I also serve hundreds of burgers a day at Super Deluxe. It’s not like I’m out there petting animals,” he said. “Nevertheless, I do believe in sustainable and environmental practices.”
Situated in Portland’s trendy Pearl District, Little Bean may just prove itself the next big kahuna of dairy-free ice cream. Before opening this fall,the company gathered a following after handing out free ice cream samples from its signature blue-and-white cart. In addition to the shop and cart, Little Bean also operates a food truck. Not surprisingly, Camden’s ice cream flavors go beyond the standard chocolate and vanilla. The display case features quirkier offerings like strawberry Sichuan, chipotle chocolate, and cherry chai. “Like Blue Star Donuts, I like my names to be alliterative.
All flavors have a main flavor and then a high note that complements it,” he said. Still, while chickpeas are a perfect base for velvety ice cream, Camden is taking the bean where it hasn’t gone before. In addition to ice cream, the shop offers freshly baked chickpea-based breads and pastries, chickpea yogurt and chickpea milk lattes. “By leaving gluten, soy, nuts and dairy out of the picture, you delete allergens,” Camden said. “I legitimately believe I created something great for both the environment and the community.”