The Holy Grail of Ice: Ice Monster
This story is part of our "Good Taste Tour" series. Giant Robot Media travels all over the world to find things with good taste, whether it be food, drinks, art, or hand made products. It's also an excuse for us to just travel.
Taiwan is perpetually hot in the summer, with over 95°F temperatures and nearly 100% humidity. At any moment, an ice cold dessert is more than welcome. None is better than the sweet concoctions that are being crafted at Ice Monster. Using only fresh fruit and homemade ingredients, Ice Monster creates cotton-candy-textured desserts that range from mango to boba milk tea. Now open for over 20 years, Ice Monster sets its sights on the United States, opening its first store in Hawaii at the end of 2017.
I've waited in three-hour lines for Ice Monster since I was seven years old. It was my family's go-to place after dinner at Din Tai Fung on Yong Kang Street in Taipei. To find out how these amazing creations come to fruition in Taiwan, I interviewed owner/founder Frank Lo over a bowl of delicious Mango Sweet Cotton ice.
By George Ko
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: Can you tell us about yourself?
Ice Monster: I’m Frank. I was born in 1967 and I started Ice Monster in 1997. It’s been over 20 years now, and we have stores in Japan and China. Next year we’ll be going to America and to open our first store in Hawaii by the end of 2017, and then Seattle and Los Angeles.
GR: Do you remember the first time you had shave ice or ice cream?
IM: To be honest, I don’t really remember the first time. Of course, anything with ice or ice cream is something every child likes. However, when I was a kid there were no ice desserts made with fresh fruit. They used more traditional ingredients like red bean or green bean. It wasn’t until I decided to open my first ice shop in Taiwan that the world started to make some changes in the ice dessert business.
GR: What made you decide to open an ice shop and to only use fresh fruits from Taiwan?
IM: It’s actually quite a long story. It’s two parts. Growing up, my dad had a tea farm and fruit orchard. This had a huge influence on my life. Being in that environment constantly cultivated my interests for fruits and crops in general. I was able to familiarize myself with the smell and tastes of various kinds of fruits and leaves.
When I was older and decided to start a business, I decided to make an ice shop because I thought it was going to be easy. Man was I wrong. When I first started, I didn’t use any local fruits. I used the traditional ingredients. My initial idea was that the ice shops in Taiwan were too traditional in how they presented their desserts–that if I repackage it in a more atmospheric and “tropical” way, the new customer experience would lead to our success. And guess what? It totally failed. We were just selling the same stuff as everyone else. We didn’t even need to exist in this market.
I think whether it’s in business or life, our potential and creativity comes alive when we face hardship. In the early days of the shop I was in a tough spot. I spent every dime I owned to open that store and lost money every day. In the first year alone I lost more than 4 Million NTD ($132,000 US). At that time, that was a ton of money. I hit a crossroad and had to make a choice: close the shop down or give myself another chance. I thought long and hard about it, and then I finally decided to give myself another shot. If it doesn’t work out then I’ll give up.
I was selling something that the market didn’t want because the market already had traditional ice. My store literally had no effect on the ice business. Since this was the case, I thought why not just do what I want to do with ice? At that moment, my childhood memories came back to me. I started think about life on the farm. There were tons of tea leaves and fruit everywhere. And I loved to eat those fruits. I thought to myself, what’s my favorite fruit? Mango. So I took some local mangos and combined it with ice and then presented it in a bowl the way I liked it. Just like that 20 years ago, I made the world’s very first Mango Shaved Ice. Of course the mango ice block we used then to make the ice is very different from the ones we serve today.
From my experience, I concluded that no matter what field you pursue in life, you have to have your own ideas. There’s a saying that if you do something different, you have a chance to succeed. If you don’t do anything, then you have nothing at all. You have to give yourself that chance to test out your ideas to see if they will work. I was extremely lucky. That mango ice invention saved my business and I’m still doing it today.
GR: When you first introduced Mango Ice, were there any changes in the store? What was the customers’ reaction?
IM: Before the mango, business was horrible. I worked 18 hours a day and the worst day we grossed 1298 NTD ($43 US). It was so frustrating. After the mango ice hit the stores, no one ate it. It was too new. At that time, there was no such thing as mango shaved ice. So I had to introduce my new creation to my customers. When customers came into order “red bean with milk,” “peanuts with milk,” or “green bean,” I would ask, “I made this mango shaved ice thing. Want to try it?” When they hear it was mango flavored, they all said no. Because it was mango and such a new flavor no one wanted to try it. What to do?
I decided that for every order I would add a free mango ice to the order. In the first one to two months, all the mango ice given out was free. I only had a few customers so I gave out 20 bowls of Mango Shaved Ice. Then every customer who tried the Mango Shaved Ice started bringing 3-5 more customers to my shop. In this industry, we rely on word of mouth and that helped the business. After a month of giving out mango shaved ice, we went from the worst store on Yong Kang Street to a store that people were lining up for, even until today.
I just wanted to prove to myself and see if people would accept this new combination of my favorite childhood fruit and ice. Two weeks later people got curious and kept asking, “what’s this new ice thing?” “It’s Mango Shaved Ice”. Thus, the term “Mango Shaved Ice” was coined 20 years ago, right then and there.
I feel so lucky that something I loved eating growing up gave me a chance to succeed in life. I feel so blessed.
GR: How did the name “Ice Monster” come about?
IM: The Ice Monster is actually just me. When our business started to grow, I thought we needed a brand. So I started talking to consultants on how to design the brand. It was so hard trying to come up with a logo. In the end, I thought since we were selling ice, let’s just draw an ice cube and put my face on it. After we drew the logo, we started to think of what name to give the shop. At first we were going to call it Ice Master, but I felt a little embarrassed to make my store sound pretentious. One day I was looking at myself in the mirror and said to my team, “Let’s just change it to Monster.” And that was it.
GR: You had the idea of brand design 20 years ago. It seems like only recently brand design is now a common thing.
IM: My thought was that as a business person, consumers can defeat your confidence. But in terms of designing the brand, one thought was on my mind: consumers can defeat your confidence, but they can also boost it. When you see so many people come to your store buying your product, you have a sense of honor and feel the need to have a mission. For me, I asked myself what am I selling? I’m selling fruits from Taiwan. When you eat Taiwanese fruits, you think of Taiwan the country. I thought perhaps me selling Taiwanese fruits through ice is like introducing Taiwan to the world. This became my mission and that led to creating a brand.
GR: Ice Monster’s Sweet Cotton Ice has a very unique texture. Did this take a lot of experimentation?
IM: It took many years to figure it out. The newest dessert we have, Sweet Cotton Ice, has this unique texture, like cotton candy. Making ice as fine as cotton candy is very hard. I actually invented Sweet Cotton Ice 15 years ago, but during that time we didn’t have the facilities to produce it at a sit-in dining level. For the past 20 years we’ve been experimenting.
Shaved ice has a very rough texture. I thought there must be something I can do differently and change the ice’s texture. Ice cream for instance, has a much softer and condensed texture. Ice and ice cream bring two very different textures and experiences. But for me, both were not perfect. Ice cream was too sticky and creamy. Shaved ice was too rough. Was it possible to make something in between? So I started mixing a bunch of different ingredients and used different techniques. Fruit itself has pulp and can help smoothen the rough texture of shaved ice. By shaving an ice block, you can get a texture that’s not as creamy as ice cream. This has to do with the ratio and combination with air. After several years, the Sweet Cotton Ice was invented.
GR: Did you have to invent your own machine?
IM: We didn’t have to, but I did help develop the machine. We purchased the shaving ice machine at the factory. He was a fan and I would tell him adjustments that could be made to the machines and then he started to implementing them on future models. They would ask me, “Why do you want to make all these changes?” I told them, “I want my ice to look like clouds. I want it to melt in my mouth.” It will not be as thick as ice cream, and it will not be as rough as shaved ice. It would be the perfect dessert for summer and winter and you can taste the freshness of the fruit.
After many changes, these machines are now sold everywhere in the world and is in high demand, including China, the US, and Europe. The factory is now a very big company. We feel like the collaboration really helped us both a great deal.
GR: I saw on your menu that you have flavors like Boba Milk Tea and Matcha. When did you experiment with these flavors?
IM: Everything you see on the menu was made 15 years ago, but we only started selling these flavors five years ago. We didn’t have enough space in our old location on Yong Kang Street to make these new flavors. We couldn’t get the quality we wanted.
GR: Do you make your ice blocks in each store location or do you have a factory that does that
IM: We have a factory in Taiwan that makes all the ice bricks and we send them to each of our stores. We have factories setup in Japan and China for those stores too.
GR: Your ice uses a lot of fresh fruits. Where do they come from?
IM: Taiwan is a really unique place. It only takes half a day to go from the highest mountains to the ocean. Because of its unique climate and soil, Taiwan grows many delicious fruits. The soil makeup is unique. This is probably why Taiwan produces better mangoes than most countries. But it takes years of exploration and experience to know where the best places to grow produce is in Taiwan. I remember one time I was visiting this river. Each side of the river had mangoes, but one side had better tasting mangoes than the other. So you got to explore. It’s actually a lot of fun and I’ve been learning from these farmers for 20 years. I learned from them the best places to grow fruit in Taiwan. It’s probably the most important part of this job.
GR: Do you use fruits from Taiwan for the stores in Japan and China, or do you source local fruits?
IM: Definitely local fruits. When we started setting up shop in China, we went to Hainan Island in the south to Dongbei in the north, then to Shandong, Xinjiang, and more. For our stores we source melons from Xinjiang, mangoes from Hainan, pears and apples from Shandong, and red beans from Dongbei. It’s fun and interesting to find these ingredients, but it’s also tiring and difficult. But I believe this process of venturing out for good ingredients is still necessary.
85% of our ice bricks are made from fresh fruits. This means production costs are high making it difficult to make. Since our ice bricks have a ton of ingredients, the freezing temperature has to be below 35° C. To be honest, a lot of people who to try copy us tend to save costs by using artificial flavors due to the demanding expense of fresh fruits. Maybe some customers can’t tell the taste difference from our ice and theirs, but I believe most people can because taste buds do not lie. So even though we may be losing money, we insist in using the best and freshest ingredients.
GR: Where do the fans of Ice Monster all come from?
IM: We have guests that fly in from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Europe, Denmark, Spain, Mexico, Brazil— almost from everywhere in the world. We had one customer from America who tattooed our logo on his arm. I wrote him a thank you card and gave him this lifetime pass to every Ice Monster in the world for free ice. I was just so touched by his love for Ice Monster.
GR: I see that you have many fans from Japan. How did you develop your market in Japan?
IM: We’ve had fans from Japan from the very beginning, and since the early days Japanese companies wanted to partner with us. Of course, everyone wants to franchise and expand faster to increase profit. I was thinking with that, I can provide more benefits to my employees. However, finding a good partner is very important. So it took several years to find the right company. In 2014, we did–with a restaurateur from Japan. In 2015 we opened our first store in Japan. I remember on day one of that store, almost every media company in Japan came. We were also voted as “The Summer’s Longest Line” for any shop in Japan. The line was so long that it went for 1 km (0.6 miles). There are still lines everyday in Japan.
GR: On average how many bowls of ice do you sell a day?
IM: I’m not really sure. Maybe 2000 bowls a day? Our store isn’t too big.
GR: How long does it take to make one Sweet Cotton Ice?
IM: About 45 seconds. Usually newer employees take 5 minutes. We keep training them until they hit the 45 second mark. The texture of the ice has to meet our standards since the texture affects the sweetness and taste of the ice.
GR: What is your favorite flavor?
IM: My favorite is called Emerald Lime. It contains almost every flavor unique to Taiwan. It has Taiwan’s lime, green tea, mango, orange, and jelly fig on top of others. It’s very light but full of layers. Eating this ice is like a food journey from the south to Taiwan to the north. I sourced all the fruits in this ice personally. Whenever I eat this ice, it makes me think of my trips around Taiwan. The memories of all those places resurface every time I eat this, that’s why I have a special connection with this bowl of ice.
GR: What’s your vision for Ice Monster in the future?
IM: Our mission has never changed. It’s the same as the beginning: to bring happiness to our customers. Eating it is a simple thing. We only hope that our customers, through this simple dessert, can get a sense of happiness. That’s enough for me. The simpler the better, and to let your customers feel the beauty of our product, that’s what we aim to do.
Ice Monster has stores in Taiwan, China, and Japan.
Check out their website here.
Don't forget to check out our other Good Taste Tour stories.