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Toby's Homemade Ice Cream: Meet Toby Bantug

For AAPI Heritage Month, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Toby Bantug, the visionary behind Toby's Homemade Ice Cream. Toby's story began in 1997 while he was a student at the University of Maryland. What started as a hobby turned into a business idea in 1999 when he decided to sell homemade ice cream at local D.C. area Filipino fairs and festivals. Despite a rocky start with melted ice cream on the morning of his first event, Toby's determination and passion saw him through, leading to the official launch of Toby’s Homemade Ice Cream. Join us as we delve into his inspiration for making ice cream, the challenges he's faced, and the cultural significance of his unique flavors.

Who or what inspired you to start making ice cream while you were at the University of Maryland, and how did that lead to your decision to turn it into a business?

I’ve always loved ice cream since I was little, and one day in college I just had an epiphany. If I remember correctly, I was with my friends at a local festival celebrating Philippine Independence Day. There were all these vendors selling Filipino food: lumpia, pancit, pork BBQ, adobo, and rice. However, it was 95 degrees out with clear blue skies, and nobody was selling ice cream, so I thought to myself, “I should sell Filipino ice cream!”

Tell us about a challenge that you encountered early in your career.

I had spent the better part of a month preparing for our first festival where we’d sell my homemade ice cream. When you’re bootstrapping, you put in a lot of sweat equity because you’re broke and every penny counts. It took me about a week to make all the ice cream. I had 1,000 things on my mind the night before: cups, cones, dry ice, coolers, napkins, flavor signs, etc., and wasn’t concerned about the ice cream because I had already made it and it was stuffed in the freezer.

The next morning, I went down to the kitchen and saw the freezer door open, and I knew the worst had happened. Monina (my girlfriend then, but now wife) had heard me scream and ran down to see what happened. We had 15 gallons of half-melted ice cream in the freezer.

We ended up buying about double the amount of dry ice than anticipated and soldiered on, going to the festival with our half-melted ice cream and hoping it would re-freeze. I was so relieved after we made our first sale of melted mango, and the customer seemed to genuinely enjoy it. It was exhilarating, inspiring, and just plain fun. I was hooked. From then on, the sky was the limit!

Transitioning from selling at fairs to owning a storefront is a big leap. Who or what motivated you to make that move?

My wife, Monina! I had been working as a graphic designer for almost 10 years and making ice cream on the side for just as long. I’d bring our homemade ice cream to family birthdays, holidays, office parties, and hustle for catering gigs whenever we got the chance.

One night, Monina was asking me what I really wanted to do with ice cream: Are we just having a good time, or do we want to get serious? That night I was on Craigslist and saw an ice cream shop for sale, and it looked like a great opportunity. We had come to a fork in the road. Taking this leap would mean that I would have to quit my job while Monina kept hers, because we had two young kids and a mortgage to pay. After much deliberation, and putting off buying a bigger house, this would end up being our first shop in the Westover neighborhood of Arlington. The rest, as they say, is history. That was 16 years ago this July.

Opening your shops in different neighborhoods speaks to your connection with various communities. How have you been able to create an inclusive experience that resonates with diverse backgrounds from all over Arlington?

We are your friendly neighborhood ice cream shop that welcomes kids, families, retirees, young professionals, ice cream lovers, and coffee lovers regardless of race, color, creed, or orientation. My family and I are Filipino; my parents immigrated in the 1960s. I've been regularly visiting the Philippines since I was 8 years old. We serve a few Filipino-inspired ice creams, and I think this is what attracts the diversity in the neighborhood. Ube is one flavor that we started making in the late ‘90s for the Filipino fairs and festivals. In 2009, about a year into owning the Westover shop, we introduced it to our customers. It’s little things like our unique flavor selection, our fresh-made waffle cones, and our awesome staff that resonates with our customers. They are the best customers any business could ask for!

Opening a Toby’s Ice Cream location in National Landing was a significant step. What aspects of the neighborhood made you choose it as a home for one of your shops?

The density, cultural diversity, surrounding businesses, playground, park space, and dog run were all things that came into play. We have some great ice cream junkies here in Met Park, a lot of whom have visited our shop in Westover. Since opening, we have been honored to be invited to serve ice cream at various events in the park and neighborhood, including the civic association meetings.

Toby’s Ice Cream is committed to giving back to the community. Can you share how you’ve partnered with local schools and arts programs?

We have our “straight A’s or perfect attendance” program, where we give students a free scoop for accomplishing either of those. I’ve always been interested in the arts, since I was an art major in college, and we try to support them when possible. For a long time at our Westover shop, we had artists hang their artwork on the walls and would feature a different artist each month. Right now, we have an incredible work of art hanging in our National Landing shop by a local artist from the area, whom we found at MoCA.

Over the years, what have become the most popular flavors at Toby’s Ice Cream?

Our customers always come back for the classics. But some of our more unique flavors that are popular are Coffee Oreo, Espresso Chip, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Coconut Chocolate Crunch, Ube, Philippine Mango, and Calamansi Sorbet.

What have been some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned since starting Toby’s Ice Cream?

Work hard! Be persistent. Be kind. Be yourself. And don’t listen to the naysayers. 

Read all you can about what you want to do. Somebody’s already done it and can give you good advice. Start making those cupcakes to sell at farmer’s markets. Start writing that AI code that will be the next viral app. It’s never too late; the best time to start is now. Everybody takes their own time and makes their own path. Enjoy the ride!

What vision do you have for the future of Toby's Homemade Ice Cream? How do you see it evolving over the next decade?

Over the next decade, we’d love to make our procedures and processes more efficient, and keep improving our customer experience. We just want to continue to be your friendly neighborhood ice cream shop, where you’re always welcome, where you come for a scoop of happiness, where you can run into your friends, neighbors, or even the occasional local celebrity. Also, I’m still working toward that Ferrari ice cream truck!