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Lokelani Alabanza

by The Malin Journal

October 18, 2023

The founder of Saturated Ice Cream talks about launching a CBD business in Nashville, finding inspiration in history, and why it’s a golden era for the Music City.

Amidst the rise of celebrity chefs over the past several years, Lokelani Alabanza is part of a new generation of experienced cooks stepping outside the restaurant kitchen to rethink the possibilities of food and how it can appeal to the senses. In Alabanza’s case, it’s Saturated Ice Cream, her Nashville-based brand of plant-based, hemp-derived CBD ice cream, which she launched back in 2020.

Before striking out on her own, Alabanza spent more than a decade working as a pastry chef—at Besos in Hollywood, as a private chef in Okinawa, Japan, and at Bouchon in Las Vegas, where she opened her own hand pie company. In 2015, a job opportunity landed her in Nashville, and she has called the city home since. “When I got here, the big boom was just starting to happen,” says Alabanza, who has enjoyed seeing a growing community of like-minded creatives and entrepreneurs invigorate the city.

On Alabanza’s part, she feels Saturated was always meant to happen in Nashville. Besides running the business, Alabanza is working on a cookbook of personal recipes accompanied by a short history on African American ice cream makers, one of whom was a woman in 1840s Nashville named Sarah Estell. “She’s become my lodestar,” says Alabanza. “She owned an ice cream saloon and a boarding house and was a Black woman from North Carolina. She ran this thing for 20 years, and articles were written about how amazing her ice cream was. They called her the queen of ice cream. Then, when the Civil War was approaching, she just disappeared.” Alabanza adds, “She awakened something inside me. Here I am, a woman of color in a city 180 years later, and we’re doing the same thing. Tapping into that history, I think I have something here.”

QTell us what brought you to Nashville. What was it like for you at first?

AI started a job here at The Hutton Hotel. I became the executive pastry chef. I was there for probably eight months after. Then a friend I worked with said there’s this place opening in Thompson’s Station, which is south of Nashville, and they’re on this 40-acre farm. He goes, ‘Just come meet the chef.’ So I went. I get the hired. Then a week into the job, the [property] owner was like, ‘We’re opening a creamery.’ So I was only a pastry chef for one week. They opened up what is now Hattie Jane’s Creamery. I had two and a half weeks to come up with recipes, order smallwares, and get a team going. That job was what thrust me into this ice cream world. I was there for four years, then the pandemic hit and I got permanently laid off. I remember calling my dad after I got laid off, and he said, ‘Great, you should start that business.’

QThen you launched Saturated Ice Cream in the same year at the height of the pandemic.

AI had started percolating the idea for Saturated and then it happened in the summer of 2020. I remember I called my dad and one week later this 65-pound Lello Italian machine was delivered to my house because he had bought it. There's a place called Anzie Blue here that was the first CBD cafe in the city. That was my first pop-up. I made the ice cream, my best friend sent me her Yeti cooler from Texas. I remember I got to the place, it's summer in Tennessee, it's very hot, and I refused to take my mask off outside. People I hadn't seen in years showed up, and I sold out within two hours. I thought no one's going to buy this ice cream, and it just worked out. Then it just opened this door. I was not prepared. I had no idea. It just went from there.

QCBD ice cream is still a new concept to many. How has the response been in Nashville?

AI've had people whose parents are pretty conservative when it comes to things like that tell me, I love it, I want more of it. What I’ve done now is I do CBD but I mostly just do without CBD. There are so many people that are plant-based or lactose intolerant, and it's just about having a good product. I tell everybody, if I were to put them side by side for you to have a taste test, they taste the same. It's just the effect of one and not the other. My whole thing is that CBD is the future and plant-based is the future. Why not ride that wind.

QSaturated is still online only. How has that been for an ice cream business?

AI came out with a product that essentially is not illegal, but not every state treats CBD the same. In Tennessee, it's looked at as a food product, so it's basically like the Wild West here. As much as I would love to see the product on the shelf, which is the goal in the end, I've had to learn what I think would work best for the business. At least online, I know we're making this ice cream, packaging it, and sending it out, whereas wholesaling it to somebody I have to make sure the marketing is doing well. So ecommerce is still viable. It's easy to go online, click what you need, and have it sent to wherever you're at.

"There's this really amazing moment where you can just come and put anything here because the city either doesn't have it, or it needs it. That's the opportunity Nashville has."

QWhat are some inspirations behind your flavors?

AI've been collecting old photographs of Black America eating ice cream in a book and when I put them all out, those faces looking back really inspire me to go above and beyond. The Magnolia flavor I did a couple years ago, that was my maternal great grandmother’s name. In the South the Magnolia is so specific and I thought that would be a really good flavor. And it was extraordinary. I had a friend try it and she started weeping. She said, ‘This reminds me of my grandmother. I can see her getting ready, I can smell her perfume.’ Alot of people also like the Lunar I make from Earl Grey tea. I had asked a friend, if you’re vegan and you can't eat cheese, what would the moon taste like? So the flavors are very intentional.

QWere there specific challenges you faced as a woman of color launching your business?

AYou just still have to work a little bit harder than everybody else. Access is a real thing, so it’s what kind of access can you find for yourself or your business. It’s not the game of people have to give me things, it’s where is the money and what makes the most sense. I’m in a group called Les Dames d’Escoffier which is for women in the hospitality industry. Our chapter is 10 years old, and we give scholarships to women, even women in our own chapter, that are in the city. Those things are beneficial.

QYou also organize events, like your recent sit-down ice cream tasting. What gave you the idea?

AI had just come back from something out in Sewanee with people who were talking about the future and their food. One of them was really about community and the table, how the table is an anchor. It's not just the food, it's to connect. That's what's important, and that's what we need to focus on as we move forward. And I thought, what would an ice cream social be like? Would you want a seven-course tasting and have alcohol pairings, and it's a beautiful setting, there's music, and everything's about ice cream? I thought that's it, that's what we're doing.

QLooking back, do you feel being in Nashville helped to launch your business?

AThere's this really amazing moment where you can just come and put anything here because the city either doesn't have it, or it needs it. And that's the opportunity Nashville has. You can grow a thing here with the help. Nashville has a lot of Black and brown people that are doing great things in food, but I also feel like the city could be more supportive of those businesses. There are so many people of talent here and there's enough room for everyone to have space. It’s being able to see everyone, see what they're doing, and then grow as a community together.

Pictured above: Rhonda Cammon, Keshia Hay and Lokelani Alabanza