By Kate Anderson-Song
Kate Anderson-Song (KAS): Want to start by telling us what Noona’s Ice Cream is and how it came about?
Hannah Bae (HB): Yeah, of course!
So, basically, “noona” means “big sister” in the Korean language. We launched Noona’s on National Ice Cream Day in July of 2016. I launched the business with the goal of making Asian-inspired ice cream flavors in truly delicious ways and for everyone to enjoy. I launched at Hester Street Fair, which is an outdoor market on the Lower East Side [of New York City] and every year they have an ice cream contest on the National Ice Cream weekend. So, on the day that we launched, it was National Ice Cream day and we participated in their ice cream contest and we won best flavor for our “Toasted Rice” ice cream!
KAS: Did you have a background in ice-cream-making before? Or a culinary background?
HB: I am pretty much a self-taught baker and cook. There was a lot of cooking for my family, baking from a very young age, like elementary school. Basically, I really taught myself.
I don’t have a background in restaurants. But I do have some family members who work in restaurants, and my husband actually worked in restaurants for about 20 years – no longer does, but I’m definitely married to a chef. The love of food runs within the family for sure!
KAS: That’s amazing – and that leads me into the next question of what associations do you have between food and your own culture?
HB: I love how food brings people together and how it can even sensorially transport you. I think there are a lot of emotions and thoughts within the dishes that we create – whether you’re a chef or a home cook or even if you’re the one consuming the food. I think that everyone is kind of an emotional eater – I am definitely an emotional eater!
I was born and raised here in NYC, so when it comes to cultural associations with food it’s pretty diverse. I grew up with both American ice cream and bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Entenmann’s and Stella D’oro cookies as well as sweet Korean rice cakes, shrimp chips and choco pie. Since most of my experiences with Korean food were shared with my family, there’s a lot of comfort and nostalgia but there’s also a sense of longing, curiosity and desire to connect since I grew up in America and not South Korea. I also didn’t have the Korean channel on my television set or get the Korean newspapers like every Korean-American person I knew.
My parents also didn’t like talking much about their childhood life in South Korea, and I’m still in the process of learning the stories of many family members! My inspiration for our Toasted Rice ice cream comes from Noo-roong-ji, which is a Korean crunchy rice snack that is made with leftover rice. You can step into any Korean-American home and find rice in some form or another. Till this day, my mom makes noo-roong-ji with any leftover rice. Whenever I visit my parents’ house, I’ll still find ziplock bags of noo-roong-ji in one of their fruit baskets. Everytime I make and eat our Toasted Rice ice cream, I think of my family’s hardships and I feel grateful to be in a position where I can do what I love. In my daily life, I like to do things that show gratitude and perseverance. I’m not sure if I accomplish that everyday, but that’s an everyday goal of mine.
KAS: I know I was eating Noona’s “Toasted Rice” ice cream [side note: I picked up a pint of it, and have since gone back for another one!], and it does have that nostalgic taste of childhood toasted rice snacks. It was very much a comfort food to me. I was like, “this I could eat PINTS of!” because of that.
HB: I think food is pretty brilliant and unique in the way that it brings forth or creates a new experience or a new emotion or just brings you to places that comfort you. So, I think it is both comfort and excited that a lot of people get when they experience any foods that they are eating.
KAS: Definitely! So, the next question – and this one is a doozy – what do you consider your biggest accomplishment? It could be personally or within Noona’s as a business!
HB: It ties into both. To explain the accomplishment, I’ll go into it a little. In my early twenties, I found myself at a crossroads where I saw my life and didn’t exactly like where it was at that time. I didn’t feel like I was working within something I’m passionate about and I wasn’t even sure how to define what happiness meant to me or anything like that. I had all these questions I really couldn’t clearly answer.
So, I feel like, as an accomplishment, I’m more able to answer all those questions that I had before Noona’s started now. The company really allowed me to create a path for myself and to sort of answer all of the questions of, “what brings me happiness?,” and what success means to me, and where I want my future to go and how I have a lot of control over that, and all of those big intangible sort of words, like “perfection,” or “happiness,” or even “love.”
KAS: I know, as someone in their early twenties right now, those are all the big questions that are coming up. Everyone around me, all my friends, and I are trying to figure these things out. So, it’s cool to see something productive, like Noona’s, that come from that.
HB: I think that at that age it presses on you more. Those were questions I had throughout my life, but you think that the answers are just gonna come to you. So, when you hit your early twenties and you still haven’t figured it out, you think “what is going on?”
KAS: It’s suddenly at the forefront!
HB: Yes, it pulsates more at the forefront. So, I felt like “I need to figure this out or I’m doomed” or something, you know?
KAS: Yes! It sort of feels like every choice you make could be the big important choice that will reveal answers – which is a lot of pressure.
HB: Exactly – there’s more of this urgency of sorts and this demand on yourself where you think you need to figure things out in the next year or two. So, I had those feelings. That’s why I say I felt like I was at some crossroads. I had to figure this out. What direction, what literal steps to take – the next decision that you make could literally change something. Those feelings were the precursors for why I started Noona’s. What drove me was having all those questions and realizing that no one was going to show me the answers.
KAS: There’s not a secret answer everyone is hiding.
HB: Yeah! I have my own way of thinking about stuff. I’ve always sort of felt like the way I’m thinking is not like how most people are thinking. So, I thought, “you know what? I probably have to create this myself and get creative about it, not try to get the answers from someone else.”
KAS: I love that, to not just make yourself to fit into a certain path. The next question is a lighter one: what is a book you think everyone should read?
HB: Oh my goodness, I used to read so many books, but when I started a business I feel like I stopped reading novels and now read a lot more articles and short things!
KAS: I mean, we all read so much because it’s coming at us online and on our phones anyways!
HB: Yeah, I feel like I just don’t have time to read a novel anymore. But I would say a book everyone should read is… it’s actually a children’s book!
KAS: I feel like all my go-to book recommendations are children’s books [side note: see my children’s book recommendation in our interview with Sarah Sharif]!
HB: It’s very well-known actually, and it’s just my favorite book and one of the first books my parents read to me: Corduroy [by Don Freeman].
KAS: I loved Corduroy!
HB: For some reason, that book is embedded in my head. I don’t know if it just influenced me or if I just related and clung onto it so much. But it’s one of those stories that even in my thirties, I still relate to that book.
KAS: It’s a really great children’s book! I have a lot of younger siblings and it’s one of those that every kid in my family has read and knows. It’s just a classic.
HB: It really is!
KAS: So, next question, what advice do you have for Asian women, or really any women, starting a business? Especially anything you wish you knew going into it that you didn’t!
HB: I feel like I knew this going in, but it is one of those things you have to experience and feel to really know and go “okay, this is what that really means” and it sort of impacts you a little bit more than just knowing or seeing it.
Do as much research as you can. Geek out. Do your due diligence. Don’t listen to everything you hear. Stay focused. There’s a lot of support and resources you can obtain, but there’s also A LOT of bullshit. Create your own solutions!
KAS: So, don’t take everything people say as the gospel truth.
HB: Yeah. So do your due diligence to trying to find things out. Because you are kind of in it on your own at the same time, even though there are lots of people and resources to help you. It is a little lonely.
KAS: It’s a lot. I know, in my brain, knowing that it’s just me starting this business, would be the biggest thought. That sounds daunting, in my head, to get past.
HB: Yeah, and the reality is it kind of is at the end of the day, even though there is a lot of marketing out there that is telling you there are a lot of resources and help out there. There is, definitely, but at the end of the day you’re probably going to sit at home and feel a little alone. So, you really have to be stubborn in yourself and what you’re trying to put out there.
KAS: You really have to be your own advocate.
KAS: The next question is, what is your go-to coffee shop order?
HB: My order is always black [coffee] or espresso! Like, always – there has never been a time where it’s been different!
KAS: Any favorite coffee shops?
HB: Um… the nearest one!
KAS: That’s how I function – like, on Google Maps, whichever cafe is closest, I am there!
Then, final question: where can we find Noona’s Ice Cream? And what is next for Noona’s – any new flavors or new places to find it?
HB: Well, we are in Whole Foods in the Brooklyn and Westchester locations and pretty much all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. You can find us throughout the Northeast New England region, Ohio, San Francisco even…
KAS: And it’s possible to order [nation-wide] online, right?
HB: Yes – we’ll either work out a hand-delivery or ship it with dry ice and all of that!
We do ice cream cakes, which is sort of a new thing, only for online orders. And we ship that as well!
As for new flavors, in the summer we came out with our “Yuzu Blossoms” flavor. And our dairy-free vegan flavors are a new thing that we launched this year and we’re still trying to have that circulate a bit more within the stores that we already work with for the dairy-flavors!
You can order your own ice cream and find out more about Hannah Bae and Noona’s Ice Cream at NoonasIceCream.Com!
“Hannah Bae is the founder of Noona’s Ice Cream. You can order your own ice cream and find out more about Hannah Bae and Noona’s Ice Cream at NoonasIceCream.Com!”
“Kate Anderson-Song is on the editorial team at Overachiever Magazine. She is a NYC-based writer, artist, and performer, currently studying cinema studies at New York University. You can find Kate on Instagram @k8andersonsong and @thek8pages, and you can find more of her work (and tons of other great stuff) here at Overachiever Magazine.”