How ice cream equals community in Chinatown

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Jul 3, 2018

For Christina Seid, a third generation Chinese-American who runs her family business, Chinatown in New York City isn’t just a tourist destination. It’s a second home. The entrepreneur and mother of two spent much of her youth serving up scoops at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard Street, which was founded by her father and uncles in 1977, and she knows the Lower East Side neighborhood like the back of her hand. While much has changed over the last four decades, Christina said the sense of community remains the same.

“Chinatown is just a very special place,” she said, noting immigrant families still send their kids to Chinese school there and cultural pride is still readily on display. “We’ve been in business so long that we’ve seen many of the families who come in grow up, and some of our customers remember me as a little girl. In New York, that kind of community is becoming very rare.”

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After graduating with dual degrees in psychology and education in 2005, Christina returned home to take the reins of her family’s business, a decision that was considered unorthodox at the time. (Related: First generation college challenges )

“When I graduated from college, New York City and Chinatown, in particular, was not as happening as it is now, so going home to help run the family business was not exactly glamorous,” she said, observing the Food Network and celebrity chefs were just beginning to transform the food industry.

Amid a sea of competition, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory set itself apart by using quality ingredients and unique flavors, including lychee, red bean, and green tea, Christina explained in an interview. Her personal favorite is the almond cookie flavor.

“We get our cookies from a bakery around the corner that has been there since my dad opened the shop,” she said, noting her father still comes in to check on the shop regularly. “We’ve tried using other cookies, but it never tastes the same.”

Under Christina’s leadership, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has grown by 35 percent — providing the capital and motivation to open a second location in New York’s Essex Street Market later this summer. The shop, to be called “Lower East Side Ice Cream,” will feature new flavors that are still under development, but Christina said “horchata” ice cream (based on the popular Mexican drink made with rice, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon) may be on the menu — a nod to the Latino immigrants who settled in the neighborhood.

Christina said she has no plans to expand further anytime soon, and indeed her family has rejected multiple offers to franchise over the years, preferring to keep their business small and family run. Instead, she intends to focus on raising her two young kids, keeping both shops running smoothly, and publishing her second children’s book.

Her first book, called “Saturday in Chinatown,” was published in 2006, uses bilingual text and Asian role models to illustrate daily life in bustling Chinatown.

“People always say, ‘You’re the boss; you don’t have to work,’ but that’s like saying, ‘Well, I have a nanny so I don’t need to raise my kids,’” said Christina, adding she is intimately involved in every detail of running the shop.

Christina, who credits her husband for his support, said she will also continue her leadership roles with local nonprofits, many of which advocate for Asian Americans and Chinatown businesses. “I have sat on the board of many different charities,” she said. “I just think it’s important to be involved in your local community because that’s where we live and work. My great grandparents were one of the first to settle in Chinatown, so I feel very connected to Chinatown.”

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