Petaluma’s Three Twins tastes success in hot ice cream market

Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins, was a 2016 contestant on Survivor. (James Dunn / North Bay Business Journal) October 2017


Neal Gottlieb, a contender in the 2016 season of television show Survivor, founded Petaluma-based Three Twins in San Rafael in 2005. The company grew fast, with revenue now at $15 million, he said. Two new ice cream lines introduced this summer and fall will likely augment revenue with substantial growth. After an interview with North Bay Business Journal, Gottlieb jumped on a jet to Tokyo to arrange for a Three Twins launch in Japan.

Cornell-educated Gottlieb, 40, is a smart, savvy entrepreneur who grew up in New Jersey in a family where ice cream was part of a regular ritual. He connects to the product emotionally, and thrives on cultivating new flavors with nuances that make big differences in a crowded market against the likes of Breyers, Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. The U.S. market for ice cream is roughly $5.5 billion. Those top three players each scoop nearly half a billion dollars in revenue.

Maxine’s, a new Three Twins brand named after Gottlieb’s thrift-minded mother, brings lower pricing that he calls “family-friendly.” The tubs are bigger than pint cartons used for Three Twins premium ice cream, and the new product has higher content of air.

Ice cream makers use the term “overrun” to refer to the amount of air incorporated into ice cream. Three Twins premium ice cream has about 50 percent overrun, or a third air. Maxine’s, launched in June has 90 percent overrun — a bit more than 47 percent air. “The flavors are a bit mellower” than Three Twins premium, he said. “Vanilla and cookies and chocolate are very expensive. By changing formulation somewhat, it allows us to offer a compelling price point. Less-expensive to make, it’s still really rich. You don’t have to be rich to live richly.”

Maxine’s, priced at about $7, will compete with one other company that has 1.5-quart organic ice cream containers: Alden’s. “It has 100 percent market share,” Gottlieb said. Three Twins premium pints sell for about $5.

Both products contain organic ingredients. Gottlieb looks forward to more shelf space with the new lines, and possible sales to new untapped food-store chains.

His mother and father moved to California more than a decade ago. Until recently, his dad did deliveries for Three Twins, and both parents still sell ice cream at the Berkeley farmer’s market. “Neither of my parents is entrepreneurial,” Gottlieb said. Total payroll includes about 100 employees, with nearly 60 full-time equivalents.

The other new product is Slim Twin, a brand with seven flavors all low in calories, at 240 to 320 calories per pint, roughly a third of the calories in the premium brand. Flavors include mint chip, lemon cookie, cookies and cream, and cardamom. The brand launched in September.

The company owns four stores in San Rafael, San Francisco, Larkspur and Napa, plus three licensed stores in Berkeley, Santa Monica and at the San Francisco airport. Three Twins opened a store on Fisherman’s Wharf. “It was a disaster,” Gottlieb said, “on the wrong side of the street.” He closed the unprofitable shop within a year.

A business partner in Japan will bring Three Twins ice cream into that new market starting soon. “We’re working on packaging printed in Japanese,” he said. “They love American dairy products.”

The company already sells ice cream in South Korea, shipped on boats. “It’s a very efficient means of transporting product,” he said, much cheaper than refrigerated trucks.

Shipping ice cream is tricky. The product dies if it melts, starting at 25 degrees (Fahrenheit). “We prefer negative 10 or below,” Gottlieb said of ideal shipping temperature to distributors. “There is always free water in ice cream” that can crystallize as ice and degrade texture. “The key with ice cream is to make ice crystals that are too small for your tongue to perceive,” he said.

Gottlieb bought a second production plant in Wisconsin in 2013 when organic milk became tougher to get near the Three Twins plant in Petaluma. After milk, high-volume ice cream ingredients include cream and sugar. Nearly 40 percent of the company’s sales are in northern California.

He enjoys developing new flavors and products, and designing packaging. “Ultimately it’s my taste buds that decide what we sell,” he said. As a kid, “we ate ice cream pretty much every night,” Gottlieb said. “Nowadays I never touch the stuff unless it’s for work. But I love bringing it to the world.”

An indoor climber, Gottlieb lives on a Sausalito houseboat and belongs to Planet Granite climbing gym in San Francisco’s Marina district. But he’d rather climb into the winner’s circle of Survivor.

“It was a cool thing,” Gottlieb said of his season on Survivor, filmed in 2015 in Cambodia and aired last year. Due to a sore knee that posed medical risk, doctors pulled him off the show. “Being on a game show is great,” he said, though he’s more proud of the company and its gifting to environmental causes. “I find it highly entertaining,” he said of Survivor. “I’d love to get on and compete again. It’s much harder than it looks like on TV — just grueling — searing heat, night after night hardly sleeping, bugs, people snoring on this rickety shelter” with no pillow or blanket. He lost almost a pound a day.

“It rains and you are freezing,” he said. “There’s no way out. It’s rough, much harder than I thought, and much more fun. I did kill one lizard that we ate.” There were plentiful fish, oysters, crab and giant clams — but organic ice cream was scarce. Any catch was divided equally among tribe members.

As in Survivor, business requires endurance. “It’s tougher than it looks,” he said of entrepreneurship, which he likens to an ultra-marathon. But “if Survivor is the highlight of your life as a contestant,” Gottlieb said, “you’re doing it wrong.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: or 707-521-4257