If you've been wandering around Pasadena in a heat-wave haze the last month or so, you may have spotted a peculiar-looking contraption — imagine James Cameron's idea of a bike stroller — without realizing exactly what you were seeing.
Your first clue might have been that people probably were gathered by the snazzy bike and cart, gleaming white and emblazoned with an old Greek guy's bearded face, hanging around the man who was handing out frozen treats. But given how hot it's been lately, you may be excused for thinking it was all some triple-digit mirage, not least because the guy dresses a bit like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
But John Hofmann's solar-powered gelato truck is real. And he's been up and running, or I guess rolling, through the streets of Pasadena during the last part of this long summer. His truck and his business, called Epicurus 101, is, according to Hofmann and a guy he talked to who works for Toyota, the first 100% solar-powered commercial vehicle in the country. And it's bringing you small-batch gelato and sorbet, made that day by Hofmann from local fruit and raw honey. Lucky us.
Hofmann is a former New Hampshire math and science teacher who moved out here to get his doctorate in education from USC. But after the loss of a loved one, he decided to sell everything he had and, as he puts it, to "put my doctoral research into human values into actual practice." This has come to us in the form of beautiful handmade gelato, powered by one man's epiphany, a lot of seasonal fruit — and our seemingly permanent L.A. sunshine.
"I was determined to build a better food truck that was more economical, environmentally friendly and provided a cleaner imagine. People are used to seeing old delivery trucks that have been converted into mobile food facilities," Hofmann says. "Besides, I can't tell you how many times I've hit my head on those pop-up awnings."
Epicurus 101, of course, is named for the Greek philosopher who, as Hofmann describes him, "believed that food builds communities." The idea is thus not only good food and green practices but humanitarianism, which is why Hofmann donates 10% of his sales to nonprofits in Pasadena. To this end, he wants to eventually open up a storefront to create an "Epicurean-like garden environment" as he continues to send out his solar-powered trucks into the community.
As of now, however, there is just the one 800-pound modified refrigerated unit trailer attached to a 100-watt solar panel and the buggy itself, which Hofmann bikes through Pasadena. "I only need to pedal when I'm going up steep hills like the ones at the Rose Bowl," he says. "Most of the time I choose to pedal for the exercise; it's actually a lot of fun. I can fit into a parking spot, but parallel parking is a little tricky. I'm glad that I didn't have to drive this vehicle for my drivers license test."
As for the gelato and sorbet itself, Hofmann makes that each day with fruit he sources locally and raw honey as the only sweetener. Flavors vary constantly, depending on the availability of fruit in season, but yesterday Hoffman had made strawberry, strawberry-mint, banana, blackberry, peach, blueberry, pineapple, mango, raspberry, fig, apricot, coconut, cherry, lychee, watermelon, date, grape, orange and cantaloupe. No wonder his refrigerated trailer weighs 800 pounds. And yes, Hofmann says that he's working on adding chocolate to his repertoire.
To find Epicurus 101, you can wander around Pasadena, as some of us do, or you can go to Hofmann's website and find him via Live Geolocation, which is very cool. Epicurus 101 is also on Twitter and Facebook.
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Editor's note: This piece has been changed since initial publication, to reflect that Epicurus 101 is a truck and not a cart. As Hofmann (who holds a patent on the vehicle) explains, according to the health department and the DMV, it's a motor vehicle, which requires a license registration, insurance and California plates. And he can park on the street, which carts can't. Hence truck — a very special truck.