Who can resist Vampire Penguin? The cute/cuddly/mysterious logo entices you in. The seemingly random and quirky decor raises your eyebrow. But soon, any sort of misgivings you had about the place melt away, like the mounds of shaved snow you see filing past you, and the people who eagerly sit down to dig in. Then all of a sudden, you forget how much older you are than many of the customers. Then all of a sudden, YOU become a kid again, gawking at the elaborate concoctions of all things chocolate, syrup, fruit, sugar and cream. And every single finished artwork of shaved snow convinces you to change your mind about what you wanted to order in the first place. Yeah. This is a typical experience at Vampire Penguin. It’s the first place to introduce Sacramento to shaved snow, which has long been a Taiwanese dessert staple. Flavored blocks of ice are “shaved” with a special machine, to create a light and fluffy frozen treat. Just add toppings and you’re in dessert heaven. The south Sacramento store opened last Halloween and one year later, business is good. Very good. The demand is so high, that Vampire Penguin is expanding to 4 more locations by the end of this year. The next one to open is in Elk Grove’s Laguna Gateway Shopping Center. After that, a location will pop up on K Street in Sacramento. Then it’s heading West: Downtown Davis and Berkeley. All are expected to be open by the end of this year. Whew!
I sat down with owner Paolo San Luis, who seems incredibly laid-back and care free for the proprietor of a business growing at breakneck speed. He is almost always smiling and laughing. But it’s hard not to be happy, I guess, when you sell colorful concoctions of shaved snow for a living. Paolo is a naturally happy guy. He moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 14 years old, quickly adjusting to American customs. He settled in Sacramento with his parents, both dentists with a practice. Paolo eventually graduated from Sacramento State with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. So, how in the world did this kid with a science and medical upbringing, and no business experience get to owning a wildly success frozen dessert shop? first off, Paolo decided not to take the traditional route — medical school (which we all know is every Asian parent’s dream). Instead, he worked odd jobs, including one at a fine dining restaurant. He played guitar in a local jazz band, but quit when the fans didn’t materialize. Then came joblessness for one year. “That’s what really lit the fire under my ass,” he said.
Paolo had long been familiar with the shaved snow phenomenon. He did his research and found out this popular dessert was nowhere to be found in Sacramento. He decided to jump in head first: “How did you know it would work?” I asked. “I didn’t,” he said. Paolo’s strategy was to keep his head down and work, work, work. He used his artistic eye to create a eclectic menu, which is not as varied as you might think. The flavors are all basic, it’s the toppings where you can get creative. Turns out, Paolo’s stint at that fine dining restaurant helped to guide his creations. “It’s all about presentation. It really helps to take it to the next level,” he said. And taking a closer look at the menu, Paolo has really infused the flavors with his cultural influences: Filipino, Mexican, Hawaiian. One of my favorites is off the ’secret menu’, the spicy-sweet Mexican Candy.
In the year that it’s been here, Vampire Penguin has melted the hearts of Sacramentans — down to the logo. I asked Paolo, why Vampire Penguin? And what is it? It’s a symbol of opposites coming together. It’s a cute penguin, but it has the dark side of a vampire. You think you’re biting into a hard and crunchy ice dessert, but instead, it’s soft and fluffy. Makes sense now, right?
All this growth in a short amount of time is fueled by both ambition and reaction. The quick success of Vampire Penguin has spawned other pop-ups and imitations. Suddenly, the shaved snow market is wide open in Sacramento. And when he talks about it, Paolo’s happy-go-lucky demeanor goes away to reveal a competitive glint in his eye. “This is war,” Paolo said. “I’m just looking to do it bigger, better and faster.” At this rate, I think he’s in a league of his own.
6821 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: Mon-Thur, Sun: 12pm-8pm, Fri-Sat: 12pm-9pm
Coming soon: Elk Grove, K Street (Sacramento), Downtown Davis, Berkeley