A long line of late-night dessert enthusiasts overcome by a gnawing sweet tooth spills out the front doors of Saffron and Rose Ice Cream most Friday nights. The shop, with its floral and aromatic flavors, is rooted in tradition, known for their authentic Persian ice cream.
Planted in the heart of the UCLA college-town of Westwood, that the City of Los Angeles has dubbed Persian Square, Saffron and Rose Ice Cream is one of numerous Iranian American owned small businesses in the area.
“Outside of the country of Iran, Los Angeles is the biggest population of concentrated Iranians in the world,” Farbod Papen, an owner of Saffron and Rose Ice Cream said. “Westwood Boulevard is the hub of Iranian American businesses, so we have, just in a half mile strip, about four or five Persian grocery stores, maybe another six or seven restaurants, and bookstores.”
And of course, add ice cream shop to that list.
Ali Kashani-Rafye first opened up Rose Market in 1981, a supermarket located a couple blocks away from where Saffron and Rose Ice Cream resides today on Westwood Boulevard. Complimentary to his business, Kashani-Rafye sold ice cream by the scoop, but only the two traditional Persian flavors: saffron pistachio and rosewater.
After an influx of national and international orders, the family-owned business decided to shift focus primarily onto ice cream — they sold their supermarket and moved down a couple blocks to the small shop Saffron and Rose exists in today. That was 12 years ago, and since then the family business has focused on growth as they now have upwards of 50 flavors to choose from.
Even prior to expanding their ice cream store’s flavor palette, the shop’s saffron pistachio and rosewater ice creams were enough to captivate customers. As Papen recounted, both flavors are the chocolate and vanilla of Iran.
Saffron is harvested through a laborious process as only three strands of the spice are found in the saffron crocus flower. Pricier than gold, saffron is known as the most expensive all-natural product in the world. Rosewater is also derived through another long process, as rose petals are left in water, letting the liquid saturate the petals’ fragrance.
“When we have the blend of rose, saffron and pistachio, which is our signature flavor, it gives it almost a smokey, honey, rosy type of taste, which is not too sweet and it’s just right,” Papen said.
With both saffron and rosewater rarely finding its way into Western food, both ingredients prove to be niche tastes, fascinating countless in Westwood.
“It’s almost like a combination of intrigue and confusion, sometimes a little bit of a feeling of being overwhelmed, because it’s something new. It’s flavors they’ve never even seen let alone try,” Papen said.
As unique as Persian ice cream proves to be, the shop’s foundation lies in its tradition and culture. Passed down three generations, the family business has become an heirloom. Kashani-Rafye, who got his daughter and son involved in the business, later got Papen, his grandson, involved.
“It is something that’s not only really important to us, to keep that tradition alive, [but] to keep the ability to have an Iranian, who hasn’t been back home in 20, 30, 40 years, to come in and say, ‘Oh, I always used to have this as a kid,’” Papen said.
Papen noted Iranian customers come from all over the United States just to get a taste of his traditional ice cream. One customer from New York often calls in advance to purchase $200 to $300 worth of ice cream to take back home while on quarterly trips to Los Angeles to visit family.
“The Iranians who visit us, they appreciate it and they love it,” Papen said. “They say, ‘Hey, you guys are doing a good job. Keep it up, this is something that I look forward to having every time I’m in L.A.’”
Papen’s customers stop by for either a taste of back home or something foreign and exotic. A quick look at his customers is more than enough to gauge the Westwood community’s reception of his business — perceptive nods of approval and furrowed eyebrows of astonishment often light up his shop.
Saffron and Rose Ice Cream is located at 1387 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90024.