Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has always had a reputation for being a little weird. When the business first launched by selling scoops and cones from pushcarts at street festivals and public events, they had the whole city buzzing about their signature flavor—Earl Grey Sriracha. When they opened their brick and mortar location in the city’s rapidly changing Fishtown neighborhood, they lured customers in with a decidedly wacky sense of décor that co-founders Pete Angevine often describes as heavily influenced by Pee Wee’s Playhouse. When they wanted to launch their first television commercials, they teamed up with Philly visual artist Doug Garth Williams to create several ads hinging on their tagline “Ice cream is a feeling” that left people feeling… unsettled.
In the seven years since they launched in 2011, Little Baby’s has become the darling of the young, artsy contingent in Philadelphia. Their ice cream is usually available at most popular music venues, and the company courts a vegan audience with their own non-dairy base, to uphold their “ice cream is for everyone” motto. Their original scoop shop, dubbed the Little Baby’s “World Headquarters,” shares a space with brick oven-fired pizza shop Pizza Brain, which dubbed itself the “world’s first and only pizza memorabilia museum and restaurant.” (A doorway connects the two spaces, where one can pass from the brightly colored Pee Wee-esque Little Baby’s parlor into a darker space with pizza-related paraphernalia hanging from the walls and ceilings.)
For years, Little Baby’s existed in its own weird little world, confusing yet delighting its dedicated patrons with good humor and high-quality small-batch ice cream. That is, until early 2017, when their weirdness was turned against them by the dark, twisted corners of the internet that can spin tales of conspiracy theories out of thin air, and wreak havoc on the lives of innocent business owners in the process. In February of 2017, Little Baby’s found itself in the midst of its very own Pizzagate.
On February 9, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the ice cream shop had learned about several online chat rooms and message boards where users were discussing the company, its neighbor Pizza Brain, and perceived connections between the two businesses and child sex trafficking, a la the now infamous Comet Ping Pong debacle. Videos began appearing on YouTube—from Victurus Libertas, a conspiracy theory-peddling site whose videos were later removed from the video sharing platform—analyzing the company’s “disturbing” commercials, and drawing connections between Pizza Brain’s off-kilter Instagram presence and “some very Luciferian, very Satanic stuff.” Like the original Pizzagate, these conspiracies fomented on the message boards of sites like Voat, Reddit, and 4Chan. “What is it about pizza and pedophilia?” said Jim Blake, the narrator of the original Victurus Libertas video, commenting on an image of a little girl wearing an oversized t-shirt bearing the words “Pizza Slut” as a riff on the logo of the chain Pizza Hut.
A few weeks after Little Baby’s became aware of the growing online community of people who thought that their surrealist ads were truly communicating coded messages of Satanism and pedophilia, the company noticed an uptick in harassing phone calls to their scoop shops, strange comments on their social media posts, and “hateful and vaguely threatening” emails to the owners.
Luckily, the conspiracy theorists kept their activity to the internet and the phone lines. Neither Little Baby’s nor Pizza Brain endured any in-person harassment, and no armed pseudo-vigilantes showed up on their doorsteps. The business owners reported the comments and videos to the respective social media networks, but no police reports were made. “What are you going to tell [the cops]: ‘Go to the YouTube comments section?” Angevine told the Inquirer. That’s not to say that they didn’t take the potential threat to the safety of their employees and customers seriously. Both businesses renewed safety trainings as a precaution, and instructed employees to keep track of and report any inappropriate phone calls, or YouTube videos that infringe on the company’s copyright by using their trademarked logos, copyrighted advertisements in full, or levied baseless allegations against the company.
Rick Rein, communications czar for Little Baby’s, declined to comment directly on the almost-Pizzagate incident, saying the unwanted attention “led to some misinformed people getting very upset at us.” When asked how or if the event changed the way Little Baby’s does business, he responded, “We honestly have been doing our best to ignore [it] and not change anything.”
It’s a scary time to be, frankly, a business of any kind whose public face can be twisted and manipulated by the deep, dark fake news-loving corners of the internet that Pizzagate brought to light. No one, it seems, is safe. Good Humor, the ice cream treat brand that operates trucks that bring joy to neighborhoods across the country all summer long, got dragged into this mess at about the same time that Little Baby’s did. The company’s logo of a smaller heart nested inside of a larger one, theorists claim, resembles a symbol used by child sex traffickers that indicate an individual is a supporter of ChildLove, or the community of people who believe relationships between adults and minors should be legal. It’s a theory that similarly lives predominantly on Reddit, but that has luckily not inspired any gun-toting vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.
Little Baby’s, for all the drama of 2017, still loves to get weird, although no new commercials have been produced that its critics could call “Luciferian” or “Satanic” since 2015. Pizza Brain’s Instagram account is similarly still a little shocking and wacky at times, but there are no more commenters alleging the restaurant is harboring pedophiles. It seems that, luckily, the Pizzagate truthers have receded to their subreddit for the time being.