The opening of Park Slope’s Lucas Fine Foods in late May also marked the launch of Ample Hills Creamery, an ice cream company that takes its name from Walt Whitman’s poetry and its flavors from the far reaches of founder Brian Smith’s imagination. Since he began serving his scoops, Smith has won a following for flavors ranging from bubble gum to chocolate stout pretzel, the latter of which counts Sarah DiGregorio as one of its fans. In addition to the counter at Lucas Fine Foods, Smith’s ice cream can now be found at Celebrate Brooklyn, where Ample Hills Creamery will have a cart throughout the summer.
We spoke to Smith about entering the ice cream business, his former career as writer of “monster-of-the-week” movies, and making ice cream that’s colorful enough for kids and high-quality enough for their “foodie-centric” parents. Check back tomorrow for the second half of the interview.
How did you get into the ice cream business?
Well, it’s something that’s always been a passion of mine since I was a little kid. I always loved ice cream and was looking for a career change about a year ago. I’d been a screenwriter and written a couple of TV movies for the Sci Fi Channel, monster-of-the-week movies about giant killer birds or aliens on runaway trains. I did that for a while and produced and directed countless radio plays for NPR and books on tape. I directed Obama reading his audiobook Dreams From My Father. I did a lot of neat things, but I was looking for something to do that was a little more rewarding. People are predisposed to liking ice cream, but they’re not necessarily predisposed to liking my next monster movie. Ice cream allows me to be creative and yet make something that gets enjoyed; it was more immediate in terms of gratification.
One of the things that I’m looking to do eventually is open my own ice cream parlor, probably in March or April of this coming year. So this is a starting point. When we open our own parlor, one of the things we want to do is treat it as a museum of the history of ice cream. We’ll be telling the story of ice cream in American popular culture. Of course we’ll be making and selling it, and telling people how it’s made. It’ll take that kind of Sesame Street approach, create a space that invites people into that experience. That’s important to me.
Do you want the business to remain in Park Slope?
My goal is to be in Park Slope if I can find the right space, because right now, there’s only Häagen-Dazs, which is a chain, and Uncle Louie G’s, which is more of an ice place. And Blue Marble’s down on Atlantic. So I’d like to be in Park Slope or Fort Greene, which is where I live.
Did you have any trepidation about starting a food business in New York, given both how competitive the city is and how much red tape is involved?
Yes, I suppose. It was mostly about having young children [Smith is the father of a one-year-old boy and a daughter who turns four next week] and spending our nest egg to start a business. But I have a lot of confidence that what I’m creating is something that’s in a niche that is not being fulfilled right now by the Blue Marbles and Van Leeuwens of Brooklyn. There’s a place for us. It feels a lot less scary than committing six months to writing a script and trying to sell it. I also did a lot of research and training. I spent a week at Pennsylvania State’s Ice Cream Short Course, which is where Ben and Jerry got their initial training before they started their business. I’ve done a lot of research;I didn’t feel too scared.
You mentioned that Van Leeuwen and Blue Marble aren’t fulfilling a particular niche — how do you mean?
I’m strictly interested in this sort of reinvention of traditional ice cream, sort of the Ben & Jerry approach, which is in some ways a kitchen-sink approach to ice cream, which is mixing lots of different things into it and strange flavor combinations. I’m really looking to try to do that in the highest-quality way that I can and using all-natural ingredients and colorings, and to try to make it family-oriented and yet foodie-centric.Van Leeuwen and Blue Marble are foodie-centric but are not going to have bubble gum ice cream. I’m sure they’d turn their nose down to that. I frequently — well, not anymore — I used to go to Blue Marble and enjoyed it. They pride themselves on making elemental ice cream — they make mango and they want you to just taste the mango. There’s value in that, but they’re not interested in doing chocolate ice cream with white chocolate truffles and pretzels smashed into it. Crazy combinations like that. And I think it’s the same thing with Van Leeuwen.
How do you come up with your flavors?
A lot of research, a lot of reading, and trial and error. I try to read just about every ice cream cookbook that’s been printed. It’s the same way with screenwriting: How do you come up with that monster? You watch all of the monster movies out there, borrow a little here and a little there, and come up with your new take on something. I do find a parallel with ice cream. It’s kind of a kitchen-sink thing; you can’t completely screw up a batch of ice cream. You’re hurling things into a mix, so that’s pretty neat.
The [flavor] I’m most excited about is this all-natural bubble gum ice cream. I really wanted to find a way to make colored ice cream because my daughter and most kids will order foods and desserts by color, not flavor. If you ask my daughter what her favorite flavor is, she’ll most likely say “pink” instead of “strawberry.” Living in Park Slope and being a foodie kind of guy, I don’t want to be getting as many artificial flavors as possible. So we used beet juice to color it and to flavor it. I did a bunch of research to find that the actual flavor we experience in bubble gum is nowadays an artificial creation, but originally it was a combination of different fruit flavors and other flavors. When you combine them in exactly the right amounts, it tastes exactly like bubble gum. Then you color it pink and it looks and tastes like bubble gum. That’s pretty neat. I don’t think anyone else is making it. And then we put pieces of Glee Gum in it — it’s all-natural, and has no artificial colors.
Which have been your most popular flavors so far?
The maple with candied bacon. It’s been ridiculous how people have taken to it. In fact, we ran out of it in the shop last Thursday or Friday and we had seven or eight people come in over the weekend looking for it and disappointed we didn’t have it. Including a couple of people from Queens. One woman called from Minnesota asking me to ship it to her on dry ice — she had a friend who tried it in the shop. Most people are blown away by that, but it’s a fairly obvious combination that we get in the morning — maple syrup on bacon, it definitely works. And then the stout and pretzel ice cream has been our second most popular. I use St. Peter’s Cream Stout and then a dark chocolate base with chocolate-covered pretzels mixed into it.