After a brutal winter, warm weather is returning to New York City, ushering out hearty stews and bringing in fresh vegetables, glasses of rosé, and celebratory scoops of ice cream. Watch as the lines at Prospect Heights shop Ample Hills Creamery begin to grow, neighbors congregating for a scoop of iconic flavors like Salted Crack Caramel — a gooey blend of salted butter caramel ice cream and nubs of cookies made with saltine crackers — and Gather ‘Round the Campfire, a smoky take on a s’more. Come high summer, those lines will be out the door: Ample Hills opened just three years ago, but has become a Vanderbilt Avenue mainstay and beacon. And as owners Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna look forward to another season, they have some big developments in store.
Before Smith entered the ice cream business, he produced audio books and wrote TV monster movies, which he’d sell to SyFy. But after his second child was born, work got sparser, and he was burning out on freelancing. “I had always made ice cream,” he says. “We had a hand-crank ice cream maker, and I had a litany of recipes from these parties and ice cream socials. I loved ice cream and the idea of an old ice cream parlor. But it was a big leap thinking we could make it work as a business.”
He began testing ice cream shops around the city and then New Jersey and Long Island, seeking a gap in the market that he could fill. “I could not find anyone that was making ice cream from scratch on the premises from beginning to end,” he says. “You have a handful of other artisanal ice cream shops, but they weren’t making ice cream in Brooklyn or Manhattan — they were making ice cream in factories upstate.” He also thought the parlor-as-gathering-place had gone missing. “I saw these places that you’d go get a scoop and leave, not places where you’d want to pass the time. I wanted to create that third place with ice cream, which was something we used to have on the American landscape.”
Brian was ready to jump into a parlor, but Cuscuna wisely backed him off that idea, suggesting they test their product first. The couple launched a pushcart in 2010, and its popularity surged. They began looking for a shop space, settling on the Vanderbilt address because “it looked like it wanted to be an ice cream parlor,” says Smith.
Smith and Cuscuna installed a six-gallon ice cream maker in the 150-square-foot kitchen, where Smith would make the ice cream from start to finish, pasteurizing a mix of sugar, milk, eggs, and cream before adding other flavors and churning it. That pasteurization process is what makes Ample Hills a dairy, and what separates it from most other players. (That Ample Hills bakes or makes 99 percent of its mix-ins doesn’t hurt, either.)
The shop opened its doors in May 2011 with just Smith and one other employee behind the counter, and because Smith didn’t have time to make ice cream while scooping for customers, Ample Hills ran out of product within four days. “We had to shut the doors for nine days, which was excruciating and terrifying,” says Smith. In that time, the shop tripled its staff, laying the groundwork for how it still runs.
The crowds have continued to grow, embracing the Ample Hills brand of treat, which Smith describes as “crowd-pleasing and comfort-fulfilling. When I was writing monster movies, it was like, ‘How do you come up with monsters that haven’t been seen a thousand times before?’ It’s sort of like that with ice cream. You borrow from this monster and that monster and make something new but familiar. You’re not going to find a goat cheese and cherry lambic ice cream here. We’re doing things like peanut butter cookie dough mixed with pretzels.”
But as the fan base has swelled — and as the pair expand their reach, with two new pushcarts set to be added this year to a cart at the Brooklyn Bridge — the operation has become untenable. “We can’t make enough ice cream,” says Smith. “In the summertime, we make 500 gallons a week of ice cream in that [150-square-foot] space.” To add more room, the Smiths have signed a lease on a 3,000-plus-square-foot space on Nevins and Union streets that will allow them to increase production, plus create a second parlor, opening in May, to help cut down on some of those lines.
The new space will also allow them to try packed pints, which they’ll sell to local retailers starting around July. “We’ll start with four to six flavors; I’m not sure which ones yet,” says Smith. He does know, though, that they won’t change the ice cream making process — so what you’ll buy in grocery stores will be the same as what you’ll find in the Ample Hills shop.
Before the couple fling open the doors at their Gowanus location, though, they’ll unveil another project: a cookbook, set for April release. “There’s no one secret ingredient to making ice cream,” says Smith. “It’s just milk, cream, sugar, and eggs. We wanted to share that process. Ice cream is one of those foods that most people don’t understand the whole narrative of.” But he and Cuscuna also didn’t want to write a book that just had recipes and pretty pictures. So instead, they wrote a children’s story that follows three animal protagonists through different moods like heartbreak and inspiration, weaving in ice cream flavors and recipes along the way.
That focus on kids echoes something Smith and Cuscuna have tried to capture at Ample Hills — they feel entrepreneurs often forget that ice cream parlors were for children, and so they’ve tried hard to create a family gathering spot where people will come spend time together. That extends to the staff, which Cuscuna hires and oversees, insisting that no one be an aloof, cynical New Yorker when they’re working behind the counter.
That could explain why Ample Hills has become such an integral part of its neighborhood, a phenomenon that Smith says is his favorite part of the business. “There’s a profound sense of connectedness and community that comes from building something that didn’t exist before,” he says. “Strangers have become family.”