The communal nature of food is noted all the time, but nothing brings people together like ice cream. On hot summer evenings in particular, it is salvation from the weather, it is an excuse to walk and mingle, it is the perfect close to just about any meal. And the ice cream shop you most identified with when you were young is something that you tuck close to your heart, a tiny but significant piece of your emotional DNA.
Izzy’s Ice Cream is as good a place to hang your emotional hat as anywhere: its flavors are bold and creative, and its adaptability is one of its greatest strengths. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel, Izzy’s has been making and selling ice cream in the Twin Cities since 2000, when the couple took inspiration from another shop and used it as the spark of a major career change.
“There was an ice cream shop in Pinckney [Michigan], called Captain Frosty,” says Sommers (above). “It was a seasonal walk-up, like DQ. The whole town came out for this place, sleeping overnight the night before it opened, that kind of thing. So we thought, ‘That’s kind of fun.'”
From that impulse came Izzy’s, an ice cream shop known for its innovative flavors (Basil, Dark Chocolate Zin, Umeshu), its customer-designed flavor contest, and its use of RFID chips to keep ice cream-fans — around the world — in the loop on the shop’s latest offerings.
The company’s new Guthrie Theater-proximate location opened in July 2013, and it is already enlarging the company’s local footprint while enlivening its riverfront surroundings.
Built by Duluth-based architect David Salmela, the building is prominent, but looks as though it belongs where it stands. “He made the building to be a counterpoint to the Guthrie,” says Sommers. “If you look at the massing structures of the Guthrie and our building, they’re nearly identical.”
Salmela’s work appealed to Sommers and Hammel as a marriage of form and function: “The things he’s built… they’re contemporary but with enough commitment to real people and real problems that they weren’t only showpieces,” says Sommers.
The new location represents both a serious financial gamble and a quantum leap for the company. By moving its base of operations from the somewhat cramped and dark location on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul to a bold, sunlit ice cream mecca with an architectural pedigree, the company has positioned itself to grow.
The new building is cool without being cold; its clean geometry suggests neatness and order without losing sight of the fact that its major internal component is synonymous with fun. Red dots on the exterior line up with diagonal lines to suggest Izzy’s ice cream pops; a red tower evokes the Izzy’s “I” and the tiny izzy bonus scoop that comes with each of the company’s cones.
While the building has playful elements, at no point do you get the sense that Izzy’s is playing around when it comes to its product. Sommers comes from a background as an educator and a printmaker with an MFA, both fields that balance art and craft — or passion and science — in equal proportions. Izzy’s does, too, and while the art of Izzy’s flavors is on display, it’s the nuts and bolts of the place that have Sommers’s full attention.
“Here we’re working really hard on the craft side,” says Sommers. The highlights of our tour focus on that: premium ingredients (including a locked storeroom of chocolate, craft beer, and top-shelf liquor for Izzy’s boozy flavors), state-of-the-art cooling technology, a “zap water” cleaning station, and an emphasis on creating a workplace that feels light, open, airy, and bright — a place where people can labor for a career, not merely a summer.
Craft is everything to the Izzy’s business model. Ice cream makers can grind out huge quantities of simple flavors using a factory-friendly continuous freeze process, or they can do what Izzy’s does: batch freezer-made ice cream, which is cantankerous, time-consuming, fussy, and conducive to endless experiments vis-a-vis bases, flavors, and mix-ins.
“Batch freezer ice cream is a different world,” says Sommers. “We’re stuck between the factory world and the kitchen world.” Sommers draws an analogy between home chefs and restaurant chefs to describe the difference in scale between continuous freeze and batch freezer ice cream. “I always think of chefs cooking more in 30 days than I do in a year.”
The ideal temperatures of Izzy’s ice creams vary based on what’s in them: a gooey, boozy ice cream might need a cooler temperature to stay coherent than something simpler and more classic. The demands of balancing complicated, fresh ingredients put the job of Sommers and his team more in line with those of chefs as opposed to factory workers — there’s a great deal of variation to deal with, and the final product is all about the balance.
“One of the reasons it was necessary to move is that it was important to take from some of the advanced areas of modernist cuisine,” says Sommers. “I went to Penn State last winter to learn how to make ice cream, which is really funny [after 10 years in business]. It’s remarkable — in a real technical sense, we have a different ice cream base for every ice cream. And in the dipping cabinet, we have a different temperature zone for every tub.”
“An ice cream cone is a really well designed food,” he continues. “If you think about the cone technically, its best flavors come when it’s melting. It’s got a core cold center. So we were working really hard to make a beautiful place, and not the same place we have in St. Paul.”
To wrap up our visit, Sommers walked us through the creation of a flavor called Beets and Berries, a cross between the shop’s popular Church Elderberry flavor and the sweetly funky kick of real beets. We taste each of the components (and the dairy base) separately, together, and chilled down to ice cream consistency, and there’s a real balance at play: a bright berry kick that starts off the flavor profile and then takes an earthy dive into beets at the end of each bite. A gentle sweetness holds it all together, and the berries and beets turn out to be to be able partners for one another.
Balance and unexpected alliances are what it’s all about, a theme Sommers alludes to while talking about a unique and short St. Paul walking tour that we all should probably try for ourselves in the near future:
“I think the best thing in the world is a Peace Coffee shake at the St. Paul store, and then you walk next door and get a shot of espresso from Andrew [Kopplin]. The hot coffee goes to the bottom of the shake and the crema sticks to the top of the shake — I think it’s the best food in the world. Essays could be written about how to eat that, because it’s so delicious in various stages.”
Izzy’s Ice Cream, 1100 2nd St S, Minneapolis, MN 55415; 612.206.3356