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DownRiver Ice Cream in Essex is off to a busy start

Flavors are wild, treats homemade, and sales are good

The word is out.

Like a silent code understood by dedicated ice cream fans everywhere, the long, persistent, yet patient lines outside DownRiver Ice Cream, located on Route 133 at the Essex-Ipswich line, transmit a strong but silent message to those driving or bicycling by.

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S-t-o-p h . . .e . . .r . . . e.

Opened in May 2009, the homemade ice cream store slid open its two screened windows for business for the fourth season beginning March 29. Already off to a busy start - given the unusually warm spring weather and proximity to such popular places as Crane Beach, Castle Hill, and Russell Orchards - DownRiver’s growing reputation just will not melt away.

The business is a dream come true for Amy Ahearn, an Essex resident and former human resources executive, who co-owns the store with her husband, Joe, a headhunter for high-tech companies.

“I’d been in high tech, making the commute into Boston, and just had it,’’ Amy Ahearn said. “I had in mind a retirement plan to one d ay open an ice cream store.’’

Not just any retirement whim, her dream of selling homemade ice cream dates back to 1976, when she bought some from a woman in Moscow’s Red Square made with raw milk. “I can still remember the taste of it,’’ said Ahearn, who was a Russian major in college.

“I told the woman, ‘I would love to do that.’ She said to me, ‘You will.’ ’’

Fast forward to 2008 and a rough economy. A little red, ramshackle lobster shack that once stood on the site went up for sale. Meanwhile, one of Amy’s sons, Colin, had written a business plan for a new venture while he was a student at Oberlin College. His research showed that ice cream sales are somewhat recession-proof.

“I think it harks back to simpler times and simple pleasures, when, even if money was tight, a family would pile into the car for a family outing to get ice cream,’’ Ahearn said.

“It was five years earlier than the plan, but we decided let’s go and buy it, not knowing, among many other things, that there was no water source,’’ she said.

It took more than a year to get it all off the ground, working with planning boards and boards of health in Ipswich and Essex.

The couple’s hard work and risk-taking paid off. Last season, more than 2,500 customers were served from late March through mid-October. Business is growing 15 to 20 percent each year since opening, said Amy Ahearn, and plans are underway for a second DownRiver in Rowley.

The ice cream store is a family affair. Most mornings before the store opens, Amy and her oldest son, Bennett, 26, make fresh batches of the creamy homemade ice cream using a custom-made mix from Bliss Brothers in Attleboro. Hannah, Colin’s twin sister, often helps at the window.

“Any ice cream you eat in my store is less than two to three weeks from the cow,’’ Ahearn said. “It’s not organic, but it’s as close to ‘all natural’ as you can get.’’

Large helpings of the creamy stuff, ranging from one scoop ($3.50) to three scoops ($4.75), are served in either paper cups or imported Frima Danish waffle cones. “There’s 2 1/2 inches across the top, so the ice cream fills the cone,’’ Ahearn explains, “which makes for an entirely different experience than the typical sugar cone, which is 1 5/8 inches across, so ice cream just sits on top.

“And guess what? Our ice cream melts. Have you ever noticed how sometimes ice cream [from a large manufacturer] just sits there?’’

Laughing at herself, she asked, “Can you tell I’m entirely obsessed by what I do?’’

Locals and visitors alike love the distinctive names in the 30 flavors that reflect the Cape Ann region, such as Greenhead (bright green mint with over-sized chocolate chips), Mill River Mix (a smooth chocolate ice cream with a river of chewy caramel), and, Ahearn’s favorite, Snail Trail (a crisp vanilla with big chocolate chips and salty peanut butter swirls).

Ahearn also makes sorbet and frozen yogurt. The raspberry and strawberry flavors are made using fruit picked fresh in season straight from the raised garden beds on the side of the store.

There is also sugar-free ice cream. Though this is not made in the store, customer Leslie Dere from Gloucester, who has type 2 diabetes, says the sugar-free tastes “just as good as any of the other flavors’’ and suggests her favorite, the sugar-free caramel pecan.

For their four-legged fans, DownRiver lists Rosie’s Treat (vanilla ice cream topped with a dog biscuit for $2) “because our dogs like ice cream more than we do,’’ Ahearn said.

Flavors are also named in honor of three important people in Ahearn’s life: Olivia’s Chocolate Dream, for her mother-in-law, who provided financial support, but passed away their first year of business; Conrad’s Rum Raisin, for her Polish hairdresser, who complained “there’s never enough raisins in this country’s rum raisin ice cream’’; and Bobby’s Pistachio, for her banker at Cape Ann Savings Bank in Gloucester.

Relaxing out back with his cone and some friends in colorful Adirondack chairs, Bryn Clark, who owns Harmony Center for Health & Wellness in Beverly, said he regularly surveys his patients who come from a 25-mile radius about their favorite ice cream place because “it’s such a phenomenon.’’

“Everybody, every town, has their favorite homemade ice cream place,’’ Clark said. “Some patients swear by Richardson’s, but DownRiver keeps getting the votes. They’ve got a reputation, and they’ve gotten it fast.’’

Clark’s favorite flavor? Black Moose (dark chocolate custard with walnuts). “I only have six ice cream cones a year, because I don’t do sugar,’’ he said, licking away the remaining evidence.

Last year, to show its appreciation of customers, DownRiver served free small cones. This year, on Tuesday, Ahearn said, there will be another giveaway “until we run out.’’

Get ready to stand in line.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@gmail.com.
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