HUDSON — Boston was too expensive when three young entrepreneurs set out to open a restaurant. So the friends came to this small town off Interstate 495 and began to grow their micro-empire.
Karim El-Gamal, 34, Michael Kasseris, 30, and Jason Kleinerman, 31, started with a tavern that specializes in pizza, expanded with a new wave nitrogen ice cream shop, and are about to open a bar this summer, all in three years.
New City Microcreamery, which debuted in May, features some traditional ice cream flavors but the winners are a mix of crazy-brilliant combinations like honey-lavender shortbread, blood-orange beet, fennel-pistachio, and chocolate-stout with praline. Everything is locally sourced, the place employs area high school students and moms, and the interior is both Brooklyn, N.Y., retro and historically respectful of the building’s 1894 roots. A sister business, The Rail Trail Flatbread Co., opened in 2012, and has been so successful it’s drawn other establishments to populate Main Street.
The creamery has had an immediate impact on Hudson. People are strolling around downtown, even at night, window-shopping after visiting the shop or Rail Trail, an upscale tavern. With these two businesses and others, the town of 16,000 is finally seeing results after two decades of revitalization efforts aimed, in part, at solving Main Street’s vacancy problems.
“These guys have exploded the town,” says Lee Dinner, owner of neighboring Wright Jewelry Co. “Last night, we sat outside New City for half an hour having that coffee drink with ice cream [affogato] and people were coming and people were going. I’ve spent 25 years working on Main Street and I maybe knew 15 percent of the people in line. These people are coming from other places.”
The three restaurateurs had guidance and family help along the way. El-Gamal, raised in Egypt and Canada, moved to the United States from Dubai. He met Kasseris, who grew up in Belmont, at Babson College’s MBA program. Kleinerman, who is Kasseris’s childhood friend since third grade, joined the group weeks after they launched Rail Trail. Each worked for traditional businesses — advertising, finance, and property management — before deciding to risk everything on food. “We had just graduated from business school, we had a little money, and we had a desire to make our dreams a reality,” says Kasseris, whose father, Theodore, used to own pizza places, delis, and doughnut shops around the Bay State.
The elder Kasseris advised looking at Hudson because his brother, Nick, owned a building there. Rail Trail is in that building, and now features a mammoth wood-burning oven built to hold a dozen pizzas at a time. The restaurant was an immediate success, and soon customers were asking for desserts. After two years of researching what they could do, the group settled on the ice cream shop. Microcreamery occupies a formerly vacant space in a building owned by Theodore Kasseris.
The “New City” in the Microcreamery name is one of Hudson’s former names; Rail Trail is named after a 12.5-mile multipurpose Assabet River Rail Trail running through Hudson (it goes from Marlborough to Acton and isn’t complete).
“These young entrepreneurs understood, intuitively, that Hudson has a walkable center,” says Michelle Ciccolo, a former Hudson community development administrator. Now a Lexington selectwoman, she was impressed with the trio. “When we had a parking management study for downtown, they showed up to participate,” she says. “It’s not common for young entrepreneurs to come to Town Hall meetings, but they want to be part of the community.”
Robert M. Turner, an assistant dean at Babson, says his former students and Kleinerman are engaged in social entrepreneurship akin to the successful formula of Market Basket, the New England supermarket chain. “It’s not just about making money, but making an impact,” says Turner. “You care about the social, environmental, and financial impact” of the venture. “This is not just an ice cream shop. This is about helping people. It’s in their DNA.”
Then there’s the ice cream. It’s crafted in an open kitchen, yielding a creamy treat distilled with enhanced flavors and less sugar. It’s also delicious. Cones are made fresh on a waffle iron and hand-prepped toppings called “funk” bear names like “orange olive oil cake crumble” and “brownie crumble.” Sauces are called “gravy” and include blackberry-balsamic, “hawt” fudge caramel, and blueberry goop. Coffee is from Somerville’s Counter Culture, which trained the staff. Espressos are pulled on a sleek Mirage Triplette Classic, engineered in the Netherlands, a machine that would make a seasoned barista weep with joy.
At Microcreamery, customers of all ages watch in delight from behind a glass counter as tendrils of what looks like smoke (from liquid nitrogen turning to gas) rise from a modified 60-quart Hobart mixer, and spill across the kitchen floor. Traditional ice cream-making methods freeze the exterior of a canister to solidify the mix; liquid nitrogen instantly freezes the ice cream base inside the bowl. The flash freeze jolt of liquid nitrogen keeps fat and water particles small, creating an unusually smooth texture, and concentrates flavors nearer to their original state. Ice cream nirvana, though, is not cheap. Prices at New City Microcreamery have a city flavor: $3.50 for one scoop in a cup, $10 for a sundae, $8 for a milk shake. Waffle cones, toppings, and whipped cream are extra.
There are a number of liquid nitrogen ice cream shops in the United States, particularly in California, that make servings to order. Locally, Churn2 had a brief pop-up tenure two years ago in Harvard Square, and ’Wiches of Boston is a Weston-based ice cream catering service.
New City Microcreamery is unusual because it makes ice cream in 2- to 4-gallon batches. “This is definitely one of a kind,” says Lynn Dornblaser, an innovation analyst for
Mintel, a consumer research group. Globally, ice cream sales grew only 3 percent in 2014. Dornblaser, who recently spoke at the Ice Cream Technology Conference in Florida, writes in an e-mail that national growth is trending toward handcrafted ice cream, atypical flavors, and natural ingredients.
Milk for Microcreamery ice cream comes from Mapleline Farm in Hadley, and other ingredients are purchased from local farms. There are no large storage freezers at either
establishment. “We don’t even have a way to store anything long term,” says El-Gamal. Kasseris adds, “Anything here
longer than four to five days won’t be served.”
New City Microcreamery has 50 employees; Rail Trail has 100. Thomas Edward Kepner, the executive chef, and Elaine Stella, the pastry chef, oversee the kitchens at both places. Kepner previously worked at Craigie on Main in Cambridge and Atlantic Fish Co. Stella graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked at Olives, Metropolitan Club, L’Espalier, and others.
Following Rail Trail’s success, new ventures such as Medusa Brewing Co. and Amaia Martini Bar have opened on Main Street. More are on the way. El-Gamal says the bar that is opening later this summer will be accessible through the Microcreamery and is styled to look like a 1930s speakeasy, featuring Italian amaro, bitter digestives, and sorbets like champagne.
There is so much attention to detail — in both the food and the premises — you have to wonder if the group is making any money.
“Ask me in six months,” says El-Gamal with a sigh. Meanwhile, the men have set down roots in Hudson. El-Gamal, a new father, and Kleinerman recently bought homes here. Kasseris has an apartment above New City Microcreamery, as do Kepner and other employees.
“After the success of Rail Trail, we could have started making Rail Trails in other communities,” says Kleinerman. “But I feel like what we’re doing here is something bigger than ourselves. Now when you come downtown on Saturdays, it’s crawling like ants. We’re part of that and we feel like there’s more to be done.”
NEW CITY MICROCREAMERY 28 Main St., Hudson, 978-333-7144, newcitymicrocreamery.com
RAIL TRAIL FLATBREAD CO. 33 Main St., Hudson, 978-293-3552, railtrailflatbread.comPeggy Hernandez can be reached at email@example.com.