First there was the cupcake trend. Then there was the doughnut explosion. Ice cream is the latest childhood dessert having a resurgence, with a host of new outfits — from pop-ups to small-batch producers to dairy-free alternatives — cropping up in recent years.
Artisanal ice cream has a long history in the area, with a landscape of popular shops like Christina’s, J.P. Licks, and Toscanini’s. A seminal moment came in the early ’70s: “Steve Herrell started a revival of homemade ice cream,” says Gus Rancatore of Toscanini’s (itself founded in 1981). “If you go down to the Davis Square subway stop, at the very bottom there is a timeline on the lower level. It has stuff like when the first Colonists arrived in Somerville. It also says, ‘In 1973 Steve Herrell opens Steve’s Ice Cream.’
“Who knew that an ice cream store would be that significant? But it certainly was in Somerville; it went from what was a very pugnacious blue-collar community to something that was like another Cambridge.”
Somerville remains a hotbed of frozen desserts today. Gracie’s Ice Cream — known for its toasted Fluff cones and indulgent flavors inspired by the holiday-candy sales at nearby Market Basket — arrived in Union Square in late 2014. In May, nut-free scoop shop Tipping Cow opened in Winter Hill, the brick-and-mortar extension of a business started in a shared kitchen in Cambridge; founder Anna Gaul first sold flavors like strawberry-basil and Irish stout at farmers’ markets and area shops.
In July, Forge Ice Cream Bar arrived, in a strip mall between Union and Porter squares. It may be brand new, but it looks as though it could have been here for ages. Owners Tucker Lewis and Jennifer Park scoured the Internet for original touches like the vintage fountain and a dipping cabinet. (The pair also runs Diesel Cafe, Bloc, and the adjacent Forge Baking Company.) Forge is born of noble ice cream lineage: Lewis and Park met working at Herrell’s — the follow-up to Steve’s that opened in 1980 — 20 years ago, and also spent time at Toscanini’s.
But one no longer needs a storefront to get into the ice cream business. Just ask Jacqueline Dole, a former pastry chef who left Mei Mei Street Kitchen to spin new flavors at Gracie’s before branching out on her own in February with the Parlor Ice Cream Co.
Don’t let the name fool you: There is, in fact, no parlor. This is what Dole has dubbed “a roaming ice cream experience.” The pastry chef creates custom flavors — “curious combinations that push the boundaries of expected flavors,” as her website says — for wholesale, restaurants, and pop-ups. Think toasted coffee milk, miso and sesame caramel, maple parsnip, and farmers’ cheese with berry jam. Where does she make these many flavors? A shared kitchen, of course.
The opening of such culinary incubators — places like CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester and Stock Pot Malden — makes it easier for entrepreneurs to start food businesses. They allow 17-year-old Grace Connor of Little G Ice Cream Co. to mix handmade cookies into her vanilla-bean base, and ex-corporate career woman Kelly Williamson of the Galley Ice Cream to whirl roasted strawberries and local honey into her small batches.
“Craft ice cream companies like the Galley Ice Cream wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for shared kitchen spaces,” Williamson says. “They give us the space, equipment, and resources to operate and grow that would not be financially possible if we were on our own.”
Too, the on-demand economy offers more avenues for getting the product out there. The Scoop ’N Scootery, for instance, is an Arlington-based ice cream delivery service: Just go to the website, order one of nearly 40 signature sundaes, and try to wait patiently until it arrives. (Customers can also pick up at the shop.) Honeycomb Creamery, which launched last year, both delivers pints and offers a monthly pint club. Operators Kristen Rummel and Rory Hanlon aim to open a shop in Cambridge any day now.
There are also new niches to be filled — dairy-free ice cream among them. Skylar Griggs, a registered dietitian at Boston Children’s Hospital, says she sees some patients who are avoiding dairy, whether due to an allergy or the belief that it is a healthier option. “What you are seeing from these dairy-free ice creams popping up is a larger trend of folks starting to rethink their options when it comes to dairy,” she says. “Take milk and milk alternatives, for example: Milk is a beverage with a large industry behind it, and I think people are starting to question whether milk is a necessity or a preference.”
Newer dairy-free outfits, including FoMu and Scoop Sights, are proving there is local demand. (Herrell’s, meanwhile, has been making its No-Moo ice cream since 1985.)
Deena Jalal of FoMu (pronounced faux-moo — get it?) stumbled upon dairy-free ice creams testing flavors when she launched the business five years ago. “One flavor I knew I wanted to make was a coconut-milk flavor,” she says. “My intention wasn’t necessarily to keep it plant-based, but it was so delicious that it just evolved.”
Now FoMu’s flavors all start with a plant-based, from-scratch mix. “We literally start with a coconut — a coconut cream or a raw cashew cream that we can make ourselves and add organic sweeteners,” says Jalal. The business has grown; a South End shop opened in May, joining branches in Allston and Jamaica Plain, along with regular area pop-ups.
Jalal also attributes the explosion in artisanal ice creams to greater consumer interest in avoiding processed foods. “You look back at a lot of food, historically, and you don’t really know what’s wrong until you taste the real thing,” she says. “I think a lot of people who care about food and the real food movement are thinking, ‘You know what? I’m going to do a real take on ice cream.’ ”
Meanwhile, area stalwarts like Toscanini’s are still going strong. “We have a very informed group of customers who like to eat ice cream and are always looking for something different,” Rancatore says.
Perhaps it’s because people in cold climates crave high-fat diets, he muses. Maybe it’s our dairy tradition, or the history of places like Howard Johnson’s and Friendly’s in the region. Whatever the reason, Rancatore says, Boston is a good place to be in the ice cream business.
“Before I opened Toscanini’s, I was crossing the street in Harvard Square, and it was beginning to snow. I looked to my left, and I looked to my right, and people were eating ice cream cones, and I said, ‘This is going to work out.’ ”