Winter in Seattle. Time for Northwesterners to gravitate to braised stews, root vegetables, and … ice cream shops?
That’s how it looks at University Village, where Molly Moon Neitzel recently opened the sixth shop in her community-focused ice cream empire, Molly Moon’s. Or on Capitol Hill, where Neitzel collaborated with baker Robin Wehl Martin on a joint cookie and ice cream outlet that opened in December. Or in Ballard, where Adria Shimada’s Parfait Ice Cream opened this winter serving organic ice cream and ice cream-based baked goods made with local ingredients, down to the house-made sprinkles.
Seasonal temperatures affect business at the frozen dessert shops, of course. But Seattle’s appetite for ice cream, gelato, frozen custard and frozen yogurt shops seems insatiable.
“Colder markets statistically and historically consume more frozen desserts than other markets … it’s reverse psychology when you look at the data,” said Amit Kleinberger, CEO of the Menchie’s frozen yogurt chain, when his Queen Anne shop was featured on TV’s Undercover Boss in the fall. Seattle is among the business’s top-performing markets — not just in the U.S., but worldwide, he said.
The current Seattle Freeze has neighborhoods boasting handfuls of different ice cream options. Capitol Hill alone, beyond a Molly Moon scoop shop and Hello Robin, is home to Bluebird Ice Cream, D’Ambrosio Gelato, Lick Pure Ice Cream, Cupcake Royale (which has an in-house ice cream line) and Old School Frozen Custard, plus several non locally-based chains.
It’s a far sweeter situation than when Neitzel opened her first Molly Moon shop in Wallingford in 2008, with a business plan that showed the state was one of the biggest consumers of ice cream per capita when it came to supermarket sales, but that there were few outlets for scoop shops, particularly the sort of sustainably-minded, locally focused business she had in mind. She opened in March that year featuring flavors like a coffee ice cream using Vivace beans and a strawberry with Skagit Valley berries, compostable cups, and a commitment to social issues like paying employees health insurance premiums.
“My first summer, my sales were almost triple what my business plan said they would be,” Neitzel said.
Within weeks after opening, she hired a chef to start overseeing the ice cream production. Investors backed a second shop in Capitol Hill the following year, and she was able to support further expansions on her own. It was something like the chefs who go from daily cooking on the line to managing several outlets, except that Neitzel’s goals were always about the places as much as the product. “While I love ice cream and love making it, I was not ever as passionate about wanting to make ice cream for the city of Seattle as I was about wanting to create a community gathering place around ice cream,” she said. She estimated that 25 independent ice cream shops have opened in the city since her first.
At that time, in 2008, she had said that she saw artisan ice cream shops taking off in the same way that cupcake shops had. She was more correct than she could have known; businesswoman Jody Hall of the Cupcake Royale empire, who has similarly community-minded goals and a commitment to local ingredients, put in an entire line of cupcake-based ice creams in 2012 and an ice creamery. Full Tilt Ice Cream, which opened in White Center not long after Neitzel’s first shop, now has four retail outlets and is carried in local markets like PCC.
Maltby-based Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, which produces the mixes used by many local ice cream, gelato and custard shops (including Molly Moon), produces four times as much as it did five years ago, said co-owner Barry Bettinger. The company also produces more specialized mixes than in years past, like a soft-serve one for Lunchbox Laboratory restaurants, and makes specialized flavors for the dessert menus of area restaurants.
The rise of retail ice cream shops hasn’t hurt Snoqualmie’s own line of ice creams sold at supermarkets — it’s added big new clients like Fred Meyer and Safeway NW markets, started a line of single-serve cups, and is remodeling the Maltby ice cream cafe where they retail flavors like Mukilteo Mudd and Yakima Peach. That’s all on top of an intense focus on natural ingredients that led the Snoqualmie owners — whose plant is based on sustainable practices like solar panels and energy-efficient heating — to start up their own neighboring farm. They bake their own add-ins like brownies rather than buying commercial versions with artificial ingredients.
How does the market in Seattle (average lows in February, 37 degrees) support all this ice cream?
“I don’t know that I can answer that, other than that the market does,” said Neitzel.
“I’ve done better every year that I’ve been in business on Capitol Hill, even though every year another place opens, so I think it’s fine … A high tide rises all boats, and I think we all do well together. I think that’s true of our economy in general and I think it’s true for the frozen dessert business too.”