On many summer evenings, the line outside Izzy's Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul often spills out onto the sidewalk, as devotees wait patiently for their fix of salted caramel, Norwegian chai or 30 other flavors of ice cream -- topped with a signature baby scoop, the Izzy.
But the owners of Izzy's say the Merriam Park ice cream store and production facility have become cramped, and they're looking to expand. They've targeted a now-barren patch of land fronted by Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis. Just a block away from the Guthrie Theater, the 9,730-square-foot, city-owned parcel is one of a few empty lots remaining in the popular Mill District.
Izzy's co-owners -- husband-and-wife team Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel -- are hopeful the city will accept their offer for the land, which would serve as the Minneapolis-based outpost for the privately held business. The duo plans on building a 1 1/2-story ice cream factory, with a retail outlet selling prepackaged treats. Noted Duluth architect David Salmela has signed on to design the 5,100-square-foot building.
"It's important for us to have a presence in both cities," Sommers said this week, noting the Izzy's store on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul will remain open. "We are very optimistic and excited and hopeful. We think it will be a beautiful place to make ice cream."
But some residents reportedly expressed concern at a recent neighborhood association meeting about the potential for increased traffic in the area, which is accessible to Interstates 35W and 94. There was also concern about a factory occupying the site, which is zoned light industrial, said Cathy Polasky, director of Economic Policy and Development for the city.
Sommers acknowledges those concerns and says he hopes to meet with residents to discuss his proposal. "I want to work to earn their respect," he said.
The city, which is seeking $437,850 for the land at 1100 S. 2nd St., has reacted favorably to Izzy's offer.
"Izzy's, which makes world-class ice cream right here in Minnesota, is a great fit for Minneapolis' burgeoning local food, beer and restaurant scenes," said Mayor R.T. Rybak. "It's also a great fit for the neighborhood's dynamic mix of residents, cyclists, students, pedestrians and entertainment-goers. And another local small business adding good jobs in our region is always good news."
Izzy's plans to hire 13 full-time employees for the Minneapolis site, which would initially focus on producing pints of ice cream to serve the grocery market.
Some neighbors had long assumed the parcel would be developed into condominiums. About a year ago, Coon Rapids developer Jim Stanton of Shamrock Development Inc. bid on the parcel, but his offer was less than the asking price and city officials rejected it. One media report said the bid fell short by $87,000. Stanton did not return several phone calls.
Shamrock Development owns three parcels of land that surround the proposed Izzy's spot and has already won approval from the city to construct two buildings with about 150 condos in a project tentatively called Park Vista. Stanton has already developed the Bridgewater condo building facing Gold Medal Park, which features about 300 units.
While negotiations fizzled with Stanton, the city kept a for-sale sign posted on the lot, at the corner of 2nd Street and 11th Avenue S. Hammel spotted the sign while carpooling kids to school and later mentioned it to her husband. "We thought it would be too expensive, but it didn't turn out that way," Sommers said.
Founded in 2000 by Sommers, a former Minneapolis public schoolteacher, and Hammel, a lawyer, Izzy's has won a loyal following locally and garnered national attention. In addition to its St. Paul store, the company supplies several local restaurants, such as Punch Pizza and 128 Cafe, and grocery stores, including Kowalski's, with ice cream. Readers Digest declared it the best ice cream in the country, and it routinely makes the area's "Best of" food lists.
But the St. Paul site has grown too cramped to accommodate increased demand for the product, which appears to be recession-proof.
"Recessions don't affect ice cream sales," said Lynda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association, an Illinois-based trade group of independently owned ice cream businesses. "It's a treat that's affordable. You really don't pay much for an ice cream cone, and it tastes good."
When asked how much he was investing in the new site, Sommers would say only "10 years of my life."
The current operation produces about 95 2 1/2-gallon tubs a day during peak times, Sommers said. Although there is only room for 32 flavors to be sold at any given time, Izzy's produces up to 124 flavors.
The Minneapolis land will need some environmental remediation, and Izzy's is expected to apply for state and county grants to clean up the site before construction, Polasky said.
Sommers hopes the project will be completed by spring 2013.
Area resident Jerry Lee wasn't aware of the Izzy's proposal, but said "it would be nice to have something there." As Lee and his pup Emma circled Gold Medal Park on Thursday morning, he said he was hoping the spot would be turned into green space to complement Gold Medal Park. "It doesn't sound like that will happen."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752