For ice cream shops on the frigid 45th parallel, counting on little to no sales in winter is just part of the business plan.
But a slow summer? That’s something Katie Romanski could not have predicted.
The creator of Minnesota Nice Cream, a food truck for frozen treats that went brick and mortar in northeast Minneapolis two years ago and in Stillwater last year, Romanski has been floored by an extreme decrease in customers at what should be the height of her busiest season.
She is seeing 90% fewer customers over last year. She is also shouldering the added costs of extra cleaning supplies, masks and gloves. Then she’s working 12-hour days to make up for a dearth of staffers willing to come back. Imagining new takeout-friendly novelties for customers who prefer curbside pickup. And practically running in and out of the shop with people’s orders, since Romanski has chosen to conduct all transactions outside.
For a sweet industry, summer 2020 is shaping up to be a bitter one.
“It’s very emotional,” Romanski said. “I don’t want to let my business fail. But is ice cream worth risking people’s lives?”
This is not the summer any ice-cream shop proprietor would have banked on, before the coronavirus.
But since COVID-19 first forced the closure of indoor dining in the spring, many customers have been staying away from scoop shops, too.
And though they’ve been allowed to reopen since early June, the experience of walking into an ice cream shop is now very different from summer memories of hot days and cool treats.
Many adapted by installing plexiglass barriers at counters, keeping lines socially distant, doing away with cones that require handling, and eliminating samples — which require removing a mask and dirtying a spoon to try them. Others stopped scooping altogether, instead offering products that are premade and portable. Some shops have introduced make-at-home kits for ice cream sandwiches and floats, such as Honey & Mackie’s in Plymouth.
To avoid risking the health of her workers, Ashlee Olds decided to sell only novelties and prepacked pints from her Sweet Science Ice Cream shop at the Keg and Case Market in St. Paul.
Her thinking: “What could we do that could capture that spirit of fun” that ice cream shops used to offer, with their endless samples and open vats of colorful flavors?
Many ice cream purveyors have leaned on pint sales, one bright spot in an otherwise grim year, as people stock up home freezers with this quarantine staple.
“People walk up and get three or four, and they’re not even thinking about it,” said Ben Spangler, who owns the new Minneapolis shop Bebe Zito with his fiancée, Gabriella Grant.
Some restaurants have even added ice cream to their takeout menus, including Due Focacceria in St. Paul, which recently launched a gelato cart. Four Craft & Crew restaurants opened a Cookies & Custard walk-up window since the pandemic began. Pastry chef Diane Moua’s ice creams are now on sale at Spoon and Stable, and Centro sells churro ice cream and Mexican frozen pops.
Spangler packs his complex pints with more than vanilla. He calls them “composed sundaes,” with mix-ins swirled throughout. For the s’mores flavor, he tops the ice cream with a brûléed marshmallow.
“If you take something home,” Spangler wondered, “can it still be magic?”
But even demand for pints has created a problem of its own.
With so many restaurants entering the takeout game and needing to procure packaging, “you can’t even get paper pints,” Grant said. “Pints are the new toilet paper.”
Those who were selling pints and frozen novelties in grocery stores at the beginning of the lockdown had more of a safety net.
“When COVID hit, everyone who had products in grocery stores was just killing it,” said Chase Huffman, whose family has owned Grand Ole Creamery for more than three decades. “I’d never seen shelves just emptied.”
At his St. Paul store, customers would buy close to a gallon of ice cream at a time.
One thing that didn’t surprise ice cream makers this year: Their product is the über-comfort food.
“There was this cocooning,” said Erik Brust, CEO and founder of JonnyPops, the locally made frozen fruit-and-cream bars. The company lost a significant chunk of business when schools closed and airlines canceled flights, but it has simultaneously been buoyed by supermarket shoppers.
“How do you bring every comfort into your life in the new normal?” Brust said. “I think ice cream ended up being a category that was a beneficiary of that concept.”
But smaller retailers with only their shops to rely on are torn between wishing for more customers and acknowledging that there are risks with every public encounter.
“We’re in a really sticky spot,” said Romanski, who decided not to take Minnesota Nice Cream trucks out this summer because she doesn’t want to encourage large gatherings. “When the ice cream truck goes around, everyone comes running. As much as I want to, I can’t make those sales.”
Izzy’s Ice Cream is having a rocky year. It closed its original St. Paul location in April, and had to hand-pack up to 900 grocery store “tall cups” a day from its Minneapolis kitchen when it temporarily couldn’t afford the co-packer it normally used in Wisconsin.
Despite staff being busier than ever, in-store sales are down about 80%.
The hardest part for Jeff Sommers, who founded Izzy’s with his wife Lara 20 years ago, is that he can’t connect with customers from behind a mask. He can’t even recognize his regulars anymore, when personal interactions were, for him, the heart of the ice cream shop experience.
“I feel like I’m looking through a periscope,” Sommers said. “Like, it’s so much harder to see the world.”
In the month since Milkjam Creamery reopened to the public, “things are fluctuating on the daily,” said co-owner Sameh Wadi.
The line that would normally spill out onto Lyndale Avenue is mostly gone, but that’s partly because of a shortened menu that keeps customers’ decisionmaking time to a minimum.
Still, staff are prepared to answer in-depth questions about Milkjam’s unusual flavors, since they can’t be sampled.
Wadi has no illusions that a scoop shop experience in 2020 will be anything like it was before the pandemic. But there is one constant.
“You don’t need to eat ice cream for sustenance. You eat it for joy,” he said. “That was one of the most important parts of reopening: bringing back joy in people’s lives.”