The scoop on Santa Cruz’s dynamic, delicious ice creme scene
By Lisa Crawford Watson
Photography by Ted Holladay
Growing up, ice cream meant we had cleaned our plates. Mom bought Neapolitan ice milk in a rectangular box from the milkman because she thought it was healthier than store bought, she could serve it in slices and we could get three flavors for the price of one: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Dad was the only one who ever ate the strawberry.
Ice cream is still the sweet treat at the end of a meal. It’s also cool on a sore throat and soft on a sad one. It’s a celebration among family and friends, the scoop sliding down the side of warm apple pie on the Fourth of July, and perched on pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.
When the summer fog clears, and the hot, clear days of our autumnal Indian summer stir a yearning for iced treats, the place to be is Santa Cruz, as it is home to a stunning four local ice cream makers. They all take their craft very seriously and emphasize quality ingredients, yet each has its own distinct personality.
The New Classic
The Penny Ice Creamery chef and co-owner Kendra Baker was voted Best Chef of 2013 by Edible Monterey Bay readers, and it’s no wonder: The classically trained former pastry chef at the renowned restaurant, Manresa, of Los Gatos has used her unusual creativity and her dedication to sourcing fresh, organic ingredients from local foragers and farmers to carve out a reputation for making chef-driven, unique ice creams entirely from scratch.
For The Penny, says Baker’s business partner, Zach Davis, “from scratch” means starting with certified organic, free-range eggs and cream from Clover Organic Farms, rather than purchasing a prepared ice cream base (like the acclaimed organic base made by Straus Family Creamery of Marshall, Calif., which is popular with other artisanal makers), and to their unique bases they add organic sugar and flavorings, like local fruits, herbs and flowers.
This unusual choice has forced The Penny to become a certified pasteurizer, but there are benefits that make the red tape and extra inspections worthwhile.
“A base helps support big, bold, robust flavors; instead, we make a light ice cream that enhances subtle flavors but doesn’t consume them,” Davis says. “Kendra’s black pepper cheesecake is very sophisticated, and her chocolate chili smoke uses smoked chilies directly from el Salchichero. We also hand-make our own super-light waffle cones, with whipped egg whites left over from the yokes that go into ice cream.”
Since opening their first store near the farmers’ market on Cedar Street, the pair has launched another in Pleasure Point, a downtown kiosk, and a café facing the beach between the Boardwalk and the Wharf, called The Picnic Basket.
“We make our ice cream in very small batches, and we don’t keep it longer than a week. Our flavors are super seasonal, and we change them by three to four flavors a week.”
Baker and Davis, who has a degree in sustainable enterprise from the Dominican University of California, ultimately see their business as a community investment that celebrates and supports the local farmers and food artisans as well as its customers. (The company’s name, in fact, is a reference to Carlo Gatti, a 19th century Swiss entrepreneur credited with bringing ice cream from the elite to the public, for a penny a portion.)
“Our goal with the ice creamery,” says Davis, “is to create an experience around ice cream and to have a net regenerative impact on the community. We want to have a positive impact, which doesn’t mean zero waste because some waste creates food for other sources, such as farm animals and plants. Our first criterion is a personal relationship with our farmers and other sources, which extends to our customers.”
Organic and fun for all
Around the corner, on Pacific Avenue, last fall Dave Kumec opened his modern take on a traditional ice cream parlor and dessert café to complement the wholesale side of Mission Hill Creamery, his pop- ular organic, artisanal ice cream company. With an expansive, ani- mal-focused mural laden with signature Santa Cruz imagery painted across the walls of the bright, open space, the theme for the shop is a contemporary ice cream social.
“I like to make people happy,” says Kumec, “and ice cream seems to do that. It’s a treat any time, but I particularly like it at the end of a meal, as a sweet moment and reminder of what you’ve just shared.”
A chef and head of operations at resorts in France and the Sonoma wine country in his former career, Kumec was looking to create something to feed the soul, when he started Mission Hill two years ago. Initially inspired by famed Berthillon ice cream in Paris, he and his family ate a lot of ice cream as he tested recipes, and he even went to “Ice Cream University,” a 12-month consulting pro- gram in New York, to learn how to make and market it well. He now scoops up 16 flavors of artisanal ice cream, plus sundaes, packed pints and milkshakes, and offers a full espresso bar menu and other treats.
“A lot of people go into the ice cream business with the romantic notion it will be sweet and easy,” Kumec says. “But there are a lot of moving parts. We went down the path of being an organic business based on Straus because our goal is to make the best ice cream, and Straus helps us do that. We don’t put any strange stuff in our ice cream—things like polysorbate 80, monodiglycerides or corn syrup. We don’t want to eat those things and believe others don’t either. This means our customers can expect fresh, pure, fantastic-tasting ice cream.”
Like the surfboard in the paw of the mascot pictured on Polar Bear Ice Cream’s logo, Polar Bear is a beloved Santa Cruz fixture.
First opened in 1975, Polar Bear was owned for 23 years by Car- olyn Grey. Several years ago, it shut down and looked like it might remain closed forever. But Mary Young and her daughter, Andra Aquino, bought and lovingly resurrected the iconic business.
For a time after Polar Bear’s original Soquel Avenue retail shop was closed, the ice cream maker had no storefront at all. But the new owners rewarded their loyal fans in 2010 by opening a retail shop at the manufacturing location, on Coral Street.
And what had the customers been missing? Polar Bear’s small- batch ice cream, served by the scoop, in floats or sandwiched be- tween fresh oatmeal cookies and dipped in chocolate—the store’s signature “Bear Paw.”
“At Polar Bear,” says Young, “quality is our main focus. We use fresh and all-natural ingredients whenever possible, such as berries from Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, honey from Walls Honey Farm in Soquel, vanilla from the Vanilla Co. in Santa Cruz and cookie dough from Pacific Cookie Co. And we produce everything by hand. Every container is mixed, marbled, packed and labeled by us, giving it a homemade feel.”
The enthusiasm of Young and Aquino is contagious and Polar Bear has a strong following not only with its retail customers but also with the stores and restaurants that distribute it, like Marini’s, Betty Burgers and Village Grill & Creamery in Capitola.
A Santa Cruz Icon in Caring New Hands
In a red, caboose-like building on Ocean Street, beneath a bright yel- low sign that has gone from classic to kitsch to cool, Marianne’s Ice Cream has been in business since 1947, making it Santa Cruz’s old- est ice cream maker.
Named for the original proprietor’s two daughters, Mary and Annie, the company was owned for most of its history—from 1958 to earlier this year—by Sam and Dorothy Lieberman. The pair re- tired their scoopers in January, passing them to “perfect people,” Charlie Wilcox and Kelly Dillon, who have experience as both social entrepreneurs and bankers.
It all started when Wilcox and Dillon went to Marianne’s for a sweet treat at 11pm on a Saturday night and found the place packed. “We thought, ‘Wow, look at that!’” says Wilcox. “The very next day, I was Googling around, and saw that Marianne’s was listed for sale. We know it’s an institution here and thought it would be a great way to carry on a family tradition. We started pursuing it.”
Following the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” adage, Wilcox and Dillon have avoided introducing much change to the company. After finding out the worn-out, iconic cow-patterned wallpaper was no longer in print, they had it recreated rather than replacing it. A big part of what makes the “Marianne’s experience,” says Dillon, is that it is authentic and remains much the same as it was when Sam was scooping ice cream.
“In the early days,” says Sam, who still visits the store, “we had 13 flavors of ice cream and put out five gallons every 20 minutes. We’d make ice cream in the morning and scoop it in the afternoon. In the early ‘70s, we took over the liquor store next door, built a pro- duction room on site, bought two more machines and started turn- ing out 10 gallons every few minutes. By then, we had to hire a couple of kids to scoop ice cream.”
Eventually, Sam moved production to a 3,500-square-foot fa- cility near Capitola and began churning out 250 gallons an hour, which enabled him to develop his wholesale business.
“In a 5-hour production day, that’s a lot of ice cream,” says Sam. “But no matter how much we made, our middle name has always been quality.”
Marianne’s serves some 75–80 different flavors a day, includ- ing Sam’s signature “1020” ice cream, which outsells everything, in- cluding vanilla. Named for the street address, it is a rich blend of caramel ice cream, fudge and Oreo cookies. Pumpkin is always pop- ular and always available, as is vanilla bean, which comes in second to 1020.
And now, how to decide which one to try? My advice: Try them all, and bring your family along. They’re sure to thank you.