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McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream

Honoring the family-owned company's 65-year-old history with a new flagship store in Santa Barbara

by Julie Wolfson in Food + Drink on 03 September 2013

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When McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream won the Sofi Award for Best Dessert at the New York Fancy Food Show this year, the new owners—winemaker Michael Palmer and chef Eva Ein—were thrilled, but not completely surprised. Palmer and Ein were such loyal fans of the heritage Santa Barbara-based ice cream brand that they bought the company in 2012.

The duo's goals echo the legacy left by the family-owned company to continue to make the best ice cream possible. In 1948, Gordon McConnell created an innovative hybrid French pot ice cream maker that he fashioned from re-gearing a commercial dough mixer integrated with a mechanized stainless steel box. Since 1975 all of McConnell’s flavors have been handcrafted at their Old Dairy headquarters in Santa Barbara, where they pasteurize their own milk and cream from local farms.

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Now on State Street in the heart of the Santa Barbara shopping district, Palmer and Ein along with a team of artisans are putting the finishing touches on their new flagship scoop shop. The space showcases modern industrial design elements along with details that celebrate the history of the company. Inside the front door customers can see an original compressor from the dairy. Meanwhile the McConnell’s sign on the wall has been forged from metal into the shape of the original owner’s signature.

The new scoop shop will celebrate their grand opening tomorrow, 4 September 2013. After getting a sneak peek into the new space, CH sat down with Palmer to get a firsthand account of why he and Ein purchased the company, persevere in keeping all aspects of their operation local and how McConnell’s ice cream has earned the devotion of so many passionate fans.

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What inspired you to go into the ice cream business?

I grew up with McConnell’s knowing it was great ice cream, that it was local and there was something special about it. I always loved making ice cream and would make it for parties and at home. I got very interested when the longtime owners were segueing out of it and I knew that they wanted—if at all possible—for it to remain a family-owned local brand. From a brand perspective, heritage brands becoming available are few and far between, especially ones that are what I consider "best in class."

How did you make the decision to buy the company?

I went all over the country tasting the finest artisan products out there. At the same time I did a deep dive into McConnell’s to learn what makes it so special. I learned is this is a very special product all the way around: the recipes, where the ingredients are coming from, how it is made, the butterfat content and density. And then there’s what I call the secret sauce. All of the artisan ice creams are made very similarly except for McConnell’s, which uses a proprietary process invented by Gordon McConnell in the '40s. That process in combination with the absolute finest ingredients makes for a product that is exceptional.

What are the challenges of buying a heritage brand?

When heritage brands become available, they usually get snapped up by larger companies. It was important to the family that McConnell’s remain a local brand. For this family their entire lives were wrapped up for decades in this product. For us it is a labor of love, but also a unique opportunity.

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How local is the milk and cream you use?

We work with one of the oldest family-run dairies in the state. We get our milk from a co-op of farms in central California. McConnell’s came to the Old Dairy in Santa Barbara about 40 years ago and have been at that headquarters ever since. We are the only artisan ice cream company I know that pasteurizes our own raw milk and cream. We do everything from scratch. We have a strict benchmark for the milk and cream we use, which includes animal husbandry and methane recapturing.

Why is the new flagship store in Santa Barbara important to the company?

We felt that part of getting the word out about McConnell’s was telling the story of the company’s seventy-year history. When I heard about McConnell’s being for sale, I went over a sat with Jim McCoy for a weekend and talked for hours and hours about the company. By Sunday he asked me if I would be willing to take the challenge on. I went home. We were two weeks from breaking ground on a new house. Eva and I decided we were not going to build a house, but we were going to try to build this brand. We want to get this relative secret that we had known about for years out. We feel other people should know about it. We wanted the shop to be a different experience. It is about building the ultimate destination for a unique ice cream experience. We want it to be tactile and timeless from a design perspective.

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Can you describe the look of the space and how you chose the design elements?

We are housed in the Old Dairy in Downtown Santa Barbara, which is this beautiful 1935 tiled-in dairy and processing facility. It was important to bring in that look and feel of the manufacturing facility. The machinist aesthetic of the scoop shop reflects the production facilities within the dairy using materials like raw steel, caste iron, raw concrete and an original compressor. There were seven original compressors that powered the refrigeration system at the dairy before we overhauled it a year ago. I took the smallest of the compressors and had a friend of mine who paints hot rods restore it and installed it into the wall of the new shop.

Along with making the classic flavors, how do you develop new ones to add to the menu?

McConnell’s has the highest butter fat, but it eats delicately. Eva together with Mike Vierra, who is one of the few master ice cream makers with over 35 years of experience, creates the new flavors. They paired smoked salted almond brittle from Paso Almond with dark chocolate ice cream. McConnell’s has had ingredient partners for more that 50 years including Guittard chocolate and RR Lochhead vanilla.

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What’s your new favorite flavor?

We just won the Sofi Award for best dessert at the Fancy Food Show for the Double Peanut Butter Chip. We have a new Chocolate Covered Strawberries flavor. Our Salted Caramel Chip uses bitter chocolate. For our Churros Con Leche, we make the churros and cut them into ice cream, lighty flavored with cinnamon. It’s about creating flavors that are delicious and that people will want to eat all the time. We are not trying to shock people.

Ice cream is unique in that it hits you in your kid spot. We all have incredible memories and sense memories of having eaten ice cream when we were kids. Those memories bring us straight back to a certain time in our lives when things were more innocent and simple. We want it to be engaging and inclusive.

McConnell’s ice cream is now open on State Street in Santa Barbara and available in specialty markets and by delivery throughout the US for $10 a pint.

Images courtesy of McConnell's Ice Cream

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