Whenever Mike Mitchell goes to a party, he knows better than to show up without a few pints of Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream. It was no different this past winter, despite the infamous polar vortex that churned over Northeast Ohio like a giant soft-serve machine. Mitchell, half of the dynamic sibling duo that launched the local brand in 1999, turned up at a neighbor’s gathering with a cooler filled with several flavors of the frozen goodness. Suddenly, he was the most popular guy in the room. Adult party guests, including me, swarmed around him at the kitchen island scooping up spoonfuls of Mint Cookies and Cream, Caramelized Chocolate, and the seasonal Egg Nog.
In that instant, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers found the one thing they all had in common—the love of ice cream.
“Sure, it’s an inherently delicious thing to eat,” says Mitchell. “But, consciously or unconsciously, it connects us back to our childhood. Some of the earliest and best memories we have involve ice cream, whether you had it after a ball game or after a movie. It goes back as far as you can remember.”
Ohio has a long history with ice cream, primarily because the state traditionally had a lot of dairy cows that produce the main ingredient—milk. That, combined with the availability of affordable refrigeration methods in the early 20th century, brought ice cream to the masses, says Sherry Abell, one of the owners of the former America’s Ice Cream and Dairy Museum, which was located at Elm Farm in Medina, Ohio, until 2010. “Before that, only big cities had refrigeration. Ice cream was a luxury reserved for the well-to-do who would go to the ice cream parlor and have their dessert served in cut-glass bowls with silver spoons.”
Until it closed during the recent recession, the museum was loaded with tons of antique dairy memorabilia collected through the years by the Abell family, which operated a dairy farm for more than a century before selling to Smith Dairy in 1979. Perhaps the biggest draw, though, was the replica ice cream parlor that served homemade ice cream made with natural ingredients and a dangerously delicious high-butterfat content.
One of the region’s original farm-to-cone operations that is still in business today is Toft’s Dairy in Sandusky. In the early 1900s, Chris and Matilda Toft began selling raw milk from their farm delivered by horse-drawn wagon. As the company grew, so did its product line. Toft’s moved to a larger facility in the mid- 1930s and added an old-time soda fountain that served homemade ice cream in 1940.
To put it in perspective, Dairy Queen in Illinois and United Dairy Farmers in Norwood, Ohio, both got their start in the ice cream business the same year. It wasn’t long before walk-up ice cream operations were gracing many corners of the American landscape.
“In this neck of the woods, there were so many dairies when I was growing up in Elyria and Lorain,” says Josef Bomback, who started Cowhaus Creamery in Lorain County with his wife, Debby Krejsa, in 2011. “My sister and I would jump in the back of the pickup and go with Dad to get cones and shakes.”
Ice cream has come a long way since the days when everything was black and white, or should I say, chocolate and vanilla. Today’s modern ice cream makers dream in Technicolor, with all sorts inventive flavor combinations that span the spectrum from savory to sweet.
“I like to try different things,” says Bomback, a musician turned food artisan, who often experiments with inspiring ingredients from both near (Lucky Penny Goat Cheese from Kent, for one) and far (Tahitian Vanilla). “Sometimes the wacky things work, and sometimes they don’t. You can’t write a hit every time.”
Needless to say, the sea salt and seaweed ice cream didn’t take off, but other flavors have stuck, such as the Carmelized Honey and Cardamom, which has a decidedly Moroccan influence. Wabi Sabi, ginger ice cream with ribbons of plum and orange sauce, is another favorite.
“It was one of our first flavors,” says Bomback. “It was inspired by the Chinese. Besides being insane, we’re culturally driven.”
Other up-and-coming entrepreneurs are making ice cream without the dairy, which has the vegan and lactoseintolerant crowds screaming for, well, almond-, avocado- or coconut-based, non-dairy frozen treats. (It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?)
“From the start, we wanted to focus on vegan ice creams just as much as the other milk-based flavors we create,” says Jesse Mason of Mason’s Creamery, which opened its first brick-andmortar store in Ohio City in May. “Coming from L.A., where there were lots of vegan options, we wanted to make sure we offered something for people in Cleveland as well.”
To that end, Mason and his new bride, Helen Qin, have tried to create fun flavors that would make any dairy lover jealous. “We’ve made vegan paw paw—a very creamy Ohio fruit—and vegan Cleveland Whiskey cinnamon roll most recently. We’ve had a really great response.”
Across the board, customer satisfaction is the biggest motivating factor for small-batch ice cream makers in Northeast Ohio. After all, the owners are all ice cream fans themselves first and foremost.
“I got into this business because I love ice cream,” says Mitchell. “I want to make sure we make the highest quality ice cream that I can be proud to serve to other people’s children.”
These are the kids who will someday share their happy memories of going to get ice cream with the next generation.
“It’s such an amazing feeling being a part of people’s lives,” says Mason. “I think a lot of us have these great memories of eating ice cream with loved ones growing up. To be able to be a part of that is just really fulfilling.”
Don’t miss our sampling of favorite local ice-cream spots!