The Ice Cream Parlor

Ice cream holds a special place in my culinary heart. Around the prime ice-cream-eating age of 6, my parents opened up an ice cream parlor in my small hometown. The ice cream parlor was “conceived in insanity” as my father likes to say, but truly the idea was inspired by the local family-run businesses my parents had frequented. With their own growing family, they figured they, too, might find a source of supplemental income and success.

Ice cream was also a choice offering in the beach-town, that is of course during the short summer season one finds along the shores of Lake Michigan. And with only one other ice cream store in town, there was certainly potential.

Not long after they set their minds to it, they found a space in an old building downtown that was close to the park overlooking the lake and walking distance to the beach. With its tin-ceilings and corner lot, the place had just the right feel for an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. But that wasn’t the only draw. It was rented by a landlord who was interested in getting a commercial occupancy to make the building more valuable for sale. So he made my parents a sweet deal: He offered them a lease with rent based on a percentage of the profits. They jumped at the opportunity.

Now at the time, my parents were no experts on ice cream, but they did their research. They packed their five children into a van and visited ice cream parlors all over the state, purchasing equipment, talking to owners about their ingredients and methods, and sampling (though that was mostly left to us kids). Though they hadn’t set out to make natural ice cream, when they saw some of the additives and colorings that went into some ice cream flavors, they decided they couldn’t serve what they wouldn’t want to feed to their own children.

After less than half a year of preparation, Constellations, Home of the Big Dipper, opened to the public. They offered on average 12 flavors of old-fashioned ice cream and sorbet, written on a chalkboard in my mother’s handwriting. My father poured milk into the huge ice cream maker and lugged away tubs of whipped ice cream into the flash freezer. Those kids old enough (or with long enough arms to reach the tubs) helped serve.

Venturing beyond the average vanilla and chocolate, my mother concocted recipes including such flavors as toasted almond, rum raisin, and cinnamon. They even found some of their mistakes, like speckled chocolate, turn into hits. One mistake, a personal favorite for this six-year-old, was ice cream with M&Ms that had turned into swirls of orange and pink with black chocolate dots. My mother, playing a marketing joke, added this flavor to the daily board, which resulted in curious customers requesting two scoops of “Eye of Newt.”

The flavors were only part of the shop’s charm. They hosted a local artist to paint in their front window and they offered myriad specialties. They had Uncle Sam Sundaes on the Fourth of July, a waffle-sailboat filled with a crew of your favorite ice creams, and a tasting sampler made of a waffle shaped into an artist’s palette and dotted with colorful scoops of various flavors.

The ice cream parlor was certainly successful during peak season, with lines forming around the block. On more than one occasion, they kept their doors open well past closing time to satisfy all those who waited for a taste.

Business boomed each summer, but the other seasons were unsurprisingly lulls. In their second year, after their building had been sold, they had to consider whether it was worth keeping open. Challenges with the change of owners as well managing their regular day jobs and family on top of the shop had become a strain that their small profits could not offset. They decided to close.

Though they had only a short run, my parents still look back nostalgically on those days of waffle cones, ice cream scoops, and customers, and until only recently, they even maintained their commercial ice cream machine, breaking it out on occasion to delight their friends with flavors from the past.

Despite the fact that it did not take off, I am always inspired when I think about the story of Constellations. The ice cream parlor venture exemplifies my parents’ entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and hard work. No doubt that their love of food and willingness to experiment are also their legacies. Though they might wonder at the thought of blue-cheese ice cream, I am sure they would have added it to the daily board.