We All Scream
Sweeten your summer with a cold, local cone.
By Elizabeth Brignac
Ice cream is always popular, especially in the sunny South—but in recent years, the Triangle area’s enthusiasm for ice cream has burgeoned. New ice cream shops are popping up across the Raleigh area, run by chefs experimenting with exciting approaches to the classic frozen treat.
Each of these independently owned Wake County ice cream shops makes their products in-house and sells ice cream in storefronts or stands. They all offer premium ice cream, which means that they use cream with a high percentage of milkfat. Most offer vegan options and sorbets, and they all emphasize using high-quality ingredients for their flavors and toppings. While they share these factors, each of these businesses takes a unique approach to its product—with tasty results for the community.
Ask Lumpy’s owner Buck Buchanan how he keeps honey ice cream from being too sweet and his enthusiastic answer goes on for several minutes, covering the season and soil in which the honey was produced, the province of the vanilla beans, and the stage in the season when the cows are milked. “In the spring, if you’ve got a good dairy and they’re running things naturally, then your cream’s going to have an onion flavor. And you have to try and work with it,” says Buchanan. “It’s a good balancing game. It’s fun.”
Enthusiasm for the product, balancing textures and flavors, and running things naturally are core principles at Lumpy’s. Buchanan worked as a fine dining chef before opening Lumpy’s, and brings this experience to his ice cream. He invents new recipes constantly—more than 400 at this point, though he only offers 16 at any one time and rotates them often. Lumpy’s tries to make ice cream a healthy treat by including as little sugar as possible and avoiding any kinds of artificial filler, colors, or flavoring.
Lumpy’s began in 2001 and opened its storefront business in Wake Forest in 2012. The store has built up an enthusiastic customer base and has been witness to 18 marriage proposals on the premises. Fun fact: Lumpy’s catered many of the weddings that followed! “We want to be a place where the kids of today will bring their kids,” Buchanan says.
Most popular flavor: Guatamala Chocolate
Brett Hillman opened Fresh in Raleigh in 2011. Since then, his son and daughter-in-law, Jason and Casey Hillman, have opened stores in downtown Cary and in Apex, where Jason grew up. The family emphasizes high-quality, local ingredients and a lifelong love of the Triangle area.
At all three locations, Fresh makes its ice cream in-house using recipes invented by Brett and Casey, who often experiment with recipes together. Some flavors, like Banana Pudding and Carolina Crunch, remain available all the time, while others rotate seasonally.
The Hillmans are careful to source their ingredients as close to home as possible, using Jackson Dairy farm in Dunn for their cream and local food businesses for many of their other ingredients. The cookies in their Cookies and Cream recipe, for example, come from Cary’s La Farm Bakery, and the cake in their German Chocolate Cake ice cream is from Annelore’s German Bakery.
Jason Hillman emphasizes that Fresh’s process remains consistent in all three of their Wake County stores. “It’s a family-owned small business that cares about the community,” he says.
Most popular flavor:
Midnight Brownie (chocolate ice cream with brownie pieces and cookie crunch)
Eric Torres and his cousin Carlos Torres opened Vida Dulce near downtown Cary in 2018, modeling it after Eric’s grandfather’s store in Guadalajara. “Anything that you see here, you would find in that ice cream shop,” he says.
Customers at Vida Dulce can purchase ice cream and ice pops in traditionally Hispanic flavors like tamarind and strawberry butter, as well as in more mainstream U.S. flavors. The menu offers Mangonadas (mango sorbet and fresh mango topped with lime juice and tamarind sauce), Churro Splits, and other frozen treats familiar in Guadalajara. Vida Dulce also offers horchata and a plethora of other Mexican snack foods, such as fried pasta and street corn. Torres experiments with new ideas as well as traditional ones.
For example, he’s currently working on a lychee ice pop recipe at the request of a customer from India.
Torres’ staff is bilingual and trained to familiarize non-Hispanic clients with the store. “Ice cream and desserts bring people together,” Torres says. “That was the idea behind this: to try to make it a welcome place for everyone.”
He wants to introduce non-Hispanic Americans to his family’s culture. “The culture in Mexico is something beautiful,” he says, encouraging people to try new flavors and food options. “It’s worth it,” he says, adding, “don’t be afraid to try the weird things.”
Most popular flavors: Pine Nut and Vanilla Cake
NC State University has been selling its ice cream at the North Carolina State Fair since the late 1970s and on its campus since the mid-1980s. Now branded as Howling Cow, their ice cream is manufactured in the university’s dairy processing center from milk produced on its farm in Raleigh.* The money made by Howling Cow ice cream funds research and learning opportunities at NC State. Producing the ice cream itself is an educational process, as students are heavily involved in caring for and milking the cows, and in producing the ice cream.
As the long lines at the State Fair can attest, Howling Cow’s ice cream is known for its high quality. The taste is partly due to superior ingredients, but Carl Hollifield, Howling Cow’s assistant director, also attributes it to a unique process—a curing step, in which they hold liquid ice cream base in a chilled tank for a day after pasteurizing it. “It’s like when you put chili in the fridge. It’s always better the next day,” he says.
To buy a cone of Howling Cow ice cream, check out one of their three locations on NC State’s campus.
Most popular flavor: Wolf Tracks (fudge and vanilla swirl ice cream mixed with mini peanut butter cups)
*The Howling Cow ice cream sold at Harris Teeter
uses the same recipes and ingredients but is not processed on campus.
When Mama Bird’s owner Lesley Richmond says things are homemade, she means everything. Mama Bird’s bills itself as a “cookies and cream” establishment because, Richmond explains, “The majority of the candies and cookies that we put into our ice cream are made in-house.”
Customers can order ice cream served over cobbler, sandwiched between homemade cookies and brownies, or in waffle cones made in front of the customers. “For our Cake Batter ice cream, we actually make the cake batter from scratch, put that dry cake batter in the ice cream base, and then also bake a cake and put chunks of cake in it,” Richmond says. Peppermint patties, honeycomb candies, marshmallows—all of these sweets are made in-house as well, and used in the ice cream recipes. The Butter Pecan ice cream is made with homemade pecan brittle.
Lesley and Nick Richmond opened Mama Bird’s as a cart-based ice cream business in 2015, and they have since expanded to a storefront in Holly Springs and into Raleigh’s Morgan Street Food Hall. Their menu rotates, so their flavors change frequently.
Most popular flavor (adults): Salted Crackamel (caramelized soda crackers dipped in chocolate and mixed into salted caramel ice cream)
Most popular flavor (children): Cookie Monster (Oreos, homemade snickerdoodles, and cookie dough)
Milk Lab owners Bin Chen and Sandy Lam first encountered rolled ice cream in Thailand, where it has been a popular street food for the past 10 years. They opened Milk Lab in 2017, serving both rolled ice cream and a selection of milk teas, with which customers can order add-ons like lychee, boba (chewy tapioca balls), and milk caps (layers of sweet-salty foam made of cream, cream cheese, and Himalayan pink salt).
Every ingredient in Milk Lab’s ice cream is made in-house, from the custard base to the finished product. To create each serving, an ice cream chef pours the liquid custard base over a metal surface frozen to -20°C and mixes the base rapidly with the flavoring for each order. Once the layer of custard is mixed and frozen, the ice cream is scraped into cylindrical rolls. One serving includes several rolls served in a cup with added toppings of the customer’s choice.
As the popularity of rolled ice cream has exploded in the U.S., Milk Lab distinguishes itself by remaining committed to using high-quality ingredients like imported, fresh-brewed tea in their beverages and organic milk and cream in all of their products.
Most popular flavor: Monkey Business (vanilla ice cream with fresh bananas and Nutella)
Andia Xouris’ goal has been to open a community ice cream shop ever since she and her husband George frequented a store they loved in New Jersey. “My husband would always say, ‘It’s such a great thing. It makes people happy, brings people together,’” Xouris says. The two began their business as an ice cream catering company and expanded into a storefront in west Cary in 2017.
Andia’s offers a permanent menu of 18 flavors and a rotating menu of five flavors. Xouris spent years honing her recipes, and she works with local suppliers for the fruits and herbs that she uses. The shop’s international customer base influences the flavors it offers. Xouris created a rose pistachio flavor, for example, because her Greek family liked rose-flavored treats. She added it to the permanent menu because of its popularity with customers from other cultures who also like to use rose in their sweets.
Andia’s emphasizes strong relationships with its customers. Xouris greets regular customers by name and knows their ice cream preferences. Love for Andia’s extends beyond the Triangle as well. In the nearly two years since it opened, Andia’s has won three awards at the National Ice Cream Retailer’s Association annual conference, including a 2018 blue ribbon for their Double Dark Chocolate recipe.
Most popular flavor: Double Dark Chocolate
Two Roosters’ owner Jared Plummer describes his ice cream brand, which has two locations in Raleigh, as a “hobby turned into an obsession turned into a business.” He opened Two Roosters in 2017, with a focus on giving traditional ice cream recipes a creative twist.
Two Roosters keeps a short list of regular flavors and another list of rotating “guest” flavors. The guest list centers on a different theme each month, and this practice allows Plummer to collaborate in interesting ways with other local businesses. February, for example, was chocolate month. Two Roosters worked with local chocolate confectioners Escazu, Videri, and Chocolatay on new ways to use chocolate in ice cream, creating flavors like Chocolate Potato Chip and Cinnamon Chocolate Mole Bark.
Monthly themes range from seasonal offerings to foods like coffee, cake, and doughnuts to approaches involving the local community. May’s theme, for example, is a kid chef series, with students from nearby elementary schools creating the guest list flavors. In June, the store will offer recipes created by local chefs like Ashley Christensen and Van Nolintha. By focusing the themes on local talent, it helps Two Roosters maintain flavors that are high quality, community-oriented, and always interesting.
Most popular regular flavor: Sea Salt Chip Cookie Dough
Most popular guest flavor: Smoky s’mores (ice cream mixed with cold-smoked chocolate fudge and homemade, seared marshmallow fluff)
Customer response drives Scott Wilson’s ice cream business. Founded in 2003 and open from March through December each year, Sunni Sky (named after Wilson’s daughter Sunni and his son Skylar) is located near Fuquay-Varina and draws customers from miles around.
Sunni Sky ice cream comes in a tremendous variety of flavors. Originally, Wilson had planned a regular menu of 30 flavors and a rotating menu of 12. “But,” he notes, “if you make a good one, people are mad if you take it away.” His menu has grown from 30 offerings to approximately 120, all of which are available for most of the season. “If I had a bigger store, I’d probably have 150 or 160,” Wilson chuckles.
He creates the flavors himself, generally in response to customer suggestions. The Banana Pudding ice cream recipe, for example, was adapted from a staff member’s grandmother’s pudding recipe, following customer requests for the flavor. Wilson tweaked it until it got a good response. Not all recipes get a positive reception, and less popular flavors are dropped.
Wilson’s trial-and-error approach has garnered Sunni Sky a 16-year run and an enthusiastic customer base, and he attributes the store’s popularity to its high-quality ingredients and its affordable prices. “We get people from Wake Forest and from Fayetteville,” Wilson says. “We live in fear on Mother’s Day.”
Most popular flavors: Chocolate and Cake Batter