Ample Hills Creamery Survives its Own Success

New York’s only all-from-scratch ice cream shop was unprepared for its customers’ enthusiasm.

PROSPECT HEIGHTS—Like many people obsessed with an ideal, Brian Smith is quick to point out flaws in what appears to be the perfect operation. Smith is the man—some would say genius—behind flavors like the Miss Piggy (strawberry-studded candied bacon and whirls of strawberry puree) and the Oh So Sweet (vanilla with lacy veins of honey and hunks of frozen comb) at Ample Hills, which became the city’s only 100 percent made-from-scratch ice cream shop when it opened last June.

After a trial run pushing a cart at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, Smith and his wife, Jacquie, built the old-fashioned parlor—beyond its 19th-century-style sourcing from local dairies, it takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—in a long-unused corner store on Vanderbilt Avenue a few blocks from their home. Even in January, business was brisk with folks buying pints and scoops of Ooey Gooey Buttercake or PB&J, and now that it’s summer, lines 20 lickers long regularly snake past the kitchen window, where you can look in on Smith’s ice cream alchemy.

After just a year, Smith’s saltine cracker–studded Salted Crack Caramel has been named a best-of in at least three city publications—most Yelp reviews are topped with multiple exclamation points—and even his plain old vanilla is generally deemed the nonpareil. Made with upstate milk and eggs (Battenkill Creamery and Feather Ridge, respectively) and cream from Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Krieder Farms), it’s appropriately named Walt’s Dream. “Simplicity,” wrote the poet long before locavores went back to the basics, “is the glory of expression.”

But no matter the accolades or the adorers, from Smith’s perspective so much falls short: His “museum of ice cream artistry”—originally destined to be a full-fledged exhibit space with ice cream ads, inventions and technology from the past century—is still only a few images on the tables and walls. His plan to teach customers how ice cream is made while they eat it is but a few posters above the window into his galley-like kitchen. (Which could technically be bigger, says Smith, 42, but then he’d lose the kids’ play area at the back.) And even though he churns ice cream all day six days a week—there’s sometimes maybe only 23 flavors on hand instead of his target 24.

Yet despite these so-called setbacks, the only criticism voiced by the customers who queue up daily (“line forms here!” cheerfully announces the arty sign one of Smith’s crew made after some initial chaos) is that Smith, well, he just really needs to make more ice cream.

It’s been the prevailing sentiment from the start. “An Ice Cream Shop So Good, It Closes After Just 4 Days,” went the Times City Room headline last June, when the place opened and then immediately sold out of everything. “I prepared for failure,” says Smith, who shut the shop for nine days to buy bigger equipment and train six new hires. “I hadn’t prepared at all for success.”

That might be because much of his work life had been spent studying the details of debacle. Before Ample Hills, Smith wrote monster movies for outfits like the Sci-Fi Channel and science-fiction screenplays. (He also turned out old-school radio plays for WYNC and worked on audiobooks like Obama reading Dreams from My Father or Richard Gere reading the Dalai Lama.)

But the entertainment industry—“the constant struggle of the next gig,” as Smith puts it—was exhausting. Instead he found fulfillment in a happy hobby. What was “far more rewarding than having somebody see my latest monster movie script,” recalls Smith, was cranking out quirky quarts for the ice cream socials he threw in the Adirondacks each summer, when friends and families gathered around Trout Lake in Wolf Lake State Forest to get brain freeze together. He’d churn one inspired flavor after another, using a low-technology machine like the one he now displays in his own parlor. (It’s attached to a tricked-out bike; if you book Ample Hills for an ice cream party you can pedal away until you end up with a gallon and a half of any flavor you want.)

Taking stock, he decided it was time to make good on a decades-old dream: “One of the fantasies that I had at five or six years old was that I’d run an ice cream parlor.” (So far his track record is remarkable: Another goal was to run an old-time
radio show.)

So he enrolled in both a city-sponsored restaurant-management boot camp and a professional chemistry course in the 120-year-old ice cream program at Penn State, which covers everything from fat molecules to multi-gallon production (Ben and Jerry are alums). It was an essential education for Smith who, unlike pretty much any ice cream shop in the country, produces his own base mix—what’s known in ice cream parlance as custard—100 percent from scratch. Every other parlor in New York—even those making their own recipes from pristine fresh organic and local product—buys milk, egg yolks and cream pre-mixed and pre-pasteurized in big batches.

If Smith were a pizzaiolo, in other words, he’d be the one crazy guy grinding his own wheat berries into flour and pressing his own olives into oil.

Not only is it time-intensive to make your own custard—at Ample Hills they separate hundreds of eggs a day, for example—but it also requires USDA approval, and equipment that looks like the stuff of Smith’s old sci-fi films. He must cook his custard at 155 degrees for 30 minutes in a special 30-gallon double-boiler pasteurizer that’s hooked up to a USDA “chart recorder,” a little machine that keeps a record of time and temperature. In fact, Ample Hills is technically a USDA-certified dairy.

Once it’s heated, the custard must immediately be chilled. Smith’s 100-gallon tank pumps ice water into the steel walls of the pasteurizer with help from tubes like those used in kidney dialysis. As a result, it takes three days to make even something as simple as his Vanilla Malted: Smith’s crew mix and pasteurize one day, then add the vanilla malt or the shards of homemade caramel or the pureed strawberries and bacon, then churn it, then it’s “cured” in a minus-20-degree blast freezer overnight.

Scoops are $4, not bad when you consider cups at Coldstone Creamery in Atlantic Center Mall fetch the very same price. “I can almost guarantee my ice cream is the most expensive to produce in New York City,” says Smith. “If you’re in it for the money,” he laughs, “it doesn’t really pay.”

Despite a highfalutin farm-focus on fresh custard—Smith gets eggs and dairy from farms several times a week; farmers’ names are etched in chalk behind the counter—most of Ample Hills’ flavors feel far more classic snack than Slow Food.

“You’re not going to find goat cheese ice cream here,” says Smith, “you’re gonna find peanut butter cookie, or Snyder’s potato chips.” His Pure Sunshine is fresh oranges and cream cheese; a Black Cow Float is root beer and chocolate swirls; Sixpoint Craft Ale’s Otis Stout is paired with pretzels; while Sunset in the Keys is loaded with chunks of Steve’s Key lime pie, made over in Red Hook. With Momofuku’s Cereal Milk soft-serve as muse, Smith’s Breakfast Trash ice cream is infused with Frosted Flakes, Sugar Corn Pops and Cap’n Crunch—then studded with Froot Loops. But rest assured his similar-sounding Salted Crack Caramel is based not on Momofuku’s other sweet signature, but on the “crack” cookies—made with Saltine crackers, sugar, butter and milk—his friend Deb has been baking for years.

“I love coming up with crazy flavors,” says Smith, who admits he takes inspiration from ice cream gods who’ve come before him. (“It’s the same way I came up with monster movie ideas,” he shrugs: “Let’s take a little bit of that monster, and I’ll put him in the swamp instead of a desert.”) His goal is 24 unique flavors at all times, and he’s outfitted his antique “dipping cabinet” with smaller, rectangular cardboard boxes rather than the traditional round foil tubs, so he can squeeze in eight more flavors.

Beyond the joy of serving stellar scoops and sundaes, Smith is also glad to own one of those old-fashioned shops where the owner is behind the counter and the locals linger long after the last drops of their malted have melted. “It’s about more than the ice cream,” says Smith. “I wanted to create a gathering place.” Smith’s desire to cultivate community—steel-drum players might appear on winter weekends; there’s a box where you can swap junk you no longer need—is why he named it Ample Hills in the first place.

“I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine,” wrote Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which, funnily enough, was being published just as modern technology was making the first ice cream parlors possible. The poem, says Smith, is “about connections between people through time. I cross the same river that you cross. I saw the same buildings you see. He’s talking to us,” says Smith, who sought in his shop a similar feel to those socials he used to host up in Wolf Lake State Forest.

But for the neighborhood kids, some rewards are more important than kinship and 19th-century poets—like a killer scoop of Sweet Cream n’ Cookies. (Though lest you be jealous of Smith’s own kids—Noma Kai, five, and Kaleo, three—know that their mother, a Brooklyn public schoolteacher who still wields the scooper at the Ample Hills Celebrate Brooklyn cart, says they are only allowed the fruits of their father’s labor every few days.)

And even his kids—like the crowds queued up from noon to 11 p.m.—have no idea just how much work goes into this ice cream. We doubt he’d lose a single customer if he used premixed custard. But he does it for his own standards, not theirs: “It seemed like a cop-out,” he says with a characteristic shrug, “to not do it from scratch.”

Photo credit: John Taggart

Ample Hills Creamery: 623 Vanderbilt Ave. at St. Mark’s Ave., Prospect Heights; 347.240.3926; amplehills.com

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.