At 7 o’clock in the morning on a rainy Sunday, Capitol Street in Charleston was practically deserted.
Charleston isn’t an early riser. The city leans toward sensible bedtimes, likes to sleep in on the weekends and tends to stay out of the rain. But for some reason, I thought there’d be trouble finding a space near Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream, so I’d parked a block-and-a-half away.
At least it gave me a few minutes to think about what I was trying to do.
I’ve been an ice cream fan since always. I don’t remember my first scoop, but I remember plenty that came after — eating bowls of cheap Fudge Ripple or Neapolitan while watching “Hee-Haw” with my grandmother; picking up Dairy Queen Blizzards in my hometown, right after I got my driver’s license because Mom offered to “buy, if you’ll drive.”
I remember sharing banana splits at Blue’s Barbecue in South Charleston. You wanted to go when the little lady with the dark hair was working. She was more generous with the ice cream than the men.
I think she understood it was a sundae meant for two and I needed all the help I could get.
Ice cream helped me drown some sorrows, too. I have no idea how many half-gallons of Turkey Hill Peanut Butter and Chocolate I went through after every breakup. Lucky for me, Kroger’s frequently put it on special.
The summer I moved into my house, 10 years ago, I bought an ice cream maker.
It was an automatic, electric machine. Part of it went in your freezer and eliminated the need for bags of ice and rock salt, like my grandparents had used on the farm. All you had to do was keep the bottom half of the machine in your freezer until you were ready to use it.
With the new house, I imagined churning out pint and pint of knock-off Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia all summer long. But then my small, family home turned into a spacious bachelor pad a few weeks after I moved in.
I never made any ice cream. The bottom half of the machine is still in the freezer, next to a bag of green beans and my last loaf of zucchini bread.
I wasn’t sure where this month about ice cream was going to go, but Ellen Beal seemed game to let me come learn what I could about life in an ice cream shop.
That seemed like fun.
Before I got this really nice job working behind a keyboard, I used to make coffee drinks and sell cookies at Books-A-Million. I was sort of good at it and enjoyed working the counter, talking to customers and drinking obscene amounts of coffee.
Maybe I could work my way through all the ice cream flavors on the menu.
Along with seeing how the ice cream gets made; figuring out how to make a scoop look like a nice, neat ball instead of a lumpy, ice nugget (typically, I just eat straight out of the carton); and maybe learning how to make a decent milkshake on my own, this would give me an excuse to put my ice cream machine to good use.
While I would leave the tried-and-true flavors to Ellen, I’d experiment and try recipes not usually found in the frozen treats aisle of your local grocery store. Some of these I’d unleash on my co-workers, who are none too picky.
Ellen unlocked the door, ushered me into her shop and then led me into her small, but exceptionally tidy and organized kitchen.
Through college I worked in a variety of pizza parlors, steak houses and sandwich shops. Some were pretty clean. Others should have been killed with fire.
On the kitchen walls were neat, carefully written notes, warnings and diagrams for workers to follow to keep the place running.
Today, however, Ellen and her assistant, Anna Legge, were making ice cream — a lot of ice cream.
Freezer tape labels for the individual, 2-and-a-half gallon buckets were lined up affixed to the front of a stainless-steel shelf for convenient retrieval. My math is not the best, but I estimated they were making around 60 to 70 gallons of ice cream.
“On a good day, we can mix 10 buckets an hour,” Ellen told me. “Other times, we’re doing good to get eight.”
They worked in tandem. Ellen measured and stirred flavor mixes, while Anna poured ice cream base into the machine and then endlessly stirred in cookie pieces, chocolate, nuts or something else into the semi-solid ice cream coming out of the machine.
Like me, Anna was hopelessly right-handed.
“I’ve tried to switch it up,” she said. “It’s always awkward.”
In the summer, when the shop makes lots and lots of ice cream, Anna said her right arm will put on more muscle than her left. The same thing happens to Ellen, but she’s a lefty.
The two women remained in motion. Anna moved like a dancer, hopping up on her toes to reach shelves or turning to get something, while Ellen worked like this was a gym class sprint.
It looked exhausting. I tried to stay out of the way.
In between mixes, while Ellen washed and sanitized fresh buckets, I caught some of the story of Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream.
Ellen was an ice cream fan and an ice cream shop fan long before she opened her place on Capitol Street. While she was looking into starting her own place, she contacted Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont about franchising in Charleston.
“This was all sort of pre-internet,” she said.
She mailed a business letter and the ice cream icons turned her down.
We have no interest in expanding into Virginia, they told her.
“I told them this was West Virginia. They didn’t care,” she said, still annoyed.
Ben & Jerry’s still doesn’t care. According to the company website, the closest Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop is in Christiansburg, Virginia.
Rather than give up, Ellen got in touch with Bev Mazursky, the owner of Bev’s Homemade Ice Cream in Massachusetts. They met, talked, but Bev was unsure about working with Ellen.
“She asked me where I was going to get my cream?” Ellen said.
Ellen didn’t know. She’d come to Bev for answers.
Bev told her she could tell her at dinner in a few hours, so Ellen scrambled, made phone calls, and in a couple of hours, found someone who could supply an ice cream shop in Charleston, West Virginia.
Meeting for dinner, Bev asked Ellen again about the supplier.
“Once we did that, she was OK with us,” Ellen said. “I think she wanted to see if we were serious and if we could handle problems.”
There was always something to deal with, she said.
Ellen opened Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream in September of 1997, which she said was the wrong time to open the shop, but the best way for her to get started.
“If we’d started in the summer, we wouldn’t have known how to handle winter,” she said.
Selling ice cream when it’s warm is pretty easy. Surviving when it’s cold outside is hard.
After nearly 25 years, she said, they still rely on the weather for sales, though Ellen said they came to embrace selling things less dependent on sunshine, like coffee drinks, hot soups, salads and wraps.
Often, these specials have an international flavor with spices from India, Asia or Africa. Vegan and gluten-free options are routinely part of the menu. They like to shake things up.
With ice cream, new flavors emerge occasionally.
“There hasn’t been much added in the past year,” Ellen said.
COVID-19 strikes again.
With so much energy invested in making the flavors and so many years in operation, Ellen said she didn’t have a consistent favorite.
“It all depends on my mood,” she said. “Sometimes, vanilla is great. Simple flavors can be underrated. Plain vanilla with hot fudge is really good.”