When Innovation Makes You Drool: The Hand-Made Story Of Ample Hills

Thankfully, the business world has seen a growing cultural counterpoint to the "growth at any cost" mentality. Here, a look at a company that adheres strictly to a hand-made ethos while drawing inspiration from across creative disciplines.

Even though the ice cream shop Ample Hills Creamery is in the residential enclave of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, the endless lines don’t stop in the middle of the workday. If you show up on a hot Monday afternoon in July expecting to get a scoop of their signature salted crack caramel ice cream (voted "the crackiest" by New York magazine) without a 15-minute wait, you’re going to be disappointed.

What makes Ample Hills’ ice cream worth the delay? Shop owner and ice cream maker Brian Smith looks at ice cream creation as a creative process—one where he taps the same kind of inspiration he relied on in his old day job, which was writing screenplays and directing audiobooks. Among Smith’s previous gigs are writing a TV movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips called Alien Express and a directing an audiobook of Barack Obama in his pre-presidential days reading Dreams from My Father. Ankling the media business has paid off: Ample Hills’ ice cream was named #1 in New York City by Zagat’s 2012/2013 guide just one year after opening.

He describes the process of coming up with new flavors as tapping into similar innovative urges as writing and directing. "Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory has the same eight flavors and they’ve never changed. That would make me want to shoot myself," the wiry Smith says while seated at a table shellacked with '50s ice cream ads at Ample Hills’ single location. "What I needed was to wake up every morning and say, maybe today I’ll make peanut butter, banana, and honey ice cream, and maybe tomorrow I’ll make coffee and donut ice cream."

The handcrafted way in which Ample Hills makes its ice cream also allows for a more inventive product. All of the shop’s ice cream is made in-house, either by Smith or one of three other employees who were taught by Smith. Most other ice cream companies use a pre-made ice cream base, while Smith and company churn their own from a mixture of whole milk, heavy cream, organic cane sugar, skim milk powder, and egg yolks.

Because the base is homemade, they can tweak the recipe for added deliciousness. "We make a pretzel-infused ice cream," Smith explains, which involves taking pretzels, steeping them in milk, draining out the pretzel mush, and making the base using that special concoction. "You can’t do that if you have your milk and eggs and cream and sugar already together in a mix."

Keeping his ice cream artisanal is deeply important to Smith. While he’s looking to expand to a second location and perhaps someday start shipping pints of ice cream using dry ice, he never wants his ice cream to be mass produced—even if that might inhibit future growth. "All we have is the quality of the product," Smith says. "I won’t ever tinker with that. We want to make sure that any growth that we have, a human being will be making every scoop of ice cream, trained by me."

Since Smith uses his former work experience to inform his ice cream creations, he also encourages his employees to use their unrelated creative impulses to enrich the business. He points out that ice cream scooping is by nature a transient business. "All of these people will be moving on to do other things," Smith says, "so why not use some of the other skills they have?" The store has brand-new T-shirts designed by one of their scoopers, who also does illustrations for their ice cream cakes. Other employees are musicians, and Smith has them come play at the shop’s live music nights.

That generous creative atmosphere extends to the patrons. Though Smith comes up with some of the new flavors on his own, many of them are inspired by guests and friends of the store. The shop’s newest hit is an ice cream called Bourbon Street, an homage to New Orleans that was suggested by the father of one of his staffers. It’s a vanilla bean ice cream with Maker’s Mark and homemade pecan praline. Brooklynites are going to have to wait to get a taste of the French Quarter: As of this writing, Bourbon Street is sold out.

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