How Ample Hills Nails the Cultural ZeitgeistThe whimsical Brooklyn-born shop churns out tall tales with ice cream
You’re never going to find avocado ice cream at Ample Hills. They’re not churning bits of sage or prosciutto chips into their concoctions. And there’s definitely no coconut ash on the menu.
The Brooklyn-born ice cream shop isn’t doing what you might expect from a typical Brooklyn food pioneer–breaking experimental new flavors–and that’s entirely the point. “We do not make serious ice cream,” their site proclaims. But they are particularly skilled at telling fun, culturally relevant stories around an old-fashioned treat.
The opening of their first Prospect Heights outpost in 2011 is a story revered in the borough’s small-business world. They sold out of ice cream in four days, with adoration, glowing press and eventually even Oprah’s seal of approval. Since then, Ample Hills Creamery has used their nimble operation to create flavors around pop-culture darlings including Star Wars, Breaking Bad, The X-Files, Mad Men, and most recently, a Gilmore Girls-inspired flavor that gained attention in Vanity Fair, Eater and many other outlets. In January, they even created a flavor for The View’s 20th anniversary; the chocolate marshmallow ice cream, with house-made “Ooey Gooey” and “Salted Crack” cookies and fudge brownies, was meant to symbolize the talk show’s differing points of view.
So what churns their imagination? It might be appropriate to call husband-and-wife co-owners Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna expert storytellers and marketers who just happen to own an ice-cream shop. “It’s relatively easy to get press for a new shop opening,” says Smith. “It’s very difficult to get press for opening your ninth or tenth ice cream shop.” Their solution? Tell new stories. In this case, a keen awareness of the zeitgeist seems to come naturally to Smith, who wrote sci-fi screenplays and produced radio plays before opening Ample Hills at age 40.
A Scoop of Inside Jokes
But there are some cultural touchstones that sneak up on him. Most recently, the Gilmore Girls flavor nearly didn’t happen. Ample Hills’ art director Lauren Kaelin, who’s responsible for the brands’ clever murals and pint-container designs, suggested the idea after noticing how much attention the food-and-drink obsessed series was getting in anticipation of its Netflix revival. “I had never seen Gilmore Girls,” says Smith. “I said, No, that sounds crazy, but then let her convince me and she was absolutely right.”
They put out a call on social media for Gilmore Girls flavors and names. Two thousand suggestions later, let’s just say fans of the fictional town of Stars Hollow, CT, are an enthusiastic bunch. The winner, an inside joke-heavy treat called They Scoop Gilmores, Don’t They?, is a coffee chocolate-pudding ice cream with snickerdoodles and pink sprinkles. It ended the year as the store’s most popular promotional flavor.
All that positive notice boosted foot traffic in their shops, expanded their reach on social media, and translated into a small boon in online orders which they ship nationwide packed in dry ice. Ample Hills is able to produce these flavors quickly because of the company’s relatively small size, but the business is growing. They now employ 90 to 100 workers (called Amployees) at five shops in New York City and one outpost at Disney in Orlando.
The store’s first pop-culture foray was the Heisenberry, a sweet-cream concoction with raspberry preserves and blue Pop Rocks made to celebrate Breaking Bad‘s finale, complete with official prop candy from the show, which Ample Hills imported from Albuquerque. (Since they’re family-friendly, that flavor was available only for people who requested it—they didn’t want kids to get the wrong idea about the “blue stuff.” ) There was also One More for the Road, a Mad Men finale ode with Canadian Club whisky and glazed orange peel, and The Truth Is In Here, a paranormal green pistachio ice cream with chocolate-covered sunflower seeds for The X-Files’ long-awaited return.
Smith considers these flavors to be like fan fiction, since customers are involved with creating and naming them. None of them are officially licensed except for limited-edition pints based on 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The flavors, dubbed The Light Side and The Dark Side, came from an official partnership with Lucas film. “Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, is a fan of ours and reached out tome and offered to sort of mentor us,” says Smith. “I ended up pitching him on doing the Star Wars ice cream. For me, being a sci-fi movie writer and being obsessed with all things J.J. Abrams, getting to meet him, talk to him, and share ice cream with him, and make the Star Wars ice cream, that was the Holy Grail.”
One of Smith’s goals is to do a series of stories and ice cream flavors with famous writers, similar to Chipotle’s author-penned short stories on their takeout bags and cups. He’ll have to add that to other big projects on the horizon. Thanks to a $4 million equity round raised in 2015, led by Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Ample Hills will open in late spring their largest endeavor yet: a 15,000-square-foot interactive destination in Red Hook with a retail shop, classes, self-guided tours, and plenty of room for ice-cream birthday parties.
Meanwhile, they’ll keep churning ice cream and telling stories. “Ice cream is like soup, you can do absolutely anything with it,” says Smith. “The possibilities are endless.”