Churros con leche, Turkish coffee, double peanut butter chip, and chocolate-covered strawberries. These are but some of the rich and creamy ice cream flavors made by a longtime California company that is both innovative and steeped in the “made by hand” tradition that is au courant in many up-and-coming food operations today. Terms like “eat local” are a familiar part of the food lexicon yet McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams has been using fresh milk and cream from grass-fed cows that live in Central Coast dairy farms since its start. Cage-free organic eggs and pure cane sugar mean quality (and top dollar) and are two menu musts that put McConnell’s decidedly ahead of the ice cream curve all these years. McConnell’s headquarters in Santa Barbara is a former dairy -- another reminder of the deep connection to dairy and history.
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams is a California heritage ice cream company started 70 years ago in Santa Barbara. McConnell’s is sold in California supermarkets and in the Bay Area, look for it at: Duc Loi, Whole Foods, Bryan’s, Draeger’s and more; there is also a steady foodservice component. Founder Gordon “Mac” McConnell was a World War II veteran who tinkered around in his garage when he realized he couldn’t find the sort of ice cream he had eaten in restaurants during his travels to France and Mexico. The result was a hybrid French pot, and his tinkering and the decision to go into business is much like the start-ups in our own Silicon Valley. Mac’s wife Ernesteen is still alive and in touch with the new owners. After Mac passed away in the 1960s, the ice cream business was sold in 1963 to Jim and Jeney McCoy who ran it in Santa Barbara for nearly five decades.
McConnell’s current owners are Michael Palmer and Eva Ein—his background is in winemaking and advertising and she is a chef-restaurateur for Le Café Stella and Stella Mare’s. Palmer is a self-identified “coffee fanatic” and grew up eating McConnell’s Turkish coffee ice cream as a child. He and Ein, along with the McConnell’s staff, spent the last year and a half in start-up mode, modernizing the equipment, production process and ice cream recipes. Many of the staff have worked there a long time, including Albert Campusano, who is the Senior Ice Cream Maker and has been with the company for 25 years. Mike Vierra has been with McConnell’s for 34 years and holds the rare title of Master Ice Cream Maker. Charley Price was recently brought on board since he is a dairy and ice cream specialist.
In celebration of National Ice Cream Month, I toured the company’s facility and was able to taste peanut butter ice cream from the aptly named ice cream spigot with Palmer (he says the spigot gets a lot of action on Friday afternoons in a sweet twist on the traditional work happy hour). Ein is so dedicated to the culinary R&D efforts that she blind tasted 26 chocolates when they first bought McConnell’s. Guittard made the cut, as did Valrhona, and Guittard has been a partner of McConnell’s for over 50 years.
Their efforts are paying off: McConnell’s recently won a prestigious Specialty Food Association Sofi award in the dessert category for the double peanut butter chip flavor at the Summer Fancy Food show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York. McConnell’s stands out: the mouth feel is creamier and the product sports over 18% milk fat. Premium does come with a price, and the retail pricing per pint is in the $6 range. But it is richer and high quality, so in theory one could try serving a smaller portion. And then fantasize about having another bite, and another... if my own home tasting sessions are any indicator.
Ice cream floats may be a traditional way to enjoy ice cream, but McConnell's has teamed up with ENO Wine Bar in San Francisco. ENO's Wine Director, Joel Kampf offers wine pairings with ice cream--a little something to sauce up dessert night at home. Here are Kampf's tasting notes:
Toasted Coconut Almond Chip: 2012 Cellars 33 Keefer Ranch Chardonnay. Full and generously textured Chardonnay from one of the most sought after single-vineyard fruit in California. Apple, caramel and enough citrus zest to refresh the weighty palate.
Salted Caramel Chip or Turkish Coffee: 2012 Diemersfontein Pinotage. South Africa's hidden gem (or nightmare depending upon who makes it) of a varietal comes through with distinct roasted coffee aromatics that follow up with bitter baker's cocoa on the palate. South Africa's original Frankenstein of a grape.
Santa Barbara Strawberry: NV Cavas Hill Sparkling Rose. Deep ruby red color suggests a fruity style Cava and this Monastrell based bubble does not disappoint. Strawberry, cherry and pomegranate fruit dominate the palate with plenty of tiny bubbles to refresh.
Golden State Vanilla or Summer Peach: NV Valdo Prosecco. Pair vanilla with peaches and you have a match made in heaven. The Valdo Prosecco gives off peaches surrounded by bright citrus notes, all it needs is some vanilla and...BOOM!
In Santa Barbara, Palmer walked me through the company’s history and current landscape. He was also enthusiastic about plans to open a McConnell’s scoop shop in downtown Santa Barbara, and is working with local artisans to create a retail space on State Street. The scoop shop will be styled with retro design elements like red booths upstairs and black and white checkerboard floors.
Palmer’s comments have been edited for clarity and grammar.
Bay Area Bites: How do you come up with flavors and update the ones you have had for awhile? There are some international flavor twists including coconut, churros and coffee. Palmer: We have a very democratized space and are a small, familial group. For our churros flavor, we were talking about horchata, which we all love. We wanted to capture the nuances of the flavor and Eva came up with the flavor, which is light with cinnamon. It is an ode to Santa Barbara, as well, since horchata is served around town and especially tastes good at my favorite Mexican spot down the road.
Our chip-making process is unique. Most companies take chocolate flake. Inclusions are a way to save money in the business. We take Guittard and do a molten chip process, with ice cream in a pot at 20-21 degrees. Then we heat up the chocolate to over 100 degrees and introduce the chocolate by hand as it’s churning in the pot, for warm chocolate fractures. When you taste it, you’ll get a big chip, then a little chip, for an incredible mouth feel.
The first year was about solidifying the legacy flavors, which are peppermint, chocolate, and coffee. One of our first experiments was toasted coconut almond chip. We use salt roasted almonds and put the chip in.
Our double peanut chip has a base of peanut butter then peanut butter is folded in. To make sure it stays creamy, we put a chip on top of that.
We have a new chocolate flavor: dark chocolate Paso brittle that has smoked sea salt almond brittle made in Paso Robles in dark chocolate ice cream. Roadside raspberry is another new flavor and the chocolate covered strawberries flavor is local organic berries in sweet cream with a Guittard chip and it’s really reminiscent of a chocolate-covered strawberry.
Bay Area Bites: You purchased this heritage ice cream brand in early 2012. What are the challenges and successes so far? Palmer: It’s a surprise every day. First and foremost, we are figuring out how to get out this unique story to longtime consumers and people in the food industry who aren’t aware of McConnell’s. Inside the industry, we are reasonably well known since it was the original artisan ice cream brand but the company never looked at itself that way.
The ice cream industry kind of caught up from the perspective of artisan food. Terms like local, sustainable, and best in class have hit ice cream. What makes ours the best is our ingredients, recipe and standpoint. Farm-to-table has hit ice cream dead on. This company was always about those things but it didn’t really occur to McConnell’s to embrace that or talk about it.
Bay Area Bites: McConnell’s has been making fine ice cream since 1949. Who are your competitors? Palmer: There are a handful of top tier ice cream companies working at their craft nationally. We don’t really feel our job is to compete with those companies. Our job is to make the most exceptional ice cream. All others use batch freezers and secondarily pasteurize or buy mix from a dairy. Some are using exceptional ingredients.
We are the only company that does everything from scratch. It is highly inefficient. We literally pasteurize from eight family dairy farms. We don’t make chocolate but we use Guittard. When it comes to our mix we do our own mix. The best ice creams in the country have 14% milk fat and do an over run of 30%. Our ice cream is 18% milk fat -- you wouldn’t want lower than 10%.
The secret sauce is our recipes. Mike Vierra is a master ice cream maker and Charlie Price, our President is the consummate dairy insider. My wife Eva is a chef. For about 70 years, McConnell’s has been doing it one way and getting it right and being obsessive & perfectionistic.
Bay Area Bites: What are your operations like? Palmer: When we got McConnell’s, we realized we were food and wine people and not ice cream or dairy insiders. A friend put me in touch with Charlie Price, who was running a dairy operation in Western Pennsylvania. When we approached him, he said, “This is the product I’ve been waiting my whole life for,” and moved his family here. He’s made a huge difference. We had a machine built in Holland.
When McConnell’s started, it was with all local ingredients from a vibrant dairy business. Our office used to be an old dairy serving Paso Robles to the San Fernando Valley until 1945. We used fresh cream and milk and organic eggs and the ice cream was 24% butterfat at the time, essentially butter. Up to about 1976 one of the telltale signs was the ice cream was so buttery, it would get stuck to your mouth. Mike Vierra joined the company from San Luis Obispo when he was age 21, coming from one of the best dairy programs. He refined the ice cream into one that has 18.5% butterfat and no added air-by-volume.
Bay Area Bites: How did you become interested in McConnell’s as a business? Palmer: In 2008 our house burned down. Eva has two restaurants in town with a partner and I had wanted to leave branding. I am a winemaker by trade. In the wake of the fire, that was a game changer for me. I fumbled around but had always had my eye on McConnell’s. I knew there was something special about it. Jim McCoy was getting on in years and decided that it was time to transition the company. We spoke at length over one weekend and I came home. We were very close to breaking ground on our home. Eva said “What the heck,” when I told her we weren’t going to do that and instead buy McConnell’s. I said, “We’re buying McConnell’s. And if we’re lucky, we’ll buy a house some day.”