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I Scream, You Scream: Upstart Scoop Shops Thriving in Denver

Sweet Action opened in Baker in 2009.

Sweet Action founders Chia Basinger and Sam Kopicko filled a neighborhood need for ice cream.

High Point Creamery opened in Hilltop in 2014.

High Point Creamery's signature basil blackberry.

Ice Cream Riot opened on East Colfax in 2014.

The walls at Ice Cream Riot are decked out with pictures of stars eating ice cream.

LoHi's Little Man is the prototype.

Artisan ice cream is booming in Denver. New parlors have filled voids in neighborhoods and are enjoying speedy growth in a city that craves all things local.
At Sweet Action Ice Cream in Baker, it's not uncommon for the line to snake out the door past three or four neighboring storefronts on a Friday night.

When the shop opened in 2009, this strip of Broadway was best known for its dives and leather bars. Now it has its fair share of trendy boutiques and eateries as the rents have rocketed skyward.

Sweet Action was a harbinger of the change, but it's more about correlation than causality. "The families were already here," says Chia Basinger, co-owner of Sweet Action with his girlfriend, Sam Kopicko. "It was an underserved market."

Basinger and Kopicko came to Denver by way of Brooklyn in 2007 and launched Sweet Action about a year later. "We came here because the snowboarding was better," says Basinger.

The couple settled in Baker and worked in the restaurant business, but soon noticed something was missing. "We thought the neighborhood needed an ice cream shop," Basinger says. "We said, 'We should be the ones to do it.'"

What they didn't expect was a line stretching halfway down the block. "We didn't know this was going to happen," says Basinger, noting that Sweet Action's sales grew by 40 percent a year in the first five years and the staff peaks at about 20 employees in the summer. "Right time, right place, right neighborhood."

Sweet Action founders Chia Basinger and Sam Kopicko filled a neighborhood need for ice cream.To celebrate their successes, Kopicko and Basinger hiked the entire 486-mile Colorado Trail in 40 days last year. "That's why we're here: to get outside and have fun," Basinger says.

But growth "has flattened out over the past couple of years, partly because of capacity," he adds. That's production capacity -- Sweet Action makes all of its ice cream onsite -- as well as sheer square footage. "There's only so many people you can fit through the door."

Kopicko and Basinger are consequently thinking about an expansion in the form of a dedicated production facility or second shop.

But first things first: Kopicko is pregnant with their first child, due in November. The 10-year plan includes "a couple of kids and a factory," says Basinger.

Go higher

Erika Thomas opened High Point Creamery in May 2014 after selling her family business, a car dealership in Akron, Ohio.

"I was looking for my second act," she says. "I was in my kitchen making ice cream. I turned to my husband and said, 'I think I'm going to be an accountant.'"

Her husband, Chad Stutz, didn't think that was such a good idea. His retort: "Why don't you just make ice cream?"

Three years later, she's doing just that, and Stutz came on full-time in the spring. They relocated to Denver for the weather (Akron only has 60 days of sunshine, Thomas notes), the ski slopes, the airport and the city's market of foodies. "We had a list and Denver had all of the things on the list," she explains. The shop's location in Hilltop was chosen for its proximity to a restaurant, school, and walkable neighborhood.

The strategy is working. "We're growing every month," says Thomas, noting that 2015 sales have been up about 35 percent.

It's driven by a market that includes just about everybody. "It's an affordable luxury," says Thomas. "Pretty much anyone can afford an ice cream cone."

Thomas brings a foodie tact to such flavors as Earl Grey with shortbread cookies and lemon popsicle with raspberry swirl, and makes a flavor just for Nocturne in RiNo. High Point's signature scoop is basil blackberry, but there's also a cilantro orange, rosemary apricot and other herb-heavy varieties. "Everybody's got their own style," says Thomas. "We probably use the most fresh herbs of anybody."

Wintertime means less business, but that fits with the seasonal staff, often students working a summer job. "We grow and get skinny with the season," says Thomas, noting that 15 employees in summer will drop to about eight in winter.

Frozen attitude

Jim McNutt opened Ice Cream Riot on East Colfax Avenue in April 2014 and hired his first employee this summer. An ice cream truck driver in his teens and twenties, he relocated to Denver after working in the film industry in Philadelphia and New Jersey for the subsequent decade.

"I was just looking for a change," he says of the move. "Where I'm from is a stressful place. Colorado is an extremely different world. Things are slower, people are nicer, the weather is nicer."

The walls at Ice Cream Riot are decked out with pictures of stars eating ice cream.Capitol Hill's dearth of ice cream parlors led him to launch an eclectic place decked out with pictures of rock stars and cartoon characters eating ice cream and regalia from Philadelphia's pro sports teams.

Making his own ice cream was "a no-brainer," says McNutt. He took an online crash course on the craft but says it's "not brain surgery. You have to be creative, but ice cream is just dairy and you have to freeze it."

"I'm not a foodie," he adds. "I don't know how to cook. I don't know how to make anything but ice cream."

To this end, McNutt specializes in flavors made with Pop-Tarts, kid's breakfast cereals and brand-name sweets. "I like junk food ice cream," he says. "I don't like pretentious ice cream."

His recipes are often just dairy and cookies, or dairy and cereal, or dairy and maraschino cherries. The Pop-Tart flavors? "They're made with Pop-Tarts and dairy and nothing else," says McNutt. "People say, 'This tastes like my childhood.'”

The craft -- and business -- of ice cream

"Ice cream is relatively simple," says Basinger. "We only have one palette to play with."

Sweet Action's  top seller is salted butterscotch. "We've been doing it since the beginning," says Basinger. "[Kopicko] nailed the recipe right off the bat." On an average night, the store sells eight gallons of the stuff -- and 15 gallons or more on a Friday.

"We didn't know that, just by using fresh ingredients, we'd be different," Basinger observes. "You'd be surprised how many artificial flavors people use. We just use bananas."

And roasted green chile, Olathe sweet corn and Palisade peaches, not to mention beer and whiskey from Denver's impressive roster of breweries and distilleries.

"We like to use local stuff and play with non-traditional flavors," says Basinger. The seasonally available green chile ice cream "is literally just green chile," he says. "I thought people were going to hate it and it's gone pretty well."

Other oddball flavors have included honey mustard and sriracha. "The weirdest -- and it did not go well -- was a grilled jerk pineapple ice cream," laments Basinger.

For his part, McNutt makes ice cream with Cheddar Goldfish at Ice Cream Riot. "That gets a lot of attention," he laughs.

He's also making water ice, Philadelphia's answer to Italian ice. "It's something I introduced to Denver," he says. "It's not a sorbet. It's definitely not a snow cone."

Ice Cream Riot is also making raspberry rugelach ice cream for Rosenberg's Bagels and McNutt is planning to grow wholesale distribution this winter and eyeing a truck for 2016.

While Ice Cream Riot is just getting wholesale revved up, about 20 percent of Sweet Action's sales are now going to restaurants and retailers.

Thomas also says she's also looking to grow High Point beyond the parlor. "We're looking to expand our wholesale distribution. The biggest thing is making sure our quality is consistent."

The model is probably Little Man Ice Cream. Opening in 2008, the company now has 25 year-round employees (50 in summer) and makes its ice cream a few blocks away from its home in the world's largest milk can in LoHi.

Growth defied the recession and capacity is now pretty well maxed out. To keep up with  demand, the company is opening a second production facility and tasting room -- the "Little Man Microbatch Creamery" -- on the west side of the city in early 2016.

"We're hoping to be open by February or March," says Loren Martinez, Little Man's operations manager. "We'll be able to produce four to five times what we're producing now."

Martinez says wholesale is now about 17 percent of Little Man's sales, and the plan is to at least double that figure when the new creamery is online. Beyond upping wholesale distribution, the plan also calls for additional brick-and-mortar locations in Denver and beyond.

It's not all about cones. Since its launch, Little Man has also donated a scoop of rice or beans to communities all over the world for each scoop of ice cream it sells with its "Scoop for Scoop" program, and has topped 1 millions scoops to date.

And it does seem that there's something to be said of ice cream parlors as barometers of neighborhood change: Little Man's success has paralleled the rise of LoHi as Sweet Action has boomed with Baker.

Basinger says it's possible for ice cream makers to follow the same path as local craft breweries and make a significant dent in the sales of the macro-creameries. "People are interested in independent businesses," he says. "What used to be a traditional way now is a new way because people got used to a corporate way."

Places like Liks (established in 1976) and Bonnie Brae Ice Cream (open since 1986) have been neighborhood treasures for decades, and the upstarts are proving that every neighborhood needs a creamery.

"It's something positive," says McNutt. "Everybody likes ice cream, little kids to old people, everybody. It's not like, 'Dammit, they opened an ice cream shop in my 'hood!'"
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