McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams
Food & Drink — Eat

McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams

United States

Mood of Living  /  Aug 14, 2015

For founders Gordon and Ernesteen McConnell’s ice cream, healthy sourcing has always been the key ingredient.

When it comes to ice cream, few keep it creamier than Santa Barbara’s neighborhood shop, McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams. Launched in 1949 by enterprising “Renaissance Man” Gordon McConnell and his wife Ernesteen, the company might seem like a surprising shift from their other landmark business – the country’s first health food stores, located in Phoenix, Arizona. But for Gordon and Ernesteen’s ice cream, healthy sourcing has always been the key ingredient. McConnell’s prides itself on a long tradition of slow churning fresh milk, eggs, and produce into a delicious, creamy whole, all right in The Old Dairy, Santa Barbara.

Today, McConnell’s is in the capable hands of new owners, namely dairy industry veteran Charley Price and husband-and-wife team Eva Ein and Michael Palmer. The company continues to rely on its master ice cream maker of 35 years, Mike Vierra – described by Michael as “a fourth-generation California dairy farmer by birth and one of the very few Master Ice Cream Makers in the industry.” Eva, a professional chef, and Michael, a winemaker, are keeping one eye firmly on McConnell’s heritage while they take the company into the mass-market future.

Q&A with Michael Palmer

Michael Palmer and Eva Ein

Michael Palmer and Eva Ein Owners of McConnell's Fine Ice Creams

Mood of Living: What makes McConnell’s unique?

Michael Palmer: Among artisan ice creams, we are unique in that we’re not only an ice cream company, but also a full-scale dairy [although there are no cows at the Old Dairy, the site pasteurize all of McConnell’s milk]. This allows us to produce our ice creams 100% from scratch, from our base to our every jam, inclusion, etc. This is key to everything we are as a brand and as a product.

MoL: Where do you source your ingredients?

MP: The large majority of our local, sustainable and organic ingredients are sourced from partner farms, artisans, and purveyors we’ve worked with for decades. This includes raw, California Central Coast, grass-grazed milk and cream, cage-free organic eggs, and pure cane sugar.

MoL: Describe McConnell’s ice cream-making process.

MP: Most, if not all, other artisan brands use “batch freezers.” Batch freezers “spin” ice cream into being – they’re sort of a blender-meets-freezer combo. In the process, batch freezers force air into the ice cream (air is the enemy of exceptional ice cream), destroying texture and consistency. At McConnell’s, we do not use batch freezers. Instead, we use a modified continuous freezer process and a hybrid French pot – the modern version of Gordon McConnell’s original machine. This process gently stirs and slowly freezes the ice cream, adding virtually no air and imparting consistency in texture. The result? 
A perfect balance of pure flavor, smooth texture, and incredible creaminess.

MoL: How has this process changed over time?

MP: We’ve been making our ice creams the same way since 1949. In fact, the system we use today is simply a modified version of the very same machine Gordon McConnell invented in 1947.

MoL: McConnell’s has a rich past as a “heritage,” neighborhood, family-owned shop – how is that interpreted today?

MP: McC’s is a heritage brand in that in we continue to live by the same rules and standards we’ve lived by for almost 70 years. We’re a third-generation family business [in that a family – if not the same family – has owned McConnell’s for three generations] that makes a nearly identical product, in a nearly identical way, with a nearly identical mission to what we had years ago. And though we continue to evolve and develop as a company, product, and brand, even as we expand we stick to the things that have always made us successful. We believe those very same things will benefit us today. It’s about setting the bar impossibly high and then not settling.

MoL: Where did the original founder, Gordon McConnell, learn his craft?

MP: Gordon was a serious foodie, inventor, and tinkerer. He decided on ice cream and then figured out that he couldn’t make the product he envisioned, even with the state-of-the-art equipment of the time. So he invented his own process. He built his own machines. It was a lot of trial and error plus a will to succeed that made it happen.

MoL: Where did Gordon look for inspiration, and where does McConnell’s look now?

MP: For some people, Gordon and us [current owners Eva, Michael, and Charley] included, it’s about creating something unique and special — or giving up. Being “good enough” is tantamount to failure. You have to be great or there’s no point.

MoL: What, then, makes McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams “great?”

MP: Making ice cream in no way means you’re making something that’s even goodmuch less exceptional. To make something exceptional requires an understanding of what “exceptional” means with respect to this particular product. For us, it comes down to a set of factors, including quality of ingredients, recipes, and process — how’re you actually, physically, producing the ice cream. We try for a level of quality across the board that marries with our perception of what objectively exceptional ice cream is.

MoL: What is the future vision for McConnell’s?

MP: There’s no single vision. It’s an evolution, and we try to be flexible and adaptable as we go. Our goal is to bring this unique product to people who will appreciate it. In that way, it’s like a gift. We want people to experience McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams.

MoL: What made you and Eva decide to buy McConnell’s? Why a local ice creamery?

MP: I grew up eating McConnell’s and always thought it was something special. From a brand standpoint, they always seemed to be first and foremost concerned with quality. That’s a tribute to Mike Vierra, who still runs the dairy today. I think the fact that McC’s was/is a dairyand not only an ice cream company, was a big thing for me and for Eva. We felt that that offered a lot of baseline flexibility to truly do everything from scratch and to really dial the product in. And the fact that the brand story was largely unknown was really interesting for me, as it’s a truly compelling story and I thought it really deserved to be told. It was a bit of a diamond in the rough, and that was a great thing for us, ultimately. The clincher was that our house burned down in a huge wildfire here in Santa Barbara. After that, I sort of lost my taste for my work – constant plane flights, a certain kind of work I was sort of done with. McC’s was an opportunity to jump off that train and dedicate ourselves to developing this amazing, best-in-the-biz product. How many times these days do you get to say, “We make the best (fill in the blank) in our business?” It was an amazing opportunity, actually.

MoL: Is Eva still involved in professional cooking?

MP: For Eva these days, it’s mostly about McConnell’s. She opened her first restaurant in 1996 and the second one a decade later. She continues to stay involved with them but mostly at a high level. She’s a pretty talented chef and was looking for a new challenge when McC’s happened, so focusing on ice cream was and is an interesting thing for her. The irony is that she doesn’t really eat a lot of ice cream — hardly any at all, actually (I more than make up for her, don’t worry). She doesn’t really have much interest in dessert as a whole, which, I think, is one reason why she’s really good at this. For instance, our ice creams have a bit less sugar, because that’s Eva’s palate. Our ice creams are better for it.

MoL: Are you, Michael, still involved in winemaking?

MP: I am still very much involved in winemaking. In fact, this summer, my partner and I released the first bottlings from our new project, Mail Road Wines. So far, so good. The wines have been very well received. It’s a small project, very focused, but I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do with it so far. It’s a great counterpoint to what we’re doing at McC’s.

MoL: Favorite quote?

MP: I have quite a few. One of them is: “A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened,” by Albert Camus.

MoL: Best advice you’ve ever received?

MP: That’s a hard one. From my father, on both accounts: “Listen to everyone, then follow your gut.” It’s gotten me into trouble a few times, especially when my gut was wrong. Another one: “If you don’t ever lie, you never have to remember what you said.”

MoL: What advice can you give anyone looking to start his or her own business?

MP: Be prepared to not sleep. For years. And love it, because there are times when even the most driven individual will question his/her sanity. It’s a long road, so be prepared. But it’s worth it, because when you’ve done great work, you know it and so do your customers. Try to remember that the most important asset you have is the people on your team. They’re the culture. They’re the key. Nurture them. Be hard on them. Train them to be the best they can be. And then rely on them to do what you’ve trained them to do. You can’t do it alone.

MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things in ethical ways are more likely to lead an aware, artistic lifestyle. Do you spend time crafting a lovely home, cooking or entertaining?

MP: For both Eva and myself, who work so much, home and being home is pretty much a sanctuary. We’re both pretty sensitive to our physical environment, and we both love great design, architecture, and furniture. We don’t actually own a home these days. That was part of the deal with McC’s. We basically decided to build a company rather than to re-build our home, in the hope that it would at some point work out. We cook all the time — either just the two of us or with the kids. It’s something we always try to find time for, even if it’s a simple, weekday dinner. As far as entertaining goes, we don’t have a lot of time for big parties. Usually just small things with close friends, that kind of thing. But as time goes on, I’ve learned to value those sort of get-togethers more than the big, blowout type of thing. As for recipes, honestly, I (we) rarely follow them. With some things, it’s just nice to wing it.

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Photography courtesy of McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams

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