From salted caramel to huckleberry, Village Ice Cream’s scoops are simply delightful
Enter Village Ice Cream Parlour in the heart of the city’s budding East Village. The air is fragrant: freshly ironed waffle cones, a hint of cardamom, a whiff of bubbly hot fudge.
Owner and creative brain behind the local cool spot, Billy Friley, has left no element of pleasantness forgotten.
“I really want people to come in here and feel that this experience is about more than just grabbing some ice cream,” he says. This is accomplished with two ingredients: an incredible dairy base recipe, and exceptional staff.
“Hiring is a great thing in the ice cream business – it just attracts really good young people,” he says. “Earnest, hard working and personable.”
Indeed my first trip to Village is not forgotten. The staff were laid back, zen, but involved. I sampled the seasonal flavour and decided on the mouth-watering salted caramel, made in house, as is virtually every flavour of ice cream served at the parlour.
“I focus more on things I want to eat versus novelty,” Friley explains of the homey menu. “It’s more important that it tastes good than that it’s catchy, weird or funky.”This means really high quality nuts, fruits, boozy things, rich butters and spices – “these are the things that inspire me.”
Ice cream is not just Friley’s enterprise, it is his dream. Literally. Ice cream dances in his head at night as both reverie and nightmare.
The road to opening Calgary’s downtown ice cream factory was often uphill, though its concept came completely naturally. “One day I was sulking on my grandmother’s front door step over another business model I was working on … that I had suddenly fallen out of love with… I went inside to grab some ice cream and she had this local-made huckleberry ice cream from Montana,” he describes. “I had bowl of it and I just froze – no pun intended – and all my sorrow melted away.”
Friley recalled the hit of sugar that tasted so fresh, struggling to compare it to a familiar brand but it surpassed every one. Then he thought about his previous experiences eating ice cream in Calgary, and again could not come up with an experience that was equal.
“The next morning I woke up and I quit my job,” he says. “I spent 10 days in a café writing up a business plan.” Friley describes this creative frenzy as one of those visions that feels so right you hardly need think about it. But think about it hard he soon had to. The young entrepreneur worked 16 long months designing his own master recipe and production facility from scratch. “Taking a recipe from home to industry is like two different animals,” he describes.
Friley was no stranger to frozen dairy deserts. Growing up in a family of foodies he often watched his father making ice cream, using fresh ingredients like home-grown raspberries, and creating custard bases. “We didn’t play sports or watch cartoons; we grew up in the kitchen,” he says.
Converting born ability into a commercial venture was a matter of science and math, skills that Friley had some experience in from previous years studying chemistry and physics at McGill.
“I ended up getting the opportunity to go and work with homogenizing and pasteurizing equipment,” Friley describes of the intimate experimentation that went into achieving his final product. “Ice cream is the most complex product of all dairy products,” he says. “[The process] gave me an appreciation of the complexity of the food we eat.”
Fear of scalding the milk, overheating the mix, a risk of the cream not emulsifying properly when flavours are mixed in: these are the challenges that one by one Friley learned to overcome.
With a satisfying recipe formulated, he selected a storefront that was accessible, central and suitable to the product he was offering amid the gentrifying brownstones of East Village. “I thought I was going to live in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal … but what was more exciting was the opportunity to help make Calgary an even cooler place to live,” he says. “People want what they find in bigger cities here now… It was like getting on board with something that was in its early stages of growth as oppose to other cities that were already at that level of cool I was looking for.”
Add to that the city’s zealous entrepreneurial market and Friley’s recipe for success was complete. “People don’t look at you like you’re crazy when you want a to start a business here and that alone helps a young person,” he says. Not to mention big brains.
There isn’t much that Friley likely couldn’t do with his educational background. He started out studying aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado before heading to McGill. “I decided listening to my favourite albums in space was not enough motivation to stay in space,” he jests.
Sciences somehow led him into the humanities and he graduated with a degree in Latin American studies, which is perhaps what inspires him to incorporate so many exotic spices into his flavour array.
Frileytries to keep local as much as is possible, and though he admits this is key in staying relevant in today’s culinary market he is also realistic. “That toasted coconut wasn’t grown on a tree here,” he says, indicating the scoop drenched in hot fudge sitting on his desk. Nor was the fine cocoa imported from California that gives the whipped cream based fudge its cake batter likeness.
Where Friley does go local is where it makes sense. All the spices he uses are purchased from the Silk Road Spice Merchant, coffee from local roasters Phil & Sebastian, and the cookies that compose the ice cream sandwiches and crunch up the Guide’s Mint ice cream, are baked by Pretty Sweet. Strawberries are roasted in white balsamic in-house to bring out their tartness. Friley and his crew even infused and strained 16 litres of cream with house-popped popcorn to create the seasonal sensation Caramel Popcorn.
It’s all about “finding exceptional ingredients” he says. From the best Jumbo Fancy Pecans in southern Georgia to the lightest, boldest maple syrup of Quebec.
Several Calgary restaurants have recognized that and are now serving Village Ice Cream, including Brava Bistro, Avec, Notable, and Buchanans. As for the future, Friley plans on staying local. “I don’t know what that long term vision is yet but I’m working on it,” he says.
To other culinary visionaries he offers three strong items of advice: “First, make sure you have a market. You have to have a market. Secondly don’t accept no for an answer on anything.” “Then just keep pushing; pushing through all the battles and take it one day at a time.”
Photo courtesy Village Ice Cream