Pumpkin Gingersnap Cognac, Honey + Blue Cheese, Lime Cardamom, Blood Orange and Angostura Bitters, Farmstand Corn and Blackberry, Whisky Brown Sugar Bacon, Gin and Juice Sherbet, Fernet Branca, Red Velvet?
Hell yes. I’ll have one of everything and a pint of chocolate to go.
Historically speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of dessert, which probably makes me sound like some raving heretic to most of you, but I’ve just never had much of a sweet tooth (and I was a bit of a hyperactive kid, sugar was not my friend). There are some very selective exceptions to this though, simple but important pleasures that I’ve indulged in on occasion: pear flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans, really good black licorice, and sour candies, to name a select few. Ice cream has never really been at the top of my list (except for a brief period in college when I experimented with mint chip). My girlfriend Erin, however, is a connoisseur of the sweet stuff. I’m pretty sure she would gladly hit me with her car if I was standing between her and some really good chocolate (or even just okay chocolate). It was her search for the perfect sundae that eventually tuned me into the story of two high school teachers who founded the Lake Effect Artisan Ice Cream Company in nearby Lockport, NY.
Jason Wulf and Erik Bernardi have known each other since they were kids. Both grew up in Lockport in the same neighborhood, both ended up becoming teachers at the local high school (art and science, respectively) and both owned ice cream makers – something that drew the next-door neighbors into a friendly competition to see who could top the other with the weirdest and most exotic flavors. The growing popularity of the results of these competitions in the neighborhood encouraged them to bring their ice cream to a larger audience in 2008 when they launched at a summer festival. This first event was an enormous success for them, though as Erik later told me, there were some who were so impressed by the taste of their ice cream and the initial packaging/graphics that Jason had put together that they didn’t believe the guys had actually made it themselves. Mere months after this first event Lake Effect was being sold in its first grocery store in Lockport.
Lets stop right here for a second…. If this was a pulp novel that kind of origin story would have led them to become bitter rivals founding competing ice cream empires and engaging in murder and corporate espionage – leading up to a dramatic confrontation on the edge of a volcano (It doesn’t help that “Jason Wulf” is a perfect name for a secret agent too).
Thankfully this grim alternate timeline never came to pass, Lake Effect’s ice cream is gloriously real, and Jason and Erik are still friends and partners.
Erin had tweeted back and forth with Lake Effect for a few months when I first met them at a local awards event we were both nominated in and it wasn’t soon after that I was peer pressured into trying my first taste of what they made. It started simple – a cone here, a pint there, and I soon realized two things.
1. I was now actually kind of obsessed with ice cream.
2. These two guys make amazing ice cream.
Since that first festival Erik and Jason have grown their business rapidly, expanding into an ever-growing number of grocery stores and specialty retailers. They opened a scoop shop, and then closed it so they could build an even better scoop shop shortly after that. They released their own iPhone app so their die-hard fans could track what flavors where in stock, where and what the guys were cooking up (freezing down?) next. And they have a social media presence that is so natural, authentic, and engaging that Graeme Menzies, the communications director of the Vancouver Olympics, featured them in a book on the topic. Impressively, both Jason and Erik continue to teach high school despite the demands of running the business and the meteoric growth they’ve experienced.
Saying that someone puts a lot of their community into what they make would usually be little more than a trite literary cliché, but with these two local is a literal truth. Farms, apiaries, bakeries, breweries, vineyards, and unique purveyors from all over the region have partnered with Lake Effect in the creation of their wild and addictive tastes. If you live in Buffalo you probably grew up harboring a shaky addiction to the sugary and delicious concoction that is Crystal Beach Loganberry, the same syrup Lake Effect uses in their Loganberry ice cream. The Cinnamon Toast flavor is topped with crumbles from Chrusciki Bakery‘s Placek cake, and their beer, pretzel, and peanut ice cream The Aud will bring back memories for hockey fans of drinking Labatt’s Blue in the nosebleed seats (I really want to go to a hockey game now).
Lake Effect is all about craft and experimentation – everything they do is by hand and in small batches, and by small batches I don’t mean the tens of thousands of pints most faux artisan ice cream producers consider a small batch – Jason and Erik are making their super premium ice cream by hand in batches of 40-50 pints at a time (for the foodies out there who want to know, super premium ice cream contains 14%-15% butterfat and much less air mixed into the batch for a richer texture. There are also premium, regular, and economy class ice creams too, and merely knowing about the existence of economy class ice cream makes me think of the movie The Stuff). Each pint is hand packed, topped, and labeled – this is ice cream made by people, not by automated factories.
Committing themselves to working in such small batches has given Lake Effect the freedom to experiment with all sorts of new flavors and to tinker with existing ones in a constant effort to refine and update even their most basic flavors over time. Nothing is static here. Some of the most fascinating stories that Jason told me about creating new flavors though, were the ones about the failures: a coffee ice cream that tasted like bananas, a root beer flavor that must never be spoken of, and Jason’s quest to create a chocolate chicken wing ice cream despite the chemical impossibility of mixing real Frank’s Red Hot with ice cream.
To hear someone speak about what they are really into is a bit hypnotic, and Jason and Erik can command a room when they talk about ice cream because their passion is just that magnetic. After wrapping the shoot at their scoop shop I got to have a little fun chatting with them about their business and put this short interview together with them so they could share some of their thoughts in their own words. Enjoy!
What’s your dream ice cream flavor?