“I am the director of product development,” says Sierengowski, who signs off his e-mails with the word “Tastefully.”
He continues: “In my role here I develop new coming flavors. I work with the existing team to whittle down the best and the greatest tasting and go to launch with them.”
I had called Sierengowski to ask him to explain the recent explosion in the popularity of ice cream across the West Michigan region.
In addition to established ice cream parlors — stalwarts like Kilwin’s, a nationwide chain with more than 20 outlets across Michigan, and the long-standing Jersey Junction in East Grand Rapids — the area has seen the arrival of many upstart parlors, like Pinkie’s Ice Cream and Desserts in East Hills, Love’s in Downtown Market and Furniture City Creamery in East Hills.
Frosty Boy, a once popular ice cream parlor serving traditional soft-serve and hand-dipped ice cream, has returned to 1775 Plainfield Ave. NE after nearly a decade.
Not to mention the many seasonal ice cream shops that open when the weather turns warm. Some favorites in Grand Rapids include Woody’s Cone Shop on 28th Street and the Cone Shoppe on Michigan Street NE — and a plethora along the lakeshore.
There’s also a resurgence of frozen yogurt, with fix-it-yourself dessert bars like Sweet Yo’s, Spoonlickers and The Pump House, all with multiple West Michigan locations.
Hudsonville Ice Cream’s Ray Sierengowski, right, and Kyle Lorenz do a random taste of ice cream as it comes off the line before going into the deep freeze.
At Hudsonville Ice Cream, says Sierengowski, business is booming. Sales grow each year.
“We sell millions of containers a year,” he says. “We are growing year over year, and have been for the last 10 years. We’re expanding outside of our Michigan footprint. We’re in Ohio and Chicago; we’ll be going into Wisconsin, as well, and into Indiana. We’re branching out.”
But why do Michiganders crave ice cream?
On midsummer days in Saugatuck, both Kilwin’s locations, one on each side of the street, are tightly packed with customers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, willing to wait in long lines for a cone or sundae.
There’s the theory that ice cream cones signal the start of summer, something Midwesterners eagerly embrace. But that doesn’t explain the year-round shops with their unique flavors.
Sierengowski says ice cream popularity is being driven by the eating habits and discerning palates of the millennial generation — those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.
“They are really part of what we call the locavore movement,” says Sierengowski. “They really want to know where their ingredients are coming from. Are they the right kind of ingredients? Are they natural? Are they fresh?”
Sierengowski says the enthusiasm of locavores for fresh ingredients and artisanal food products has begun to affect the entire marketplace, rippling outward unpredictably like the fudge ripple in a scoop of Grand Traverse Bay Cherry Fudge ice cream.
“We are Beer City USA,” he says. “Anywhere you see artisanal distilleries and brew houses, you’re going to find folks who want premium, unique ice cream. They look at spending a premium dollar for something they know is made in small batches by artisans who take their job seriously.”
Love’s Ice Cream
And the artisans have arrived in Grand Rapids, equipped with ice cream makers, blenders and strange ingredients.
In August 2013, Chris McKellar opened Love’s Ice Cream in the brand-new Downtown Market. McKellar makes organic, non-homogenized, grass-fed dairy ice cream and vegan gelato. He is constantly experimenting with new ingredients and unusual flavor profiles.
“We have over 80 flavors at this point,” says McKellar. “Some only make brief appearances, while others are mainstays or make regular seasonal appearances.”
A sampling of his flavors, all of them made from scratch with organic locally sourced ingredients, include Cardamom Orange Blossom Vegan Gelato, Blueberry, Stolen, White Russian, Rosewater Pistachio Gelato and Soulful Ginger.
“One of our signature flavors is Field & Fire Almond Croissant,” he says. “We use wood-fired almond croissants from our neighbor, Field & Fire Bakery, and blend them into the ice cream with toasted almonds.”
On a recent visit, I tried a scoop of Black Licorice ice cream. It sat darkly in my cup, rejecting all light, defying physics. McKellar colors it black by adding squid ink to it. It is delicious. I had to fight my children for it. I did not win.
Last summer, Rachel Franko opened Furniture City Creamery in the East Hills neighborhood. Customers can watch Franko busily hand-making her small-batch ice creams behind the counter as they enjoy a freshly made vegan ice cream cone.
Franko rotates her flavors frequently and posts them daily on the store’s Facebook page. On a recent day, the numerous flavors included Molasses Cookie, Banana Bread, Maple Syrup French Toast, Chocolate-Covered Potato Chip and Mojito.
But even if Franko only made her life-changing Van’s Pastry Shoppe Donut flavor ice cream, I still would visit several times a week. Maybe even daily.
In addition to artisans making their own, some shops serve Michigan-made ice cream.
Pinkie’s Ice Cream and Desserts opened last July at 1127 Wealthy St. SE serving more than 30 flavors from Sherman’s Ice Cream in South Haven, which has been around since 1916. The shop offers scoops, sundaes, malts and more in a cozy space across from Wealthy Theatre.
“Ice cream is a treat,” says Pam Dolan, who co-owns Pinky’s with three partners. “When life is stressful, ice cream is a relaxer. It calms people down and takes us back to childhood when things were less complicated.”
That’s certainly the mood at Jersey Junction in East Grand Rapids. In 2013, the popular parlor celebrated the 50th anniversary of its opening. Elias Olivarez, who has run the store with his wife, Mindy, since buying it in 2008, is its fifth owner.
“I think Jersey holds steady because of its longevity,” says Olivarez. “It’s got history behind it. We draw people from all over the city.”
On summer nights, Dairy Treat in Grand Haven is often packed with people craving ice cream.
Nothing is more powerful than tradition, he says. And Olivarez should know: Between 1969 and 1970, while his mother was a student at Aquinas College, she worked for Doris VanAllsburg, mother of author Chris VanAllsburg and the original owner of Jersey Junction.
Olivarez bought the store in 2008, leaving behind a career as an IT specialist for Spectrum Health. Before that, he worked in the criminal justice field.
“I worked for private security,” he says. “After a while it takes a toll on you. All you’re looking for is the negative in people, and it gets old.”
So he left his high-pressure career behind, buying the ice cream store he’d visited a thousand times as a child. Now, between March and October each year, he sells 28 flavors of Hudsonville Ice Cream and curates a well-stocked Day-Glo-colored wall of candies.
From spring to fall, long lines form at Jersey Junction, and customers young and old spill out onto the stairway and sidewalk to relish their cones, shakes and sundaes.
“My wife and I took it over to make sure that it didn’t change,” he says matter-of-factly. “We just want to continue that. I’m pretty sure anyone would love to sell sweets. It’s good stuff.”
Meanwhile, back at Hudsonville Ice Cream headquarters in Holland, Sierengowski trains a judicious and unforgiving eye on a bowl of ice cream.
The dessert bar at The Pump House in Grand Rapids offers a variety of sweet toppings for its frozen yogurt.
He is being a guru again. With his team watching, he is about to subject another potential new ice cream flavor to the rigors of a taste test. In a bid to satisfy the locavores and millennials of West Michigan — and now Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, too — he is constantly seeking out new flavors. He will not rest.
Vanilla is no longer an option. Yes, it is a necessary flavor on the list — a classic, even — but here in Beer City USA, it only belongs in a beer float.
“We’re looking at things like avocado in the ice cream — which is wonderful, by the way,” says Sierengowski. “Avocado and honey. We’re looking at things like cardamom, banana curry — some things that are just out there that are different.”
He and his team are seeking to formulate new flavors that will appeal to customers who are drawn to modern flavor profiles, like those found in Thai food and sushi.
“They’re looking for these little odd subtleties where it’s not a huge difference,” he explains. “They still want to be able to identify with the ice cream, but they’re willing to have something a little bit different: candied carrot pieces, or chai, or chia seeds — kind of what I like to say is the ‘new normal.’”
He lifts a spoon to his mouth, places a melting football-shaped sample of banana curry ice cream on his waiting tongue and closes his eyes. GR