1537 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
At first glance, it looks like a contemporary ice cream shop. Customers step up to the counter, choose their ingredients and wait for their desserts. Rather than scooping ice cream into a cone, however, the worker puts the customer’s order into a computer. Suddenly, liquid nitrogen is injected into the mixers, and cold steam rises from behind the counter. iCream, located in Chicago, Ill., is a revolutionized way of selling ice cream.
At iCream, what normally might be called the kitchen is referred to as the iLab. Workers use beakers and rely on chemical ingredients more than appliances for their product’s temperature. It takes between 25 and 45 seconds for the nitrogen to freeze the ice cream, depending on the size and base ingredients. Because it freezes so quickly, the crystals in the ice cream are smaller, making the texture denser than traditional ice cream. The result is a fresh, silky dessert. Amazed customers walk away with their personalized creations, such as purple, lemon-flavored ice cream.
The idea behind iCream initially was not meant to be founder Cora Shaw’s career. Shaw, who earned her master’s in business in 2007, was taking a class that required her and a partner to create a business.
When Shaw first learned about people making the dessert with liquid nitrogen, she thought it would be a great idea for the project.
“Basically what happened is, I love ice cream,” Shaw said. “I eat tons of ice cream.”
The professor, who gave Shaw an “A” for the project, strongly suggested she consider making it her career. Her professor’s instinct was right.
iCream, which officially opened in March 2009, only has about 20 customers daily during the cold and wintry months. However, as soon as summer rolls around, the shop receives about 700 customers per day. With such a large number of visitors, iCream needs a variety of options to match.
Shaw said they’ve made a point to have choices for diabetics, vegans and lactose-intolerant customers. Anything can be ordered dairy-free, and 95 percent of their flavors are offered sugar-free.
“That was one of the things that was really important to me,” Shaw said. “It’s kind of made ice cream accessible to everyone. If you wanted full-fat, full-sugar ice cream, you can do that. If you want something healthy, low-fat, you can do that.”
Shaw’s professor told her she needed to choose a specific market, but she said she was determined to keep her customer base diverse.
“This is one of those things where [the market] literally is everyone,” Shaw said. “And being here is proof of that.”
Frequent visitor Kelsey Romanik said she always takes her friends from out of town to iCream.
“It’s fresh — you can pick exactly what you want,” Romanik said. “I love that you have so many options.”
Customers have 256,000 options, to be exact. They can order traditional ice cream flavors, such as strawberry or chocolate, but they also can make unusual choices, such as root beer or cayenne. Toppings range from bananas and blackberries to gumballs and granola.
iCream has pre-made options, such as “White Bob Chocolate Pants,” a white chocolate ice cream with strawberries and chocolate chips, or “Mom’s Favorite,” a chocolate ice cream with Nutella and raspberries. The most popular order is “That Guy From Florida,” featuring white chocolate and cream soda flavors with Nutella.
Server Brittany Blanding said iCream attracts a lot of different groups, including many families, tourists and couples. Blanding said she thinks it’s because the shop is so different.
“When you see something cool and awesome, you’re going to tell other people about it, and then they’re going to want to experience it,” Blanding said.
Blanding said she understands the customers’ reactions, because she was speechless the first time she came in. After working at iCream for 14 months, she said the atmosphere and her hands-on boss make for a fun job.
Interaction with staff is one of Shaw’s favorite aspects of the job.
“Part of what I love about my work is growing my team and teaching my staff,” Shaw said. “It’s really like being a coach all the time.”
iCream now is looking to become a franchise, specifically in places with warmer climates. Shaw said she’s not concerned about the future. She’s the kind of person who waits to see what kind of opportunities present themselves. One thing Shaw said is certain — ice cream is a staple in her life. She’s banking on that being the same for her customers.