We’re wearing dorky hairnets, standing in a historic building that once housed the Santa Barbara Live Oak Dairy, circa 1936. The spoons just out of our mouths, we’re enjoying our first tastes of fresh Mint Chip ice cream, straight from “The Spigot.” It’s America’s favorite family food. And what comes out of McConnell’s new owner Michael Palmer’s mouth is a delightedly enthusiastic, un-family-friendly “holy fuck!”
His clear blue eyes light up as he says, “There are a lot of good ice creams but none as indulgent and consistent as this. When we first bought the company, I gained 15 pounds.” That’s easy to believe with my breath fresh with the Mint Chip, an ice cream with luscious creaminess but none of that tongue-coating weirdness you can get with commercial brands. Then there are their “chips,” which are more like shards, since, unlike your typical ice cream maker, they don’t buy precut chunkettes. Nope, they melt Guittard chocolate — a San Francisco company in business since 1868 — and let that drop into and freeze with the ice cream as it’s made. Forget about snowflakes being unique; McConnell’s chocolate chips have them beat and taste better to boot.
“We like to call McConnell’s ‘California’s original and finest artisanal ice cream company,’” Palmer claims, quickly adding, “but I hate that word ‘artisanal’ as everyone uses it now. We don’t use many ingredients here. McConnell’s always has been 100 percent natural and was a local, sustainable business before those were marketing terms — this isn’t new for this company; it’s deep in our DNA. Ours is a truly handmade product. Nobody is pasteurizing from cream and milk themselves.”
It’s a company that’s had only three families own it since it shipped its first tub in 1949: founders Gordon “Mac” McConnell and his wife, Ernesteen, then Jim and Jeney McCoy from 1963 to 2011, and now Palmer and his wife, Eva Ein (who also co-owns Stella Mare’s and Le Café Stella and heads the current R&D).
“The lynchpin was when my house burned down in the Tea Fire,” Palmer says. “The fire was really a kick in the gut, a call as it were — I decided to leave my job [running the West Coast territory for a branding and marketing agency] and find something that satisfied me in a different way. We decided instead of rebuilding our house we’d rebuild this brand.”
Palmer is always quick to praise Mike Vierra, McConnell’s master ice cream maker since 1980. A fourth-generation dairyman picked from Cal Poly by Jim McCoy, Vierra says, “I’ve been working with milk and cream my whole life, starting with getting milk out of cows in Merced city growing up.” He’s explaining the process as we gather around The Spigot, the tube outside Gordon McConnell’s brilliantly reconceived modified French pot system where the just-made, not-yet-chilled, fresh, and fantastically delicious ice cream pours out. “We want a lot of flavor but no stabilizers, no high-fructose corn syrup; we want the dairy flavor from cream and milk and the sweetness from sugar.”
Palmer interrupts, “We refer to our ice cream as ultra-premium and not super-premium, as a lot of those use a lot of sugar so are really sweet.” And then Vierra adds, “It’s easy to over-sweeten something,” only for Palmer to finish, “You can hide things with sugar.” Soon The Spigot oozes Mint Chip, and after tasting, it’s easy to feel like Charlie hanging with Willy Wonka. Still, Vierra points out, “You can come up with something fresh — ice cream out of our machine, you’ll never have anything like that — but I want it to be good in a month. It’s certainly challenging — ice cream has to be maintained through its lifespan; it’s not cornflakes on the shelf.”
Months after our first discussions, Palmer is meeting with me at what will be McConnell’s flagship store on State Street across from Paseo Nuevo, opening this July. Despite tile still being laid and an electric saw driving us outside so we can hear each other, he insists this “reinvention of the American ice cream parlor is further along than it looks.” He’s also hometown proud, saying of the area, “It’s so many national stores now. A lot of the local businesses that used to populate State Street are not around, so it’s great to have a local brand like us here. There’s room for a lot of growth in our backyard; not everyone in Santa Barbara knows that they’ve got the best ice cream store at their doorstep.”
The new shop will be, Palmer claims, “the face of our brand but also a skunk works where we can test out new flavors,” while selling the classics and the ever-expanding list of new flavors, too — this summer brings delights like Toasted Coconut Almond Chip and Dark Chocolate Paso Brittle suffused with Paso Almond Brittle. “We want this to be a dessert destination, as we’ll be baking here, too, with pastry chef Jordan Thomas.” (And the Mission Street and Ventura stores will continue; they are licensees, not owned by McConnell’s.)
While much has changed in the months since our first conversation — from installing new production equipment in the factory to bringing onboard Charley Price, who ran the $150 million dairy operation Galliker’s in western Pennsylvania — McConnell’s handmade ways haven’t. That means the ice cream has about 18 percent butterfat, while other brands have 15 percent at best. The overrun — the amount of air in the product — is a mere 10 percent, compared to almost 30 percent in national brands. “Most other brands are made with a batch freezer, which stirs in air,” Palmer explains. “With our own technology of the hybrid French pot [only one other company, Graeter’s in Cincinnati, uses it in the U.S.], we can dial down every aspect of the air and viscosity.”
“We want to be the best ice cream in America,” Palmer states. “It’s a nice goal to have. I think the product is better now than ever and more consistent. We’re obsessive about the quality. We’d rather throw out a batch than lower our standards.” —George Yatchisin
You will scream for the ice cream when McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams opens this month at 728 State Street. Visit mcconnells.com.