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Ice Cream by Locals for Locals

By 8 a.m., upbeat music pumps out of Lopez Island Creamery’s kitchen as an eight-hour day of ice-cream making is underway. The staff starts with less-allergen flavors like vanilla, moving their way through berry flavors, and ending the day with flavors incorporating nut and soy ingredients. The whole time there’s laughter, chatting, and smiling. These people appear to love their jobs.

Lopez Island Creamery began as a scoop shop on Lopez Island in 1994. The original owners experimented with flavors, testing combinations on locals. Eventually the creamery expanded and relocated to Anacortes in 2010.

Today their small-batch ice cream and sorbet is sold wholesale to grocery stores, restaurants, and scoop shops in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. With over 80 flavors to choose from plus custom flavor orders, it’s difficult not to find a favorite flavor. Alex Thieman bought the creamery in 2011 with his sister, “We wanted to do something a little different.” Thieman, whose background is in food brokerage sales and construction, felt inspired by his family’s many business owners. He envied the passionate way they spoke about their work and wanted to claim ownership on something worthwhile.

Today, the enthusiastic leader gives off a palatable energy. In fact, most of the staff have the same energy. Valerie Locke, the office manager, worked as an accountant before Thieman hired her. “I was in a soul-sucking job,” she says. She saw a want ad, interviewed, and Thieman found Locke’s enthusiasm perfect, offering the job on the spot. “He really hires based on attitude.” In addition to her office work duties Locke pitches in to clean, fill pints, and stick stickers, but has yet to operate an ice cream machine, her secret dream, she joked.

None of the other 12 employees worked in ice cream either before coming on board, but that doesn’t stop them from mastering the creamery’s small-batch process. Thieman explained there are basically two ways to make commercial ice cream. In the continuous-freezer method, the ice cream base (cream, eggs, sugar, milk) pumps through a machine that freezes it into a soft serve texture. Then it’s deposited into pints or tubs. The small-batch method, which is what Lopez Island Creamery does, is essentially a larger scale of what you would do at home with an ice cream maker. A machine churns up to 10 gallons of ice cream base until it achieves the correct texture, then the ice cream gets deposited into containers and frozen further.

The creamery has two machines that churn 10 gallons apiece, and one that churns five gallons, each taking about 10–12 minutes to churn a batch of ice cream. Suffice to say the machines are the lifeblood of the company and are kept very, very busy.

One of the great benefits of the small-batch process is the ease of experimentation. Inputs from staff, local chef suggestions, and customer inputs (including custom orders) can be created rather quickly without wasting too much product. Right now, the creamery’s recipe repertoire tallies 80–90 flavors, including seasonal flavors and special order like licorice.

Thieman is “very conscious of where we came from,” and recognizes that “backbone of our business, Skagit Valley and San Juan Islands, if nothing else we want to cater to those customers.” Cater they do, by using local ingredients and reaching out for input. Currently the creamery is working on setting up a focus group. They made a social media announcement requesting volunteers for flavor tasting and hoped to get 10 volunteers. Ninety-seven people emailed. None are looking for payment, they just want to eat ice cream. It’s “really exciting and overwhelming” and now Thieman needs to figure out how to make the focus group work on a larger scale. He’s still learning, admits to making lots of mistakes, but he wouldn’t trade this “fun, interesting journey” for anything.

Before heading out, Thieman gifted me a pint of Bow Hill Blueberry ice cream, “Spoon for the road?” he asked. I checked my watch, “Umm, it’s 9:30 in the morning.” He smiled, “Oh, doesn’t everyone eat ice cream in the morning?”


Q+A with owner Alex Thieman

Q. What’s your favorite flavor?
A. Bow Hill Blueberry ice cream.

Q. Biggest flavor flop?
A. We had a customer ask for a Kale Balsamic. We tried to warn her, but she was insistent on giving it a shot. You know, it wasn’t bad—there was so much cream and sugar in it—but it just tasted…very healthy.

Q. How often do you eat ice cream, not taste it, but actually sit down and enjoy a cone or bowl?
A. I eat a lot of ice cream, just tasting adds up to maybe a half a pint a day. I do still eat a little bit when I go home some days.

Q. What’s the most difficult flavor to make?
A. We hand-stir in swirls and chunks, so for flavors like Cookies & Cream we crunch cookies up by hand, that slows us down. Everyone moans when it’s a big Cookies & Cream day. For swirls, we squeeze the peanut butter for Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl. It’s tiring.

Q. What’s the best part of working at the ice creamery?
A. The people. We have really good people and created a great culture that’s fun and as laid-back as we can be in the summer.

Q. What’s the toughest aspect of working at the ice creamery?
A. I think right now we’re trying to manage our growth. We’ve grown by about 600 percent in the last six years, so every year brings a new challenge while we try to maintain our quality.

12375 Reservation Road
Ste. B, Anacortes
360.299.8200 | lopezislandcreamery.com

Continue reading featured Ice Cream stories here.

"'Oh, doesn’t everyone eat ice cream in the morning?'"