The Kids Get It Right
Down River Ice Cream
by Rosie DeQuattro
On a cold and misty day in April, a sign outside of Down River Ice Cream on Route 133 in Ipswich reads “See you in 8 Days.” Inside, owners Joe and Amy Ahearn await the arrival of their newest addition. “Here comes the walk-in,” expectant Amy announces. There’s a bit of commotion as the movers guide the bulky closet-sized freezer through a narrow doorway. When delivery is complete, I snap Joe’s picture standing proud next to his latest investment.
Now in its third season, Down River Ice Cream has become a regular stop for Crane’s Beach-goers, and a destination for locals and ice cream tourists.
But things didn’t start out so smoothly. Before Joe and Amy bought the one-acre spot, most of which is marsh, it had been used as a dumping ground. Construction materials, car batteries, computers, even engine blocks had all been accumulating in the marsh grass. It took nine months and one-and-a-half 32-foot Dumpsters to clean it all up, haul it away and build the charming, eco-friendly ice cream stand that is there today.
And that’s not all. Because the business is on the banks of the Castle Neck River, Joe also had to take on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the bureaucracies of Ipswich, where his water supply comes from, and the town of Essex. Along the way, the Ahearns became environmental advocates partnering with the Essex County Greenbelt Association to protect the cleaned-up marsh.
Producing premium ice cream starts with premium ingredients—the “mix,” as it’s called.
“The mix is just nomenclature for the liquid that goes into ice cream,” Amy explains. There’s nothing pre-packaged or ready-made about it. Down River purchases its mix from Bliss Farm in Attleborough, Massachusetts.
The mix is customized to Amy’s specifications, pared down to the essential, all-natural components: cream, milk, cane sugar—never high-fructose corn syrup—and gelatin as opposed to any other stabilizers. It is gluten and egg free, except for the custard flavor. Amy creates most of the flavors and sometimes mixes them in by hand. For the maple flavor she uses only 100% Vermont maple syrup (occasionally the syrup is from Canada). For strawberry she uses local strawberries from Russell Orchards just down the road, or strawberries they grow themselves right outside. They also grow their own blueberries and other tree fruits used in their ice cream.
Having lived in Belgium with its access to the highest quality cocoa beans (from the former Belgian Congo), Joe learned a lot about chocolate. So, Down River uses only Belgian chocolate with its higher fat content and its higher price point.
The Ahearns have always loved ice cream and have eaten ice cream all over the world. They say the best ice cream is in Europe and Russia, where the flavors are intense. They bring this sensibility to Down River.
At “Ice Cream University” in Florida where Amy took a four-day intensive ice cream course (“I never thought I’d have a Russian degree from Smith so that I could be an ice cream server!”), she learned that there is as much art as there is science to making ice cream.
Amy’s prized possession is her air-cooled Emery Thompson batch ice cream maker. “It produces a great product,” she says. Since ice cream is sold by volume, not weight, the more air you can incorporate into the production the more volume you get—and the more profit. Ordinary ice cream is about half air. But, Amy explains, “the more air in ice cream the less flavor. It’s cheaper but not better.” Amy’s formula incorporates less air using a higher percentage of mix in order to produce intense flavors and a luxurious, creamy, palate-clinging mouthfeel. “I don’t think you could make better ice cream,” she says. And any change they may make to their ice cream formulation would be directed toward improving the product, not the bottom line.
Choosing to open an ice cream shop was a business decision and the business the Ahearns have developed is smart, thriving and sustainable. It is also designed to fit in with their lifestyle. Amy is a former corporate executive who lost her job and was left with formidable skills in human resource management. Joe owns the kind of company that he can operate from home in Essex in the summer, and from the couple’s sailboat in the Caribbean the rest of the year, when Down River is closed. Their four children (including a set of twins) are grown and well on their way toward their own successful careers. The time was right. Besides, statistics show that New England consumes more ice cream per capita than any other region of the country. The typical ice cream consumer is under 10 or over 50. And, Joe says, ice cream is recession-proof.
Besides its commitment to producing the highest-quality ice cream, Down River Ice Cream is also committed to being 100% recyclable. That means that anything that goes out to customers—cups, spoons, napkins, ice cream, cones, etc.—or is used in the making of the ice cream—packaging, storage tubs, etc.—can be either recycled or composted. Items the customers use go into one of three clearly labeled containers: “trash,” “Compost” or “Recycled.” Joe says he even attached to the containers an actual example of the type of item allowed in each container. “The kids get it,” Joe says. “A 40-year-old can spend minutes in front of those bins and inevitably toss Styrofoam and plastic into the ‘Compost only’ bin. A kid will walk up and get it right away.”
But you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy Down River Ice Cream. And you don’t have to wait until you’re 50 either!
Downriver Ice Cream Food Ice Cream & Frozen yogurt
241 John Wise Avenue
Essex, MA 01929
Freelance writer Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. Her work has appeared in print as well as in online publications. You can read her food and lifestyle blog at www.rosiedequattro.com (Food and Wine With A Story). Contact Rosie at email@example.com.