AT 1423 S. MAIN ST. in Little Rock is a giant-windowed storefront, bounded on either side by local shops and eateries. Its facade is white with tan subway tile along its lower half. Stenciled across the glass frame of its front door are hand-painted gilt letters. They allow that 1423 S. Main St. is an ice cream shop. It is also a time machine.
For many (myself included), ice cream, like no other food, possesses a uniquely transportive quality. With one spoonful, ice cream can take me across the miles and the years—it’s one of the few parts of childhood that’s never faded.
My earliest ice cream memories are of winter—those rare few winters of my childhood when, for a day, maybe two at most, the ground would turn white, hidden under a soft few inches of snow. My mother would send me out with a bowl, instructions to find the cleanest, freshest snowbank. I’d bring the bowl back, and a few minutes later, toes and fingers still numb from the cold, I’d be presented with the first bowl of snow cream of the season.
It wasn’t real ice cream, of course, not in its purest sense, but it’s where my love affair began. Eventually, I’d move on to the loud and grinding electric ice cream maker of summer Saturday afternoons, spooning sweet white scoops over a bowl of farmer’s-market strawberries, peaches from down the road, blackberries from our yard.
Even now, there are three flavors currently sitting in my freezer, each from Loblolly Creamery, the upstart ice cream sensation that has been churning out small-batch flavors in downtown Little Rock since 2011. Naturally, when I caught wind at the end of 2016 that Loblolly would be moving out of its small countertop space in Main Street’s Green Corner Store and opening a dedicated “scoop shop” (right next door, of all places), I knew Little Rock was in store for a treat.
I’d been eyeing the windows on the east side of South Main Street for months. For a business that was literally only moving 20 feet, it felt like the opening of the Loblolly shop was a mirage, a trick my subconscious kept playing on me. Slowly, though, I began to notice changes—the counters being installed, the walls painted, the smiley-face logo painted on the front door. On my first (of very many) visits, I felt like I was walking into an unfinished space, a blank canvas—which, I’d soon realize, was precisely the point.
The layout is simple: A long counter holds up to 32 flavors under glass, and opposite it, banquette seating runs the near length of the room. The walls and ceiling are white, with the only color coming from the brightly blooming flowers on each table, and from the ice creams themselves. It’s a striking design choice, forcing the guests’ attention on their cones and bowls and the people they enjoy them with, but on each visit, I’ve been struck by how cathedral-like the shop is. Graceful windows let in natural light, filling the space with an almost ethereal glow. The effect is immediate: This is a space for both creating memories and recalling them. At every turn, the space seems to ask you to linger.
That first visit, I stood in line behind a mother with her young daughter in a stroller. She bent down, nudging the tips of sample spoons into her daughter’s mouth, her face wrinkling with surprise or confusion. Watermelon hibiscus, a fuchsia-pink sorbet, elicited a laugh from the girl, so they got a scoop to share. I settled on two scoops of key lime pie, a chartreuse-green concoction swirled with graham cracker crust. The effect of dozens of tubs of ice cream each aligned in rows invites customers to get lost in their memories.
A FEW DAYS after my first visit to the shop, I visit the Loblolly Creamery kitchen and offices located a few blocks north on the ground floor of a residential apartment building. It’s an unexpected place to find what is essentially a small-scale ice cream factory, but it’s a space that the creamery has been happy to call its own.
I sit down with Sally Mengel, Loblolly’s founder, and Shelby Houghton, the creamery’s master churner. Our conversation quickly hones in on a thing we all share: childhood memories of ice cream. “Who doesn’t remember going to an ice cream shop as a kid?” Shelby says.
“I remember my mom and me would go to the local dairy bar for dinner and just have ice cream,” Sally says. For her part, Shelby was inspired by her grandmother who worked as a soda jerk as a teen. “No matter when it was, if you were at her house, there would be ice cream.” Shelby isn’t alone in her memories. We’re all nodding, each of us going back to our own local hangouts in our minds—these shared experiences around ice cream, our own unique experiences that follow common beats.
Sally tells me she got her start churning ice cream at a small creamery in Atlanta before moving in 2009 to Little Rock. (As she speaks, her Massachusetts accent, though tempered by her time in the South, still rears its head in some vowels.) At that time, she couldn’t help but notice, the city was lacking in the house-made, local ingredient-forward ice cream department. In 2011, she entered a dish topped with buttermilk ice cream—her first flavor—in the Arkansas Cornbread Festival. She caught the eye of Shelly Green, owner of South Main’s Green Corner Store, who approached her about opening a soda fountain in her space. Soon, Sally was making scoops from scratch and branding them as Loblolly. “We just picked the name ‘Loblolly’ because we thought it was a funny name,” she admits. “It’s also the state tree, but if you just look at the word written down, it’s hard not to smile.”
In 2012, she attended Pennsylvania State University’s Ice Cream Short Course, a graduate-school-like program for owners, operators and churners in the ice cream industry, where she studied the chemical composition of ice cream, discovering on a molecular level the ways to make the best product possible.
Sally isn’t what you might expect from the founder of an ice cream empire. There’s a modesty to her that’s surprising in an entrepreneur. “Who, me?” she says when I ask her a question, as if there were anyone else that I might ask about her company’s success. It’s almost as if she’s not sure whether Loblolly’s immense success has been real or imagined.
“It’s humbling to hear,” she says when I ask her how it feels to create a brand that people love. “It doesn’t feel like we’ve done that. It just feels like we go to work and make ice cream every day.” She laughs at herself. “People seem to like it. That’s good!”
“At this point,” Shelby says, “it’s just hard to keep up with the demand. You’ve gotta work fast because ice cream can melt; we’re always in that ‘go’ mode.” On any given day, the creamery will churn out some 60 gallons.
Loblolly’s original kitchen was the kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where Sally churned ice cream for a year before moving into the business’s current space. “We started out with three people. We would alternate who worked The Green Corner Store Soda Fountain, and the other two would make ice cream,” she says.
Sally says much of Loblolly’s success has come from her and her staff’s willingness to say ‘yes’ (that staff, it should be noted, now numbers 18). “It can be good and bad,” she admits, “but it kept us growing bit by bit. We started as a little pop-up soda fountain, and then we grew from there.” When customers asked for catering, Loblolly bought an ice cream truck. When restaurants and grocery stores began asking to serve Loblolly ice creams, the staff started a wholesale business and now sells products throughout the state. “Now that we’re sold in so many different parts of the state, it’s been great to see people want to support such a locally made product,” she says.
Name aside, ties to Arkansas have been a fundamental part of Loblolly’s business strategy from the beginning, with each of their flavors being made with as many local products as possible. “The strawberries in our strawberry buttermilk are local, and so are the peaches in our peach buttermilk. All of our ice creams have Arkansas honey. All of our pecans are Arkansas pecans.”
While finding local produce can be a challenge, an even greater challenge can be choosing what flavors actually make it into the shop. “There’s a novelty to it,” Sally adds. “You walk in and see all of these different options, some you’ll recognize and some you won’t.”
It’s hard to anticipate what flavors will catch on. Savory flavors have been a challenge, Sally admits. “We tried a curried honey that didn’t work out very well, and a long time ago, we tried a garlic flavor.”
“I never expected blackberry sweetcorn to be popular,” Shelby adds.
“Oh yeah,” says Sally, “it’s a really mellow flavor that sounds so weird, but everyone really loves it.”
Strawberry balsamic is another unorthodox flavor. “I just never expected it to be as popular as it was,” says Shelby.
“There are such huge trends in ice cream that you just try to stay on top of what the next big thing is,” Sally adds. “Our goal is just to make our ice cream as consistently good as possible for every flavor. Once we’ve done that, then we’ll branch out into some of the wilder flavors.”
Shelby shoots her a side eye. “Like cotton-candy burrito?” The pair dissolve into a fit of laughter. “You want to have a good balance between the classic things that everyone wants and those things on the menu that are one-of-a-kind items that only Loblolly can do.”
Beneath the laughter and the frivolity, there’s a carefully crafted air to the scoop shop. Sally knows that even a product as steeped in nostalgia as ice cream requires more than fun flavor combinations to be transcendent. It requires companionship, a smiling face across the table. “Those are some of the best memories from my childhood,” Sally says of her ice cream dinners with her mother. Indeed, for all of us, when is a childhood memory of food not accompanied by the memory of the hand who served it?
But for all of the sentimental weight ice cream can carry for some, Sally has no plans to turn the scoop shop into a serious place. “This is where you come to celebrate and have fun. … It’s just ice cream. It doesn’t have to be serious.”
There’s a tone of false exasperation in her voice as if she’s making light of Loblolly’s luck so far. “We’re just going to keep churning every day and see where that takes us.” Her face turns pensive for a moment. “I guess my favorite dessert is ice cream,” Sally admits. “Is that stereotypical?”