“Welcome Back — we missed you!” Reads a sign written in light blue chalk cursive on the wall of Blank Slate Creamery, Ann Arbor’s premier sweet-tooth hotspot. It is 2:30 p.m. on a sunny, yet chilly, Monday afternoon in early March, about 26 degrees fahrenheit with scattered snow showers. The shop, nestled on a corner near the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, right past Main Street, had opened its doors for business only 30 minutes previously. Despite the cold weather and trek from campus, as snow falls and the temperature drops, the shop is a revolving door of happy customers — a mix of townies and students alike. All of them hovered over the circular tables with chalkboard surfaces, spooning balsamic strawberry, brown butter cookie dough and (a personal favorite) wolverine tracks flavored ice cream between laughs.
On this particular Monday, Blank Slate has just reopened for the season, having been closed for the dead of Michigan winter, when most of us can barely get out of bed to go outside, let alone eat ice cream. I’m an advocate for them to open their doors all year around, considering the midterm season craving for some of my favorite scoops calls even when it’s 10 below zero (a further testament to wolverine tracks being the best ice cream flavor I’ve ever had). That being said, I couldn’t wait to open the front door when I arrived to visit the shop’s owner, Janice Sigler. A few days before my visit, they celebrated the fifth anniversary of their 2014 opening, which Sigler did not anticipate at all.
“We ran out of ice cream in the first two days. And people were saying it was a marketing ploy! But I was so stressed, thinking how could I open this place and run out of our product before the first two days?” she said in an interview with The Daily when asked to describe that opening weekend.
Though stressful at the time, this first weekend set up very well for what was to come for the shop, as it quickly became one of the most popular dessert locations in Ann Arbor. Marketing ploy or not, Janice and her family must’ve been doing something right, because the minute they had enough ice cream to re-open their doors the crowds came running.
Sigler is an alum of the University, having completed her degree in 1991. She went on to work with alumni relations for about 20 years before deciding she wanted to be her own boss. In brainstorming ideas of what she could do if she left her job with alumni relations, she was reminded of an old dream of hers she had growing up. She used to live near an old school house she always thought would make a great ice cream shop. And suddenly, she realized that her destiny was to open her own shop — one with its own quirky personality that would make it stand apart from the 80,000 ice cream, gelato and frozen yogurt shops around the U.S.. When she was in her 20s, this ice cream shop ambition seemed like it would be nothing more than a dream, but things have since changed. This is a testament to an ongoing theme running through the central vein of the shop: authenticity and going back to your roots.
Sigler’s son Nate showed me around the shop’s kitchen while he told me about his mother’s journey to becoming what I call an ice cream engineer –– making her own unique flavors, all from scratch. She began with a little cupboard ice cream maker, testing out different flavors and ingredients before realizing the potential she had in the world of ice cream. Some may say she bends the rules of the conventional ice cream flavor, but I say she advances the world of ice cream, taking even the diehard Breyers french vanilla fans and making them go nuts over Fresh Basil or Blueberry Pancake. Suddenly, everyone is interested in blackberry-riesling sorbet paired with a scoop of creamy matcha.
After the initial experimentations with the little ice cream maker, it was time to step it up a notch. Janice was trained in Massachusetts by Gary of Gary’s ice cream, and had mentors from all over the country — the dairy programs at neighboring Big 10 universities especially. She nods to MSU, who, despite the rivalry, welcomed her warmly and aided her with the cooling process. Since then, the team at Blank Slate have become experts.
Nate showed me how they mix in the fresh ingredients for each individual flavor, adding garden mint or coffee grounds to the mix while it’s still hot. Chemically, this really infuses the ice cream with the specific ingredients, making the flavor all the more aromatic and heavenly. After the ice cream is finished being made it goes into a -25 degree freezer to harden. The time on the process is precise, and when the timers go off for various steps Nate and the other employees drop what they’re doing to attend immediately to the product.
“It’s hard to change people’s taste and their minds when it comes to ice cream and when they’re used to artificial flavor,” Janice said about their flavors. “The mint chip is not bright green, and over here I’m making fresh blackberry jelly for our peanut butter and jelly ice cream. It’s not what people are used to, but that’s the fun of it.”
I never realized how much goes into the process before the cone is passed over the white countertop into my thankful palms — and I certainly gained a further appreciation for the trials and tribulations of the ice cream chemist.
So what’s the secret?
“Well, we go the extra mile,” laughs Nate, “and that’s why they go the extra mile,” gesturing to the filled tables of customers who have walked a little less than a mile from campus for an ice cream cone.
Blank Slate certainly does go the extra mile. I was lucky enough to get a backstage glance into the ice cream making process, and learned about the rigorous process that goes into the end product: a pink cup enclosed with rich, creamy hot fudge and adorned with a glossy maraschino cherry. While most ice cream places purchase a mix or perhaps just receive large containers of their ice cream from a bigger corporation, Blank Slate makes everything from scratch. This means everything from the ice cream to the mix-ins, including things like cookie dough, caramel, fudge and brownie bites. They use the freshest fruit for their fruitier flavors and the most quality ingredients for mix-ins that they cannot make from scratch. Their dairy provider, Guernsey Dairy Farms, in Northville, Mich., pasteurizes their product before it gets to the store, however, the staff must re-pasteurize the dairy prior to making the ice cream, which is one of the earliest steps of the process.
When I was there they were making the brown butter cookie dough flavor. The eggless cookie dough is made from scratch, and the dough is swirled into the base.
“I want to try to make it so I would like every bite, you know? And so everyone doesn’t have to be picking out the cookie dough,” Nate laughs as he focuses on the swirl of the ice cream filling up white containers, en route to the freezer.
The staff has a certain camaraderie and personality to them, which fits Blank Slate perfectly. As a family owned business, Janice and her son Nate, who is the operations manager, work closely day in and day out, and the value of having a mother-son duo working together is something really special. Janice and her husband live on top of the shop, both Michigan graduates with passionate, warm personalities. I had the pleasure of meeting both of them in my recent visit to Blank Slate— and got to talk to them about the family values that are the key to Blank Slate’s charm. Janice’s father did the electrical work of the building, and her brother, a carpenter helped upon opening too. The employees make the atmosphere and energy in Blank Slate vibrant, hospitable and waffle cone scented.
This takes me back to the first time I ever had Blank Slate, which I consider one of my best memories at the University thus far. My best friend and I, having finished our first exams of college in mid-December of our freshman year decided to head out to get ice cream in celebration of our tests being over. We selected Blank Slate as the location, despite the 9:00 p.m. chill in the December air. When we were halfway there from our dorm room in East Quad it began to really snow for the first time since we’d arrived at Michigan. This was the first blizzard of the winter. The snow was coming down in huge wet flakes, sticking to our hair and our hats and our coats. Our first instinct was to turn back, but we were already halfway into the 30-minute walk, and we had heard that the ice cream was worth it. So we trekked on. Our hands were freezing cold, and tears — a result of laughing too hard, or perhaps the nostalgia of growing older — froze like icicles on our cheeks. Our noses were pink and our eyes bright. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we arrived. The black and white sign hung like a cloud in the sky, the little grey building like a temple or a house of worship. We skid down the sloped road toward the front door, and collapsed into its open embrace, still smiling as we proceeded to defrost. I think this was the moment that I realized what I adore so much about this city and its peculiar idiosyncrasies everywhere you turn, making it so easy to fall in love with. Everything in Ann Arbor, even the ice cream, is done with a degree of love I didn’t know existed in any other pocket of the Earth. This was my first time at Blank Slate. I had the white chocolate raspberry flavor, with homemade hot fudge, still my go-to, and still tastes like coming home.
Since then, I’ve brought every visitor I’ve ever had to the shop, from my grandparents who were craving ice cream after the Spring football game last year to my best friend, who visited on a snowy Nov. weekend to see a performance of a show I was working on. Each time is better than the last, with new memories and flavors. A personal favorite moment was when my younger brother decided to commit to the University class of 2022, and we celebrated with two ice cream flights and a pile of tiny plastic spoons. That’s the best way to describe Blank Slate: a celebration, even when it isn’t called for. Just a spoonful of celebration. A spoonful of happiness.
After the tour of the ice cream laboratory, an array of tasters on little paper spoons (matcha is incredible, the brown butter cookie dough is to die for) and of course a warm waffle cone with none other than white chocolate raspberry, I had to walk out of the front door of Blank Slate and back into the real world. But luckily, I got to do it with a feeling of amiability and satisfaction in my heart, and an ice cream cone in my hand.
One of the most endearing parts of the shop to me is the name. It’s unconventional, nonetheless with sweet individuality that makes it more alluring and distinctive.
The name of the shop is a testament to the journey from Communications major to dairy expert, starting anew in pursuit of a childhood dream. And isn’t that what we all need sometimes? An ice cream cone dripping down the side of our hand (chocolate fudge brownie and madagascar vanilla with fresh raspberry sauce), an adventure and a fresh start.