Homemade ice cream is the center of my life. Since starting my summer job at a tiny family-owned shop four years ago, homemade ice cream has become my source of peace. It grounds me and calms me in any place and any situation. When I travel, the first place I hit is the destination’s signature ice cream shop. Local ice cream stores, with their homey air of familiarity, can be serene. But the stores are also exciting, immersing customers into the culture of their community with friendly scoopers, uniquely local flavors and close neighborhood ties.
In my first month at the University of Michigan, ice cream from Ann Arbor’s local and family-owned shops kept me sane.
On my first night of college, I headed straight to Blank Slate Creamery. Being there reminded me of why I chose the University. It was loud and teeming with young people, as much of Ann Arbor is, but the warm aroma of waffle cones, cookies and brownies surrounded me like a warm hug. Cute chalkboards covered in the writing of friendly patrons and servers covered the shop. Flavors like Apple Cinnamon Crisp invited me into my first midwestern fall, while Wolverine Tracks reminded me of the overwhelming spirit of Ann Arbor. Browned Butter Cookie Dough was so rich and comforting that I (almost) saved some for the impending first-day-of-class breakdown.
University alumn Janice Sigler, along with son Nate Nuttle and husband Jerry Sigler, opened Blank Slate, an all-natural and all-homemade ice cream store, in 2014. Since then, the family has become an invaluable member of the Ann Arbor small business community and invaluable to the life of many students and local regulars. In their eight years, the family has grown closer to one another and stayed true to Ann Arbor.
“It’s been eight years, and I’m still kind of dumbfounded by the opportunity that the community has given us … but also by the opportunity I was given by my own family, having built this place,” said Nuttle, Blank Slate’s operations manager, in an interview with The Daily.
The family sources local ingredients ranging from RoosRoast coffee, to HOMES Brewery beer, to Frog Holler produce and Guernsey Farms Dairy. Through their focus on community, Blank Slate uplifts fellow local businesses.
“We get to share each other’s customers,” Nuttle noted. “When we worked with HOMES Brewery, that was a big partnership for us, because people who go to HOMES might not go to Blank Slate, and people who go to Blank Slate might not know about HOMES yet.”
On the third night of Welcome Week, I walked the literal and figurative “lonely road” of State Street to my current campus favorite: Michigan Creamery. Michigan Creamery reminded me so much of my workplace that I almost called my boss (largely because I wanted to steal their creative flavors for next summer). It has the perfect diner feel, with bright blue walls, fun colorful lighting, a mural of Ann Arbor and just about every ice cream and chocolate treat imaginable. As I dug into my Detroit Grand Slam ice cream (salted caramel espresso swirl with espresso chocolate flakes), heaped with hot fudge, I worried that I’d feel painfully nostalgic for my classic American summers. Instead, I felt content.
While employees do not make the ice cream or chocolates on-site, they locally source all products.
“All of our products are Michigan made,” owner and manager Sarah Seta proudly emphasized in an interview with The Daily.
The sense of artisanship and Michigan loyalty permeates the store, which Sarah and Jim Seta opened on State Street in 2012. They provide treats, discounts and funding for local schools, churches and nonprofits while employing many University students and serving students stumbling down State Street into the late night. Their stunning display of Alpine Chocolat Haus artisan chocolates and lineup of coffee treats from local favorite Bearclaw Coffee has customers wondering if two desserts are too much (it never is).
“Everyone that we deal with are also family-owned local businesses. So we relate to the way they run their businesses,” Seta said. “And their products are exceptional.”
If you say you like ice cream, every local will steer you to Washtenaw Dairy. As I sat down to write this article, I realized I had never visited. But as soon as I walked in, I never wanted to leave. In the best possible way, it feels like somewhere a grandparent would take you on a hot summer day. Vintage posters cover the dark wood-paneled walls. Next to the rows of Stroh’s homemade ice cream (a Detroit classic) and lines of fresh donuts and coffee, is the perfect little town store, with dairy products, wine and beer (in kegs too!)
For 85 years, the owning Smith and Raab families have done it the old-fashioned way. Their family mindset expands from the ice cream business into the Ann Arbor community. They open early to serve piping hot coffee and classic cake donuts alongside a print version of The Michigan Daily and don’t close until 8 p.m. 364 days a year, they serve Ann Arbor wholeheartedly: hosting fundraisers for the University’s Cancer Center and supporting groups like the Community Music School.
As I chatted with long-time Washtenaw Dairy scooper Jody Hughes, we celebrated the simple happiness one finds in ice cream.
“We sell fun,” Hughes said. “There’s no angry customers, everyone is just happy to come in and get ice cream or donuts and have a good time.”
After the scoopers applauded my correct pronunciation of “Mackinac Island Fudge” ice cream, I headed back to my dorm beaming with a pint of fudgy, beautiful ice cream in hand. In my month of searching for peace amid the chaos of freshman year and hunting for a home in a completely unfamiliar place, I realized the value of the truest form of comfort food: ice cream. For the first time since arriving in Ann Arbor, I felt truly at home.
Blank Slate can be found at 300 W. Liberty Street Ann Arbor, MI 48103 and at their new location, 126 E. Grand River Ave, Brighton, MI 48116
Michigan Creamery can be found at 302 S State St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Washtenaw Dairy can be found at 602 S Ashley St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Daily Arts Contributor Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.