Mainers are “some pickity” about their ice cream... fortunately, there’s Round Top

    
   

By Marilis Hornidge

People in Maine care about ice cream – quality ice cream. As a Maine-born friend of mine says, Mainers are "some pickity" about it. "Lobstah is for tourists," he says. "Ice cream is for us." In addition, when it comes to ice cream on the midcoast of Maine, there’s one brand with an almost legendary reputation – Round Top Ice Cream of Damariscotta.

Why would anyone take on the responsibility of keeping up a legend? Ask Gary and Brenda Woodcock who, sixteen years ago, took a deep breath (to say nothing of a big chance) and bought Round Top Ice Cream, at which both of them had worked for years.

Brenda and Gary Woodcock loading up one of the magical ice cream machines. Photos by Marilis Hornidge

  

"For the first little while," says Gary, "we just hoped we could stay even…no mistakes, no losses." Not only did they accomplish that, nobody in their ice cream receptive audience seemed to feel there was a change.

"We use all the same recipes," says Brenda – her hands busy making a custom-order flavor for a restaurant’s special occasion, "and just about all the original suppliers."

"Remember black raspberry?" asks Gary with a grin. She makes a face at him – this is obviously a special tale between them. "She’s got a palate like a wine taster," he says. "When one of our suppliers was bought out and the big company just informed us they weren’t making that flavor anymore – she just got to work and tried others as we used up what we had of the original."

   

Why would anyone take on the responsibility of keeping up a legend? Ask Gary and Brenda Woodcock who, sixteen years ago, took a deep breath (to say nothing of a big chance) and bought Round Top Ice Cream, where both had worked for years.

  

"People notice," her voice comes from around the corner as she pours strange looking fruit and colorful purees into the hopper of one of two large machines from which all the Round Top flavors emerge.

"She wound up combining two company’s versions," Gary says admiringly, "and it’s maybe even better." The look that flashes between them says it all – this is a true working partnership, a blend of the practical and the creative.

He teaches math, has for thirty-two years. She is the classic fulltime homemaker – definitely a threatened species – with three children. Both had worked part time for the original Round Top in all its varied forms. He delivered ice cream – and knew his customers so well that if they were busy, he could go in, check their freezer, decide what was needed and just stock it – which they thought was great.

She worked at everything from mixing and freezing to running the small crowded stand that was synonymous with Round Top Ice Cream until just a few years ago. Brenda has a knack for knowing when to listen and when to straight talk, a definite asset when dealing with the young staff behind the counter – then, and now. ("Lots of them come by long after they’ve worked for us," says Gary, "just to talk and keep in touch. Like family." Brenda just smiles.)

It was the idea of family, actually, that was behind the Woodcocks’ decision to buy the business, an enterprise that would involve all of them (every member of the family has worked there at one time or another). Sixteen years ago, sometimes feeling as if they were jumping off a cliff into water of unknown depth, they set up a plan and bought a legend. "You spend the first few years just hoping you come up to the standard and don’t lose ground," says Gary again. It was very much on their minds then and, in some ways still is.

Then, when it became obvious that the Round Top Center For The Arts was going to engulf the old stand, grand decision number two came into to play – and the design and construction of their present building. The old barn at Round Top, the centerpiece of a dairy farm that dates back (as does its ice cream branch) to 1924, is a glorious and beautiful example of New England agricultural architecture. Both Woodcocks were completely familiar with its layout – its pluses and its minuses – and knew that they wanted a barn-like structure. It was after looking at, and into, many other barns that they decided to rescale from the original structure, put the actual making of the ice cream in its basement, and set up the old-fashioned ice cream parlor on the top floor.

  

The results – inside – have a special charm upstairs with bright finished wood and overhead beams, plus tables and chairs which look as if they came from another era, and an unsurpassable view of the Damariscotta River and the original barn. There’s an incredibly efficient working space downstairs (which is invisible from the street). Yes, all the ice cream is made right there, at the rate of ten gallons every day in over forty flavors of ice cream, sherbert, soft serve, and/or yogurt.

A giant Ali Baba’s cave of a freezer holds two commercial ice-cream makers (which are scrubbed down morning and evening), and a modern one in waiting. Also, six fans to move that wintry air around all the tubs and containers, space for all the bits and pieces that go into any modern business, a one-two-three exit to get the containers from the freezer to the waiting truck efficiently, and thought out as only owners/designers who truly know their every part of what they are doing can make it.

   

An ice cream lover’s version of Ali Baba’s Treasure Cave.

Six fans provide constant movement of frigid air around all the tubs and containers.

  

There are those who think the new building is ugly…it is not. It’s traditional and utilitarian to the max. Maybe homely would be a better word. In chilly spring and early summer, right after Round Top opens for the season to local devotees, the big open main room does not look empty. You can take your time; maybe decide to try frozen pudding this time instead of the usual vanilla (the true test of ice cream, according to many, is Round Top’s vanilla – a golden deep-vanilla experience is the touchstone for true vanilla aficionados whose numbers make it the bestseller hands down). There’s time to discuss your choice with Brenda (if you’re lucky) or with one of the attendant servers (who will assure you that, a) they really don’t have a favorite flavor and, b) they never burn out on ice cream).

  

Ask Gary for the secret that makes Round Top Ice Cream special and he'll say it's attention to every single detail and quality in everything that goes into it. 
Ask Brenda and she'll just say "Caring," with a smile that says it all.

  

Ask Gary for the secret that makes Round Top Ice Cream special and he’ll say it’s attention to every single detail and quality in everything that goes into it.

Ask Brenda and she’ll just say "Caring," with a smile that says it all. Do they ever make mistakes, choose a new flavor that doesn’t work? That look goes back and forth between them again. "There’s always somebody out there that likes the mistakes," Brenda shakes her head with a wondering smile, "especially sweet mistakes."

"One time," says Gary, "a kid who was helping out – a good kid, no problem – was making peppermint in one freezer and blueberry in the other."

"There was a container of mint essence and one of a citrus that just a touch of went in the blueberry," says Brenda, "and they were both clear." There’s a mutual chuckle. "He smelled right away when he put the mint in the blueberry – not a lot got in – but that was the whole freezer full. We made it up, called it ‘BlueBerry Mint,’ and admitted it was a mistake."

"Sold it for 20% off, per cone," says Gary wonderingly. "We sold out of it way before the week was over. People said we ought to put it on the board."

On that board are all sorts of special flavors. TigerPaws and EagleClaws for local sports teams. Piña Colada and Ginger for those who like exotics. There is also Peach and Strawberry (when the real thing is around) and that Black Raspberry, in addition to the traditional offerings.

With the Woodcocks, a pair of entrepreneurs who took up the gauntlet of continuing a legend, the last sixteen years are no sequel; it’s the even seamless continuation.

Several years ago, floating down the Blue Danube, two Americans were getting to know each other. "Where are you from?" asked the first.

"Midcoast Maine," said the other.

Over the first tourist’s face spread an expression of bliss. His eyes became dreamy and far away. "We go to that area every fall," he said.

"Beautiful place," said the second tourist modestly.

"Round Top Ice Cream," said the first tourist, obviously a man of taste and discernment.

He should have been there for BlueBerry Mint.

Round Top Ice Cream, Business Route 1, Damariscotta. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., 563.5307

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