The small-batch, artisanal ice cream at Big Spoon Creamery is every bit as awesome as people say.
It’s deliciously inventive with quality ingredients: goat cheese with strawberry-hibiscus jam, fresh mint chip with Valrhona chocolate chips. Many of these ingredients are locally sourced, supporting area makers and farmers like Stone Hollow Farmstead (where they get the goat cheese) and Terra Preta Farm (where they get mint).
But this ice cream, ultimately, is a way for Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara to connect with people and support their community.
“When we started the company,” Ryan says, “it was based on two big passions for us: ice cream and people. We feel like ice cream is sort of our vehicle, a platform, to be able to impact the people around us in a positive way.”
Their cart to truck to brick-and-mortar enterprise actually began with a foldout table and a deep freezer the couple hauled to the front yard of their Bluff Park home for a pop-up event that brought lines of customers down the driveway. When a neighbor, who worked at Southern Living, walked over and tasted their ice cream, she was impressed enough to write an article for the magazine’s website. That jump-started a dream business that now includes two stores and employs about 35 people year-round and 55 during the summer.
The O’Haras founded their company in 2014 with $500. They had just gotten married and bought and furnished a house. That didn’t leave much starting capital. They poured their subsequent profits into the business and named it Big Spoon because, as a kid, Ryan grew enjoyed ice cream and hand-mixed milkshakes in his grandmother’s kitchen, always asking for her biggest spoon.
In 2016, they went from an old-school ice cream cart to a truck they named Bessie. Parking Bessie at Pepper Place Market was their next great idea. “Pepper Place was our launching pad,” Geri-Martha says. “So many people get exposed to your product and learn about you. And so it was just an incredible growing tool for us, for us to really grow organically.”
They opened their first storefront – a light-filled, modern interpretation of a classic ice cream shop – in Avondale at the MAKEbhm building in April 2017. This past February, they opened a second location in Homewood’s Edgewood neighborhood. The truck and cart still make rounds for special events.
In 2017, Big Spoon was named Alabama’s Gee Emerging Retailer of the Year. One of the people who wrote a recommendation for this recognition was James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Frank Stitt, their former employer.
Both Ryan and Geri-Martha have career backgrounds in fine dining. Geri-Martha was a pastry chef at Bottega, where she made desserts for all four of Stitt’s restaurants. Before that, she spent some time in New York interning with star pastry chefs Dominique Ansel (creator of the Cronut) and James Beard winner Michael Laiskonis. Ryan began at Bottega as a line cook and worked his way up to sous chef at Chez Fonfon before the couple started Big Spoon.
This high level of training – in creative dishes and in service – influences everything they do.
Geri-Martha’s fully equipped pastry chef’s kitchen turns out a seasonal menu that changes from month to month as it relies on fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients for the ice cream, sundae sauces and add-ins like brittles, cookies, cakes and jams. Creative combinations include Snack Time 2.0 with salty, malty ice cream; brownie pieces; cookie dough; and chocolate-covered Golden Flake potato chips. There’s always something bright and refreshing like the tart Raspberry Elderflower Sorbet. There are fresh interpretations of classics like vanilla made with Madagascar vanilla beans and chocolate full of Valrhona 66% dark chocolate and strawberry made with ripe berries from Cullman.
Geri-Martha can – and will – make just about any cake or other dessert into an ice cream. She created an Italian cassata cake ice cream based on the dessert served at Bottega. One of the most popular of the seasonal flavors is Georgia Nell’s pecan pie ice cream, which is a tribute to Ryan’s milkshake-making grandmother and is available in the fall. Geri-Martha bakes the pie according to Georgia Nell’s recipe and mixes pieces into vanilla bean ice cream.
For a short time in the spring, there’s the ultra-seasonal honeysuckle ice cream with blackberry jam. “It’s one of the most special, unique flavors we’ve ever done,” Geri-Martha says. “When the honeysuckles bloom, we go out and handpick them. Fresh, wild Birmingham honeysuckles! We steep them into our milk and cream like tea and then strain them out.” After the honeysuckle ice cream is churned, they swirl Geri-Martha’s house-made blackberry jam into it.
“The milk really stretches the flavor of the honeysuckle, so you get all the beautiful notes of the honeysuckle,” Geri-Martha says. “It’s just so amazing. And then you get the tart of the blackberry. And it’s so beautiful. Oh, I can’t wait! As soon as we see some blooms, we’ll be out there picking. It’s probably my most favorite flavor!”
Staff members wearing signature, ice-cream-cone-imprinted bandanas serve Big Spoon’s ice cream in single, double or triple scoops in homemade waffle cones. Ice cream is also served in cups or in flights or spun into milkshakes and malts or as floats, sundaes or as “sammies” (Big Spoon’s take on ice cream sandwiches). But before they scoop their first scoop or hand-pack the first take-home pint, all employees receive extensive training.
“We wanted to channel all that we’ve been doing our whole careers into this,” Ryan says. “So, we take a lot of the (fine dining) approaches, whether it’s food or whether it’s service, and we’ve adapted them into our setting. When I coach and train our front-of-the-house team … a lot of the principles and the things that we do are based on things that we did in the restaurants, in terms of our flavors and menu and philosophies and cooking and in terms of service and atmosphere.”
The focus is on both teamwork and team members.
“We just put people first … that’s sort of our mantra,” Ryan says. “So, for us, that starts internally. We care a lot about our staff and never want to look at them as just like ‘What can you do for me?’ We want to care for our team as whole people and invest in them and grow them and give them opportunities to thrive and flourish and do awesome things.
“We’re going to work really hard, but we want this to be fun. I mean this is ice cream after all, right? So, we want to … create an awesome environment where people look forward to coming to work and being around other like-minded individuals. We don’t feel like we can do the service part very well if we don’t get the internal part right. So, we take that part really seriously, knowing that if we get that part right then we can get the service part right.”
“We have the most incredible people that work with us,” Geri-Martha adds. “I’m so proud of them, and it’s an honor to work beside them every day and to … grow them and help them get to where they want to go.”
“When people come here, they don’t come here by accident,” Ryan adds. “They come here with high expectations, just like any great restaurant or establishment … they don’t come here just for a cup of ice cream. They’re coming for an experience, whether it’s date night or it’s Sunday after church with the family or a special occasion. And, so, it’s on us to deliver that and give them an awesome experience.”
This graciously served ice cream has become a way for the O’Haras to directly connect with the communities around them.
“Currently, we partner with two different nonprofit ministries that do awesome work in our communities,” Ryan says. “We give a portion of our profits to The WellHouse, which fights human trafficking. The other one is Christian Service Mission, not even half a mile down the street from our Avondale shop, and they do incredible work with food and housing and practical needs for the underprivileged in our city.”
Geri-Martha and Ryan already are reaching out to organizations near the new location in Homewood. “We’re going to partner with The Exceptional Foundation,” Ryan says. “And we just did a give-back night … with The Bell Center. We want to be intentional with some of the success we’ve had and channel that into making an impact.
“In any community we’re in – whether it’s Avondale, Birmingham as a whole, the Homewood community – we want to be a pillar of our community and be a positive impact … not just a great ice cream shop. We want to be doing great things for our community.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)