Although they graduated college with writing degrees, Aaron Barker and Sarah Miller had sweeter aspirations. The ice cream aficionados founded Carnival Barker's Ice Creams in January 2012, after attending Penn State's ice cream college. They built their business up and worked out of a Deep Ellum catering kitchen at night, surely sacrificing the social lives any 36- and 23-year-old would want to enjoy.
Since then, their small business specializing in filler- and chemical-free handmade ice cream has enjoyed success in Dallas and Austin alike. Dallasites have had the chance to get their hands on a pint of the frozen treat in stores such as Bolsa Mercado and Green Grocer, a newly established ice cream cart, and even by delivery.
Recently, the ice cream duo received a surprise notification from the state of Texas. Although Carnival Barker's is a legit business, they did not have the satisfactory license to sell their product wholesale, e.g. through retailers like Jimmy's Food Store in East Dallas. Aside from not having the appropriate license, an unexpected list of state regulations followed. The couple had to shell out thousands of dollars for a state-required pasteurizer and created a Kickstarter to help with additional obligatory expenses. Unfortunately, until Carnival Barker's is able to open their shop and meet the city of Dallas' regulations, they cannot legally make or sell ice cream at the moment.
On the verge of becoming Texas' first independent ice creamery with their first store set to open in August, Aaron and Sarah spoke to Eater about their new venture, the hurdles they've encountered as first-time small business owners, and their experience in ice cream college.
Your store will be opening in August. What can we expect from it?
Aaron: We're gonna be in the Truck Yard [on Lower Greenville]. We're going to be in the building, not in a truck. So there will be a building on the lot that's going to house a bar, restrooms, a cheese steak place and indoor seating. We'll have a window on the outside of the building that you can walk up to and order your ice cream from. You can't order on the inside, but you can go and sit inside. Hopefully we'll be able to get over all these hurdles and open up and we'll be better.
Are you working on any new ice cream flavors?
Aaron: We're working right now on ice cream bars. We've been trying to get this figured out for six weeks now.
Sarah: We wanted to start selling little novelty things, so ice cream bars, frozen bananas, ice cream sandwiches, and dog ice cream, but we might need another permit for that.
Aaron: We're working on flavors. I've been tossing around a peanut butter and jelly flavor and a root beer flavor. I'm actually developing some mint extract to do some kind of mint chocolate thing, for sure, because we haven't done that yet. I think we're gonna try cantaloupe, you know, it's kind of a work in progress.
What makes your ice cream different than others?
Sarah: Our ice cream is much different from others because we don't use fillers and we don't use preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, so we do everything in our power, really, to make sure that our ice cream is as pure as possible.
Aaron: We're such a small company, we have one freezer. So when somebody calls us and places an order for ice cream, we write down their order and we got to the kitchen that night and make the ice cream and put it in the freezer for next day delivery.
Sarah: We use heavy cream and whole milk and so there's more milk fat there and that's going to result in a creamier, richer ice cream. It's more expensive. For [other ice cream] bases, these companies use non-fat milk and they won't use as much cream. In turn they'll pump the ice cream full with those stabilizers, gums and preservatives so they could still get the feeling of it being like a high-quality ice cream, but it's going to cost them less.
What were your expectations when you started Carnival Barker's?
Sarah: I don't think we really had any, it sort of fell into our laps. We wanted to create a good product that was accessible and affordable.
Aaron: I just wanted to make ice cream and sell it. Honestly, I didn't really have huge, major expectations. Originally we wanted to open an ice cream shop. Well, we go to Ice Cream College and they're like, "Yeah, it's gonna be $150,000 to open up an ice cream shop." And we go, "Whoa, we don't have that kind of money let's revamp our plan here." So we go from that to doing wholesale. This retail thing came along with Jason Boso, who we're working with, he's like, "I've got the space. I can help you guys get the construction done, or whatever it is you need help with." So we revamped our plan again. But at the same time, we can't just throw away our wholesale business. We're having to figure out what it is we need to do to make them both work. That's where we're at. We're dealing with the city and the state. We can't get our wholesale license from the state until we have the city happy.
How were you able to sell your ice cream before having a license?
Sarah: Nobody knew that we needed permits. We didn't know. We went to so many events where they were like, "We have to see all of your paper work. We have to see your proof of insurance, your DBA, your tax license." They didn't ask us about a permit. It was a big surprise to everyone. The state approached us.
Aaron: We've been working with [the state] on the phone or emailing every day, for the past three, four, five weeks, something like that. We're on track to getting it all taken care of. It's just a learning curve kind of thing. It's just that now we've got equipment we don't have space for.
Sarah: We can't use the pasteurizer in the kitchen that we're using now. We can't use that until our shop opens. So that means that until we use the pasteurizer we can't sell wholesale until our shop is open. It really sucks because it totally cut off our income.
Tell me about the Kickstarter you guys created to help with some expenses brought on by the state's regulations.
Aaron: We reached our goal [of $4,000] in less than 48 hours, or 36. That was a really big surprise. It's for permits and equipment fees and stuff. It's just a little bit of money to help get us through this. When we were making ice cream we were all right, but now that we're on hold, we just cannot.
Sarah: We've tapped out our savings accounts, our personal secret money stashes. And people are continuing to give, so that's awesome. We have a little more than two weeks left, so we still have lots of ice cream and cool T-shirts to give.
The state required you buy a pasteurizer, even though you already use pasteurized products, or use a pre-made ice cream base. Why did you decide to purchase a $14,000 pasteurizer?
Sarah: It was gonna be about $14,000 new, but we were able to find it from a small dairy farmer in Gainesville who wanted to get rid of it fast, so we got it for less than half the price. That's like the only way we would have been able to afford it. [The state] knows we're a small business. We're just a two-person operation working out of a kitchen. All the products we are using are on the shelf, FDA approved for human consumption. For the state to come in and tell us that that's not okay, and then not be able to give us a reason why whenever we ask, it's frustrating. I asked if we get our base, our ice cream that we're making now with the already pasteurized products without a pasteurizer, if we get it tested for bacteria and our bacteria falls within the limits, or it's even better than your limits, would that be okay? Will we be able to use it that way? They said no. I asked why and they said, "That's just the way it is." This is why we have an issue using a pre-made base. Granted, it would be cheaper and that's what all the other companies use, and we'd make more money, but the ingredients that they put in the base are ingredients that we don't agree with. For example, they use non-fat milk, instead of whole milk, they use whey, high fructose corn syrup, and they add all these gums to the base. These big, huge ice cream companies, they make ice cream that is designed to be frozen at a manufacturing plant, shipped on a truck to a grocery store, melted in the process, probably, and gets to the grocery store to be frozen again.
Aaron: [The state] basically told us if you don't buy a pasteurizer and you want to make ice cream and sell wholesale, you need to buy a base that's already pasteurized from Borden or Schepps, and they specifically mentioned those two. So, I have a feeling that these companies, who are million dollar corporations, are lobbying the state to keep these rules and regulations so tight and so bureaucratically wound together that it's almost virtually impossible for a young, small business like us to get into business. You have to come up to these standards that cost a lot, a lot of money. You have to stop and wonder: is there a reason why there aren't any other independent creameries in the state of Texas? If it wasn't for being able to find a pasteurizer at quite a bit less than what it would have cost brand new, we probably wouldn't have been able to do this.
Will re-pasteurizing already pasteurized products affect the ice cream?
Aaron: I've been reading up on this, they say that double pasteurization doesn't hurt anything. In fact, it can only possibly help because it's a process that kills bacteria. It'll give us freedom to where we could go talk to a local dairy, buy really good quality cream and milk without a bunch of hormones or weird stuff they give to cows, and make a better product that's actually technically healthier for you. It's gonna allow us to have this freedom but it's just been so much money to get this stuff, and now we have to have the space to put it in and have the state come out and inspect it. It's just a process that we're having to go through that's really frustrating.
Tell me about attending the Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State.
Sarah: It was eight days. We didn't really know what we were getting into whenever we signed up. I thought it was gonna be eight days of eating ice cream and talking about how you make flavors and stuff, but it was not. It was eight days of hardcore science classes geared towards people with sprawling ice cream plants. So, like the folks at Breyers, Ben & Jerry's, and Blue Bell. There wasn't really very much there that was geared towards people who didn't own an ice cream business or were thinking about starting their own. We still learned a lot and it was really fun, but it was just way, totally different than I had expected.
Aaron: It was cool. When we got back, our ice cream was better and we kind of felt like we had an understanding of what we were doing, like, science wise. There were physics classes.
Sarah: Yeah, like the physics of milk, property of milk fat, classes on, like, the proper way to clean your industrial-sized pasteurizer.
Aaron: Ice cream college, interestingly enough, is 122 years old now. So it's the oldest ice cream school in the world. It's a very prestigious thing. It's an eight-day intensive, eight or nine hours a day, program.
How much does ice cream college cost?
Aaron: It's not cheap. It's about two grand a piece. The plane tickets are expensive and the hotel is like $100 a night for eight or nine days, it was not cheap, believe me. Hopefully we can make some money this year. I want to go back either this year or next.
You've encountered some bumps in the road, but how has the journey been?
Aaron: It's been awesome. I feel I've never been more engaged mentally, I've never worked harder and enjoyed [work] as much. It's been a great experience for me. I've learned a ton.
Sarah: It's really exciting to be in the middle of something that you can tell is growing. I really didn't have any long term plans for this. I just knew I didn't want to work in an office. I had a moment a few weeks ago whenever all of this trouble started. I had some of our ice cream and thought, yeah, this is why [I'm doing this.] This is really damn good. Letting this fail would be one of the stupidest things we could do.
What are your goals for the future?
Aaron: We're basically going to try to get in a position to where we're making money. Take all that money, save it, and invest it in a bigger shop. We can take the pasteurizer out of this little shop and put in a bunch of artisan root beers on tap.
Sarah: So we can have the best root beer floats in Dallas.
Aaron: That way we'll have a manufacturing facility and another shop with our pasteurizer and all of our other stuff. This first location will be more of a satellite location. I'm hoping this happens within the next two years.