If you're strolling Eureka's boardwalk around 8:30 a.m., the sea air might be tinged with the sweet, buttery smell of snickerdoodles baking in the countertop oven at Living the Dream Ice Cream (1 F St.). And if you cup your hands against the glass doors of to see past the glare of the morning sun, you might see Shawn Powers in the glass booth in the back — possibly singing and dancing to music — making ice cream.
The booth is just big enough to hold the ice cream machine, the mini fridge-sized blast freezer on top of it, a pair of stainless steel sinks and one person pivoting between them. He and his wife, Dena Powers, started the business six years ago, churning out organic ice cream and gelato in constantly changing flavors from balsamic fig to Turkish delight. At first, they shared all the duties but these days Dena handles the payroll and bookkeeping, as well as working up front here and there, while Shawn keeps the 23 tubs in the display case full.
The shop is aptly named, given that the couple had been daydreaming about running an ice cream place since they met in college in New Mexico, where they frequented a car-hop style frozen custard joint. Dena, who'd worked in an ice cream shop in high school, even worked up a business plan for one as a class assignment while earning her business degree. The pair came close to buying the storied, century-old Bon Boniere in Old Town, with Shawn working as a sort of apprentice and learning to make its signature ice cream for months before the deal fell through. "I loved their ice cream," he says with a sigh. "We literally cried over it."
According to Shawn, it was Dena who actually made each piece of their plan for Living the Dream happen. She laughs when asked about it but nods. She worked as an accountant at a local firm for a few years before opening the shop and also skated with Humboldt Roller Derby as Lush D. Lux. "You meet so many strong women there," she says, "and that probably gave me the courage to do this." She adds that, like the risk of opening a business, derby is "all about getting out of your comfort zone."
Handling the machinery and accompanying tinkering is right in Shawn's comfort zone. "I was pretty confident in my gear because that's my thing," says Shawn, who served in the Navy for nine years, working on gas turbine engines and ship propulsion electronics. "I clean my machine before every batch, I'll rinse and sanitize it. And if I let it sit for more than 15 minutes, I break it down and clean it." It's a hassle he says pays off when he sees the dairy inspector standing in line for ice cream.
The bright Japanese carp and goldfish tattooed on Shawn's forearms twist as he pours a glug of vanilla extract into the machine, then carefully empties a container of cinnamon into the opening, tapping it against the metal edge. He peers into down into the turning blades to see the level and consistency of the pale mixture. He says they started with countless home and industrial recipe books, measuring and timing according to the instructions from the likes of Ben and Jerry's and Humphry Slocombe. But now he wings it, reaching to the shelf over head for ingredients — jars, bags and bottles of nuts, pink peppercorns, Thai tea and tajín, boxes and sacks of Guittard cocoa, chocolate chips and syrup — eyeballing the amounts as he goes. After the machine has hummed for a minute, he samples a shot's worth in an orange mug, smacks his lips and adds more cinnamon.
Once it's mixed completely and churned into soft serve consistency at about 30 degrees, he'll pour it into tubs to be placed in the mini blast freezer. "You can put food hot from the oven in there and it'll be a rock in an hour," says Shawn. "It's like the microwave of freezers." That speed is crucial — the faster the soft ice cream freezes, the smaller the ice crystals will be and the smoother the final product. Once the batch is cooled to about minus 12 degrees, it joins the stacks of tubs in one of two industrial freezers and will likely make its way into the case by afternoon, to be served at a fat-enhancing gelato temperature of 6 degrees. Depending on what needs restocking, he'll turn out six to eight flavors a day, each batch taking between 30 minutes to an hour.
The basics are always on hand: cookies galore, mint chip, sweet cream and some variety of coffee, chocolate and vanilla. The skyrocketing price of vanilla has made it less profitable but the Powerses know better than to substitute or skip favorites. "People get really emotional," Shawn says. "I had a lady chew my ass out on the phone because I didn't have mango habanero."
Typically there are four non-dairy options between the sorbets and gelatos made from coconut milk, the high fat content of which makes for a creamier finish. Local candymaker Hum Yum even provides a milk-free caramel for flavoring.
"Having access to stuff like that around here really kicks up the quality ... If you don't, people will call you on it," says Shawn. The bacon maple bourbon ice cream, for example, gets Humboldt Smokehouse bacon and Bulleit bourbon, both of which cost more but yield the texture and flavor he's after. They also stick to organic ingredients, from the bubbly in the strawberry Champagne sorbet to the cones and the spirulina that colors the mint chip ice cream. Though nothing, so far, can replace crumbled Oreos. From the outset, he says they figured, "We'll try to use the absolute best and we'll just have to make the numbers work."
The organic ice cream base itself, from Straus Family Creamery, is some high-end stuff, coming in at a luxurious 14 percent fat content, justifying the splurge. Some of the fat is from egg yolks, which eliminates the need for emulsifiers for texture (again smoothing out those ice crystals) and technically makes the ice cream frozen custard. Shawn says it makes a decadent coffee creamer and he can't be wrong — a sip is like tasting primordial ice cream, somewhere between sweetened clotted cream and the sweet, pale yellow filling of a cream puff.
"We experiment constantly," says Shawn, adding, "I get flavors from cocktail menus, I steal shamelessly from Voodoo Donuts, whatever." All he needs is the concept or even a name and he'll figure it out. The suggestion board helps him remember things he hasn't made in a while or reach beyond his and Dena's personal palates for new ideas. "I get weird suggestions all the time. Some of them sound nasty and some aren't feasible, but I'll look at them all," he says. "We even made crab ice cream for the festival — it's not my thing but we sold out." (For the curious, it was a lemon and butter base with a little crab blended in at the end.) Still, the weirdest tasting request was a Sriracha ice cream for Wing Fest a couple of years ago that Shawn says had a "really strong vomit flavor to me," but, like the crab, sold out.
The only flavors you won't ever see are bright blue bubble gum and cotton candy — Shawn just doesn't like "the idea of the hardcore artificial flavors." Ice cream, he notes, is a small indulgence for most people and he and Dena want to make it right. Their kids aren't quite as picky.
"My kids will eat ice cream anywhere," he says. "They don't care. They're traitors," says Shawn. "But I will, too."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.