This is part one of Robin Wheeler's Chef's Choice profile of Beckie Jacobs of Serendipity Homemade Ice Cream. Part two, a recipe from Jacobs is published here, and part three, a Q&A, can be found here.
Beckie Jacobs, owner of Serendipity Homemade Ice Cream, with her son, Jason
"I always liked ice cream. I wouldn't say I was passionate about it. I was passionate about baked potatoes," says Beckie Jacobs
, owner of Serendipity Homemade Ice Cream
, over bagels and coffee across the street from her Webster Groves storefront.
Even though it wasn't what she imagined doing with her life, that "like" of ice cream led Jacobs into the ice cream business and a following that includes some of St. Louis' best chefs.
"When I first thought of the idea, I was looking for something to do on my own. I'm married, and I was working in my husband's law office. My husband's a wonderful man, but we could not work together. I needed my own gig. As women of a certain age are tending to do. I knew I wanted to do something I could manage on my own, and a full-fledged restaurant, at that time having no restaurant experience at all, that wasn't something I could do."
Jacobs is a product of a city famous for its frozen custard, but that didn't interest her.
"I never really liked custard, even as a kid. When we'd go down to that other big, giant custard place down in south St. Louis, there was a Baskin-Robbins across the street, and I always wanted to go there. I was never a big custard fan."
Her childhood favorites were classic scoop shops in Clayton: Velvet Freeze, Oliver's and Swenson's. These memories shaped her business idea. "There's always new ideas in the frozen dessert industry, but the one that sticks around is normal, regular hard-scoop ice cream. It will always be around because it's what we like. I don't know anyone who says, 'Do you remember that frozen yogurt place you used to take us to when we were kids, Dad?' Everyone has the ice cream parlor. I told you three. That's what my memories are."
But would it work? "I asked a friend of mine who happens to be a federal judge what she thought of the idea, and she said, 'That is fabulous! You should totally do that!' So when your friend the federal judge tells you should do something, you tend to believe her, even if she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about."
Jacobs investigated all the possibilities. At the time (2002), most of the big ice cream chains weren't available in St. Louis, and the franchising fees to open one were more than Jacobs wanted to pay. She decided she would open an independent shop. Not sure if she wanted to make her own ice cream or buy from a small producer, she hit Chicago to investigate ice cream producers and then headed to ice cream school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
While recovering from pneumonia.
"After three days of making ice cream for eight hours a day, I decided it was something I could do. I was in my late 30s. I didn't know if I was physically capable; I didn't know what it took. I found out that, yes, I could do it, and it was fun. I wasn't hurt. I was fine."
It took some cajoling to get her husband on board, but he did. Jacobs opened the business in 2003.
"I wanted to be the place that, when kids started going away to college and they came back their first Christmas or first summer, the first thing they wanted to do is go to Serendipity. And it's starting to happen. I've had it for seven years. We have kids who first came in when they were toddlers, and now they come in by themselves because they're old enough to wander around Webster by themselves."
But she's gone far beyond that. With a booming wholesale business, Jacobs spends much of her time working one-on-one with local chefs to create the ice creams they want on their menus. "I spend a lot of time running the wholesale end of my business, making sure the orders are getting out. I have a fabulous, fabulous new ice cream chef named Mary Harden [who was featured in Chef's Choice
last year]. Mary has taken real ownership of the job, with both coming up with new flavors or saying, 'Hey, why don't we do this anymore?'
"I love working with my chefs. That's one of the best parts of my job. My staff and my chefs are the two most rewarding parts of my business."
Jacobs still works to create flavors, particularly when someone wants something specific. "If someone says, 'Can you make something that tastes like...' something that's not ice cream, like gooey butter cake. OK, what's in it? What are the component parts of that product? And we try to find ingredients -- instead of taking a piece of gooey butter cake, throwing it into the blender and putting it in the machine -- we try to find the flavors, the essence, of that product and get those flavors into the ice cream. What are the two main ingredients in gooey butter cake? If you go home and you make a gooey butter cake, what's in it?"
Case in point: working with Pi
pastry chef Mathew Rice to create just the right ice creams to go with his creations at the Central West End shop and the milkshake bar in Kirkwood. "All of the ice creams we make for Pi are ice creams that Mathew and I have come up with together. We've either taken something we were already making and tweaked it in a way that's different for them, or we've created their own vanilla blend.
"All three of the [Pi restaurants] carry cinnamon, which is my cinnamon. I told Mathew, I already make it. There's nothing I can do to this that would make it all that unique to you. But other than that, the vanilla and salty caramel we make is just for them. We do make another salty caramel using other ingredients that's different that I sell to other people, but it's not the same recipe. It's good. It's just different."
As for the original shop, Jacobs' son, Jason, works as general manager, while she spends most of her time at the company's commissary in Richmond Heights. Still, she doesn't hesitate to get behind the counter to whip up a sundae. When her son doesn't want it, she shrugs and eats it for lunch. It's not a baked potato, but it seems to be exactly what she wants.