PALMETTO — A 1949 red Chevrolet pickup comes chugging around the corner. It’s 10 a.m. and already 90 degrees at North Manatee RV and Boat Storage, and Ali Converse is here to pick me up.
We’re going to the other side of the lot, where the American Honey Creamery truck Ali runs with her sister Mindy sits on scorching cement, sandwiched between a Pinnacle RV and a Squeaky Tiki Mobile Car Wash and Detailing vehicle.
There is no jingly tune, no faded menu of ice cream sandwiches and push-up pops. But it is summer in Florida, and we are here to make ice cream.
Ali, 20, and Mindy, 23, grew up in Preston, Conn., in a family of dairy farmers. As kids, they helped raise calves in their backyard. In their town of 3,000 people, the closest ice cream stand was 45 minutes away. The sisters wanted to open something a little closer to home.
They started dreaming up plans for a creamery. They would use milk from their cows. The space would be part community gathering spot, part dessert stop. This was back in 2016, when they were 17 and 19 years old. They even presented a business plan they worked on in school to a bank in Connecticut, in the hopes of getting a loan.
Then their dad got a job in Florida.
The family relocated to Manatee County — and so did their grand ice cream plans.
A year later, armed with price projection sheets and a loan their parents eventually helped them secure, Ali and Mindy sold their first order as American Honey Creamery.
It was Dec. 8, 2018, and it was a vanilla milkshake. Mindy was so nervous, she dropped the mixture all over the floor of the truck, which was parked at Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware in Lakewood Ranch.
“We were standing in a 1/4-inch puddle of melted ice cream most of the day,” she says.
Since then, they’ve become a Manatee County fixture, a whimsical roving creamery, as if one of those classic neighborhood ice cream trucks drove through an Instagram filter.
They make everything from scratch on the truck, working mostly locally sourced ingredients into dreamy flavors like Cinnamon Bun, vanilla cinnamon ice cream with a cinnamon roll filling swirl; Strawberry, made with fresh strawberries; and their signature flavor, a honey-sea salt-vanilla ice cream called American Honey.
They’ve parked at local food festivals, set up at farmers markets, been hired by offices and schools to host ice cream parties. Just the other day, beach rental store Beach Bums hired them to park at every one of its Anna Maria Island rental properties, a seven-hour ice cream tour that hit more than 20 stops.
One day early on, the Converses asked a local Home Depot if they could park out front; now it’s a regular Sunday stop for them. If they don’t go, they get calls from regulars. People recognize them at Wawa, flag them down at stop lights and ask if they can buy ice cream.
“We had our sights set on having a store front,” Ali says. “But it was hard, because what we wanted to do was so quintessential New England, and small town. So that’s when we got the idea of a truck or cart or trailer. It just felt more quaint.”
The sisters have a knack for marketing themselves and their product. It seems to come naturally to them, a winning combination of planning and pluck.
They put a lot of thought into the truck, which has a trendy farmhouse vibe HGTV darlings Chip and Joanna Gaines would approve of. It’s painted a creamy color and affixed with a logo their aunt drew showing the sisters and their mom on one of the family cows. A board lists their flavors in curvy white lettering.
That’s intentional, to appeal to their generation, and also a genuine reflection of where they come from.
“A lot of people think we’re an old school ice cream truck, and that’s what we want,” Mindy says. “The order window is super tall, and customers say they feel like a little kid.”
Inside the truck in the RV park, they’re showing me how they make American Honey, one of their bestsellers.
They looked into commercial kitchens, but it ultimately made more sense to make the ice cream right on the truck.
“As long as we’re plugged in, we’re good,” Ali says. “We basically live here.”
I ask if it took them a while to figure out exactly how much salt to add, or the ratio of honey to cream.
“We thought it’d take some time to perfect, but it was seamless,” Mindy says. “The recipe kind of just came together, almost by accident.”
They buy a 14 percent butter fat base from Dairy Mix, a large co-op in St. Petersburg that pulls from Florida dairy farms. They get as many of their ingredients from local farms and stores as they can, not so they can advertise a farm-to-table approach but because “we know how it affects the farmer.”
To that custom Dairy Mix blend they add honey from a Myakka City apiary, a little vanilla, a hefty pinch of sea salt. Each batch takes 8 to 10 minutes of churning in their modest ice cream machine, and it takes two to three batches to fill a two-gallon tub.
They roll out new flavors each month, finding inspiration everywhere, including an upcoming trip to Georgia.
“There’s this gas station there that makes the best biscuit sandwiches,” Mindy says. “It’s going to inspire our August flavor: biscuit and jam ice cream.”
Their strawberry rhubarb flavor nods to a dessert their grandma made for every occasion. For July, which is National Ice Cream Month, they created a white chocolate, raspberry and blueberry ice cream — red, white and blue.
“We love to eat. And I have always loved cooking,” Mindy says. “The first thing I made was jambalaya in third grade. I would bring in stacks of cookbooks, and everyone looked at me like I was a wacky little kid. All we do is watch the Food Network. I’m convinced Guy Fieri is our real dad.”
Ali steadies herself to pour the honey-ice cream mixture, at this point resembling thick milk, into the ice cream machine’s small spout.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve spilled the mixture,” Mindy says. “We always say, if you leave here with minimal ice cream stick, you’re good.”
It takes the sisters about 20 hours to fill the three freezers they have on the truck.
“Oh, we’ll go through that in about a weekend,” Ali says.
They wonder about getting a larger ice cream machine one day, though they can’t imagine producing enough to need such an upgrade. The machine they have uses the maximum amount of power for the truck.
“One day, we’re going to look back at this and laugh,” Mindy says. “ ‘Remember when we were cranking out 100 gallons per week at a storage unit?’ ”
Mindy pulls one of the freezers out from under the counter in one swift motion.
“It’s almost like a WWE match in here sometimes,” she says. “We’re always bouncing off each other.”
How did they figure all of this out as first-time business owners/food truck drivers/ice cream makers?
“I honestly don’t know,” she says. “We just knew what we had to do, and did it.”
Mindy finishes the thought: “It all takes a bit of redneck innovation. And it’s good that we’re sisters. We don’t have to worry about stepping on toes. We can be honest in these stressful situations.”
Ali and Mindy live with their parents in Parrish, a tiny town in Manatee County that feels big to them compared to where they’re from. They’re currently looking for a storefront, still the ultimate goal for a business that thrives on community engagement.
And the name? It’s inspired by a Lady Antebellum song called American Honey.
“When we heard that song, we just started crying,” Ali says.
Mindy continues: “It’s about a girl who grew up in a super small town, and wanted to leave, but couldn’t.”
Mindy finishes up that batch of American Honey, puts the tub in one of the freezers, and hops out of the back of the truck.
Ali gets into the driver’s seat and cranks the window down manually. She’s looking in the side mirror for her sister, who’s guiding her as she carefully backs out of the parking space.
“I get weird looks all the time when people see me pull up in this big truck,” Ali says. “People do tend to be surprised by how young we are, when they see what we’re doing.”
We scoop some ice cream into cones, and bring the cones over to the red pickup. Ali and Mindy scoot into the bed and eat, trying to dodge drops of melty ice cream.
At one point, Mindy’s scoop falls out, hitting the gravel with a small thud.
The sisters look at it, then at each other, and just start laughing.
IF YOU GO
American Honey Creamery serves four standard ice cream flavors (Chocolate, Vanilla, Mint Chocolate Chip and Cookies and Cream), and a rotating list of monthly flavors. Plus, sundaes, milkshakes and ice cream sandwiches. Check americanhoneycreamery.com or their Facebook page for their schedule, which changes weekly.