What’s it like to open an ice cream shop in the middle of a pandemic? Steve Garrahan and Kurt Drake know.
Though the owners of Bright Ice opened their small St. Petersburg spot right before the holidays in 2019, the launch was fairly quiet. They figured they’d be in full swing once the busy tourist season hit in spring.
But when March finally arrived, they nervously watched as the coronavirus case numbers climbed higher and higher — first in Italy, then in Washington and New York. Things weren’t looking good.
“When everything started closing down in March and we were watching it all happen, that was right around the time we created our online store,” Garrahan said.
Like other businesses during the pandemic, the owners were forced to make a quick pivot to an online ordering system, with the option of curbside and contactless pickup.
The move might have helped save the business. After launching their online shop, a third of the Bright Ice sales during April and May came from curbside pickup orders, Garrahan said.
“It was difficult and we did have to shift a lot,” he said. “But St. Pete is an amazing place to have a store. We had such an outpouring of support.”
Bright Ice isn’t the only ice cream spot that’s adapting to the brunt of Florida’s lost 2020 tourist season. Summertime can make or break an ice cream business anywhere, but the busy spring months are when Tampa Bay shops make the lion’s share of their annual income. And for newer businesses that are still working to build a local following, adapting with options for curbside pickup and delivery has helped keep their business afloat.
Here are five new Tampa Bay ice cream shops to cool off with this summer.
The focus here is on small-batch, creative flavors, and everything is made in-house on a weekly basis. Popular flavors include caramelized bananas with peanut butter and honey; marshmallow, caramel and brownie; and pineapple with brown butter and pecans.
There’s also a selection of espresso drinks and the option to make any ice cream an affogato — a scoop topped with a double shot of espresso and crunchy toppings. Vegan flavors made with a rice milk base include blueberry with cinnamon and roasted strawberries with brown sugar and balsamic. By customer request, the store has added a few low-sugar options, too.
Through the online store, guests can choose from one of the roughly 18 flavors and then pick a portion size (single scoop, double scoop or a pint), the vessel (bowl, sugar cone or waffle cone) and any number of toppings desired. Guests can then either opt for in-store pickup from a freezer by the door or curbside pickup.
Don’t skip: Pineapple with brown butter and pecans, roasted strawberries with brown sugar and balsamic.
3701 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 289-5438; brighticeisnice.com
Two years ago, Maximilian Chillura was inspired to open an ice cream shop after a trip to Italy. The Tampa native traveled to Bologna and enrolled in an intensive gelato-making course, an experience he calls “eye-opening.”
Inspired by the communal, family-friendly aspect of old-school ice cream parlors, he opened his casual scoop shop together with his siblings in Tampa’s Ybor City in November.
There’s no age restriction at ice cream shops, and part of the main focus was to update the ice cream experience, he said. “It’s an every-day-of-the-week kind of thing, for any age.”
When the coronavirus-induced shutdown caused him to close his shop to in-store sales, the business did a quick about-face and started packing all of its ice creams in hand-packed pints to-go. The business partnered with Uber Eats and set up a self-serve freezer in the front where customers could grab their orders after calling them in.
They were busier than they expected.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but all things considered we did pretty well,” Chillura said. He credited the spike in business to “a lot of people in the area who were probably staying in watching a lot of Netflix and eating a lot of ice cream.”
The focus is on small-batch ice cream made on-site with a custard base of milk from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City, local eggs, pure cane sugar and sea salt.
The ingredients are heavily influenced by local Tampa Bay food culture, from the Plant City strawberry flavor to the Guava Pastele and the Cafe con Leche made with coffee from local Buddy Brew Coffee. The shop also makes several vegan flavors, including Toasty Coconut, Belgian Brownie and Candy Cane Forest.
Chillura said he plans on opening a second location in South Tampa soon, by mid-August.
“There (is) definitely a demand for it,” he said.
Don’t skip: Cafe con Leche, Guava Pastele.
1910 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-2767; chillbros.com
Sea Maids Creamery
Zoe Vera and her daughter Emily Macias opened their brightly colored ice cream and sweets shop in May in Seminole Heights.
Inspired by the frequent trips to get ice cream with her mother and grandmother, Beatriz Perez, Macias said she envisioned the business as a “happy place for people” to be with their friends and families.
“I’ve always wanted to do something to make people happy,” she said.
When deciding on a name, the mother and daughter duo looked to their Puerto Rican heritage and the island lifestyle for inspiration, and gave the shop a mermaid theme.
The store features a rotating selection of original ice cream creations the pair make on-site as well as a larger selection of flavors made by an ice cream company based out of South Florida. One of the shop’s signature flavors, Abuelita’s Cafecito con Leche, is inspired by Macias’ grandmother and made with coffee sourced from Puerto Rico. Other original flavors include Helado de Mais (a sweet corn ice cream), Cocotella (a mix of coconut and Nutella) and a rose-flavored variety.
Opening in the middle of the pandemic gave the pair some time to reconfigure their business plans and make some structural changes. A window carved into the side of the building, which was originally meant as a dog-friendly pickup area, now does double duty as an ice cream to-go counter where customers can pick up their pints through a contactless dropoff system.
Vera and Macias said they are still making a lot of changes to the new business and are in the process of hiring more staff so that they can set regular hours of operation. In the meantime, they post their hours and specialty flavors daily on their social media accounts.
Don’t skip: Abuelita’s Cafe con Leche, Cocotella.
4230 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 766-1800; seamaidscreamery.com
Long before Bern’s Steak House proprietors Bert and Gertrude Laxer opened their lauded Tampa dining institution, the couple had designs on an ice cream parlor. Those dreams finally came to fruition last fall, when their son David Laxer, who now runs the Bern’s family business, opened Little Midway, which sits at the bottom of the Epicurean Hotel, across the street from Bern’s. The shop, which sells ice cream, pastries, cookies, cakes and pies, closed down in March during the coronavirus pandemic and is reopening on July 8.
Even before the COVID-19 shutdown, the spot sold ice cream by the pint, including Bern’s legendary macadamia nut ice cream. Now, the shop is selling all of its ice cream flavors by the pint, available in-store or for contactless purchase through curbside pickup and Uber Eats. The shop’s pandemic revamp also means that guests are only allowed to be seated outside, and there are one-way enter and exit lines to help ensure social distancing while inside.
Other popular flavors include Pineapple Upside Down, Raspberry Swirl, Vanilla Birthday Cake and Cookies & Cream. Nondairy sorbets include Raspberry Strawberry and Vanilla Coconut, and for the really ambitious, whole macadamia nut ice cream cakes will feed roughly four to six people — or fewer, depending on how hungry your guests are.
Don’t skip: Macadamia nut ice cream, banana cheese pies.
1205 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 999-8711; littlemidway.com
There’s Hawaiian shaved ice, Filipino Halo-Halo and Mexican raspados. But in New Orleans, the snoball is king. Snoballs, shaved ice topped with sweet flavored syrup, are also the focus of this new St. Petersburg shop, which opened in February.
Five owners are involved in the business, including New Orleans native Lee Patteson, who designed the menu at the Fourth Street N spot. Though the main focus is the Louisiana-style shaved ice treat, a dozen ice cream flavors round out the menu, all custom-made by a local Tampa Bay creamery.
For those looking for a little of both, the “stuffed” snoballs feature flavored shaved ice layered with a scoop and a half of vanilla ice cream before getting topped with more ice and syrup. For a real New Orleans twist, guests can top off the snoballs with sweetened condensed milk, like the Creamy Cappy, a cappuccino-flavored treat blanketed with whipped cream and caramel.
For adults, the shop also features a few boozy treats, including sangria pops and snoballs topped with wine-based liquors for an extra kick.
During the coronavirus-mandated shutdown, the shop transitioned to an online ordering system. That has since been discontinued, but guests can still call in orders by phone, and outside seating is encouraged.
Don’t skip: Blueberry Lavender ice cream, Creamy Cappy snoball.
1003 4th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 800-9722; uptownsno.com