LUTZ — For Joe Schembri, the dream started early on, over scoops of ice cream served up in the pastel-colored parlors of his youth.
"We never really went on vacations," Schembri said. "But once or twice a week, we went out for ice cream. That was our family time."
Years later, those fond memories spurred a hobby, then a business plan.
Schembri, 38, is now two years in as proprietor of the Ice Dreammm Shop, a family-owned ice cream parlor with a coffee shop feel located in the back of a strip mall on State Road 54.
If you haven't seen it, it's no wonder.
Schembri's girlfriend, Brooke Purvenas happened upon the off-the-beaten-path location —a former office — after visiting Big Apple Bagels on State Road 54.
"I was skeptical, but after seeing the space and what the rent was, decided to go for it," Schembri said. "It was my blank canvas."
The couple bucked traditional pastel colors, opting for earth-toned walls, concrete floor and the warm glow of Edison lights. A blue sofa and coffee table are positioned just inside the entrance. There's a coloring table, a bookcase filled with board games and a chess set up at the bar. Most of the time, it's classic rock playing on the radio.
"I wanted something homey and comfortable, because I knew I would be spending time here. And I didn’t want to see people doing this,” Schembri said, pulling out his cell phone.”The vision I had while setting up and designing the shop is that not many people would be using their phones, but spending quality time together.”
Walk-in traffic is light. These days, word of mouth and social media drive people in.
That was the case for George Hernandez, who was looking to take his four kids for a treat on a recent Friday while his wife enjoyed an evening out.
"I did a Google search for ice cream and this place came up," he said, as he helped his kids set up a board game at their table. "The reviews were good. We like it."
"We've been here many times, " said Zuriel Andrusyshyn, who was enjoying a "flight" of four flavors with his wife, Kristi and their children, Zara, 6, and Zander, 3, at an adjacent table. "We like that it's a hidden gem — a local business. We like that there's games for the kids. It's a good way to cap off a date night. Kind of like Starbucks, but better."
The ice cream brings people back, according to Mary Boynton. She has been frequenting the shop for about two years and usually opts for Chocolate Bacon Toffee, sometimes splurging with hot fudge drizzled on top.
"It's out of this world — the best," she said.
Schembri, a 1998 graduate of River Ridge High and then Pasco Community College, began making his own ice cream about five years ago while working a day job in digital marketing. He started with a kitchen machine that frustrated him so much that he put it away for a year. He wasn't done. After researching "an easier way," he invested $10,000 in a commercial machine and had it installed in his garage.
"It was a big investment — a lot of money," he said. "I did that to keep myself moving forward."
He made a lot of ice cream, so much that he started hosting ice cream tasting parties for family, friends and neighbors with Brooke and their daughter, Joelle, 5.
His experiments with unusual ingredients were a hit, and pretty soon people were asking why he wasn't setting up his own shop.
It's a modest menu at the Ice Dreammm Shop, with constants like Vanilla Bean, Smooth Chocolate and best seller, Cookies & Dream. Chocolate Bacon Toffee is a favorite, along with alcohol-infused Rum Haven and Drunken Dreamsicle for the over-21 set. There are a few dairy-free offerings, including Don't Have a Cow and a delightful Lavender Blueberry. Signature flavors come out for the holidays. Turkey and Cranberry for Thanksgiving. Robin Egg for Easter. Schembri also has culled flavors from brews at In the Loop Brewery and Craft Life Brewery in Land O' Lakes to create Brownie Brown Ale and Nutella Stout ice cream.
"My inspiration comes from stuff I’ve always wanted to make as well as stuff customers want me to make," he said. "Give me an ingredient, and I can make it — from carrot cake to sweet potato casserole."
And if you can't make it to the shop, you can have it delivered.
Schembri travels to Tampa to pick up his cream and tries to stay as natural as possible when it comes to ingredients.
"No red dye 40, no yellow 5 and 6," he said, noting that the colors of his ice cream are more subdued because of that. "I know the product. I look at every label for the ingredients. I care what goes into it. I like to tell people. 'The secret ingredient to my strawberry ice cream is strawberries.'”
The overall concept seems to be working. In October, Schembri quit his day job and is finally collecting a paycheck from the Ice Dreammm Shop. He has seven part-time employees and recently purchased a food truck to bring to special events.
While he has entertained opening another location, he is cautious about growing too quickly and losing out on the kind of quality time the shop provides for others.
"I finally have time to spend with the family. I have time to kayak in the morning if I want to," he said. "But the first year and a half was not fun. "I was working two jobs. Putting in 130 hours a week. Sleeping two, three hours a night. It was hard. Definitely not for the faint of heart."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.