Winemaker Michael Palmer and his chef/wife Eva Ein had a major decision to make in 2012. Their house recently burned to the ground, and instead of rebuilding, they took a risk and purchased McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, a Santa Barbara institution that dates to 1949. Palmer still works with wine, and even plans to release Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Mail Road in October, but he now devotes the bulk of his time to McConnell’s, a dairy, ice cream and dessert concept that recently expended to downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market. On July 17, I met Palmer at their GCM stall, and he shared several insights.
At what point did you know that you would work with ice cream for a living?
I’d always made ice cream. My wife is a chef, and we’re both food people. We had what we thought was a sophisticated ice cream maker at home, and I would do all sorts of weird stuff with it for parties and birthdays. I grew up with McConnell’s. It’s a family business. After our house burned down in the Tea Fire in Santa Barbara, it was a come to Jesus moment for me…I knew that I wanted to segue out of my brand marketing business, which took me on the road three weeks per month for over a decade. I thought I would rely solely on my wine business. Then I talked with Jim [McCoy, who purchased McConnell’s in 1963], who was dying at the time. It was very important to him that McConnell’s, the original artisan brand and this very unique product, remain a family business and remain in Santa Barbara, where it was founded. He knew that Eva and I were food people, and he was passionate about what we were trying to do. He asked me if we would consider taking it on…A bunch of brands were hovering that wanted to buy McConnell’s. Typically in cases like this, these heritage brands go away and get subsumed into larger brands. I learned what a special product it was long after we did this, when I found out how this project was made. I remember coming home and having this moment, “Let’s not re-build our house. Let’s put it into McConnell’s.” I got a load of push-back from Eva in that first hour, but two years later, she’s full-time here. She won best dessert in America at the New York Fancy Food Show in her first year. She took a leave of absence at her restaurants [Le Café Stella and Stella Mare’s] to work full-time at McConnell’s.
A lot of people have the goal of living in a place like Santa Barbara, but the goal is not just to live, but work in a place like Santa Barbara. I always had to make my living on the road and bring it back home to this magical place up the coast. This was an opportunity to live and work there. It fulfilled so many things I wanted to do. How did I know it would be ice cream? I really didn’t, but ice cream is one of this things, I tell people it hits you in your kids spot. It’s so full of sense memory, and it makes people smile. This company happens to produce a product, I later found out, that is incredible and unique among ice creams… Here’s an opportunity to work on a product and shepherd a product that is objectively the finest product out there…It was an honor to carry that forward.
Have you had any mentors along the way when it comes to ice cream?
I’ve talked to some of the old guard in the ice cream business, but the real big benefit, honestly, has been going less outside the company and more coming inside the company. We’re a dairy. We’re not an ice cream company. We’re the old dairy in downtown Santa Barbara. The guy who is Eva’s co-ice cream maker and the manager of production, has been at McConnell’s for 35 years. The main guy who’s actually physically making the ice cream with Eva has been there for 28 years. Our whole team has been there for decades. I can’t find experts like that, who know how to use this specific equipment we use. Those people have been my mentors.
What are their names?
Mike Vierra has been at McConnell’s after being picked out of the best dairy program in the country, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, at 22 years old, to come to McConnell’s and work for Jim in 1980. Albertano Campuzano and his team, they’re doing the flavors with Eva. These people are geniuses at what they do. Mike is incredibly discerning. He picks up everything in terms of texture, flavor, consistency. He knows ice cream like nobody knows ice cream. I couldn’t learn from a better person. Then, of course, Charlie Price, who works with me on the other side of the business, who for 27 years ran a huge dairy in western Pennsylvania. That kind of completes the puzzle. Then me, who’s just a kook, who loves the stuff and is just trying to bring all the little pieces together.
What distinguishes McConnell’s from other ice cream?
Flavor profile is one thing. It’s very subjective. You may be a vanilla guy, and I might be a chocolate guy, but like any food product, there are objective measures for this. The big thing in wine now is these lower alcohol wines, supposedly more food friendly and less sugar. I actually do not own that belief, that trend. My belief is balance. If a wine has great acidity and great structure, up to a point, at least, I don’t care what the alcohol content is. It’s about balance. It’s not about specific attributes. How does it all come together? That’s what makes us so special. There are other ice creams that have high butterfat. We happen to have the highest in the industry, but that’s not the point. I can make you a high butterfat ice cream that’s mediocre. Or ice creams that are dense. We also happen to be the densest ice cream, but again, I could make you a dense ice cream that was yucky. It’s this series of 10 or 12 objective measures for excellence that makes McConnell’s great. In the end, it’s balance. Again, high butterfat, the best ingredients, ingredients partnerships that go back 55, 57 years. It’s flavor profiles built by a woman who earned her stripes as a chef for 30 years. It’s balance. Then it’s made in a way that creates consistency and texture and creaminess and mouth-feel that you can’t get from batch freezing ice cream. While there are some great things people are doing with batch-frozen ice cream, even the term small batch is a misnomer, because the smaller your batch in the batch freezer, you’re making an inconsistent product. You want ice cream that’s consistently as perfect as you can be. McConnell’s is about balance and about doing everything right from those 10 – 12 things.
How has the company changed since you and Eva took over, and how has McConnell’s stayed the same?
That’s a great question. McConnell’s was always an exceptional product, top of the line, best in class, best in the industry, but like so many small family businesses, over time, things can fall by the wayside. What I’m talking about is consistency. While it was great when it was great, it wasn’t always consistent. The flavor profiles were great, but maybe it wasn’t innovating in terms of flavor profiles. What we brought to it is incredible consistency, by buying and rebuilding the equipment on hand, and bringing new equipment to the floor. Then looking at what we love about food, and where we think food is going in terms of flavor, and introducing them into the product, either as notes or full flavors. McConnell’s has, by virtues of changes we’ve made at the dairy, it’s become an incredibly consistent product and embraced the best parts of what it’s been, and probably left behind the things it didn’t want to be.
We will never develop flavors just for news stories. We’re a Mid-century brand, and there’s a classic aspect to McConnell’s. We make the best versions of classic flavors you’ve ever had, with our unique take on that, but also to push the pedal down in terms of ingredients and where we think food is going. That’s what we’re doing right now. For 70 years, this brand has been a local brand. The food industry has caught up with things like local ingredients. 75% of our ingredients come from within 60 miles of us. Almonds, walnuts or our milk and cream from eight family farms on the Central Coast. You name it. Now we’re trying to take it a little bit more adventurous direction.
What are your top selling flavors, and why do you think that’s the case?