Texas Put Carnival Barker's Out of the Ice Cream Business, But They're Almost Back In
Photo by Emily Stoker.
You can do a thing the right way or you can take the easy way out. In an age of endless upgrades toward increasing convenience, enhanced speed, and shorter routes to profit, staying true to your ideals will be tested. Aaron Barker and Sarah Miller, the fecund minds and busy hands behind the delicious, award-winning and highly successful Carnival Barker's Ice Creams, are being tested now.
Aaron and Sarah started selling ice cream in 2012. They attended an "ice cream college" in Pennsylvania, then rented night access to a Deep Ellum kitchen to make their product by hand. In the past 12 months, Carnival Barker's was named Best Ice Cream by both the Observer and D Magazine. Expansion plans were underway for a permanent spot in Lower Greenville's upcoming food truck park. It was an American dream coming true -- until the State of Texas turned the dream into a drama.
Like any worthy villain, the state offered Miller and Barker a series of obstacles to conquer and battles to survive. They were told to either use a pre-made, corporate-manufactured ice cream base, or buy a very expensive piece of equipment, or stop selling ice cream.
For now they have stopped selling ice cream, but the equipment has been purchased -- though they have no place to put it -- and they're working on finding a space. They are broke. With their ice cream temporarily out of production, they have no income. Only a Kickstarter campaign paid their bills over the summer.
But like any worthy heroes, Miller and Barker perceive their quandary not as an injustice, but as a right-of-passage, even as they are being told their new, equipment-friendly space will be postponed another month.
I talked to Carnival Barker's Ice Creams on the first weekend of August, in a Deep Ellum coffee shop. It was one of the hottest days of the summer. This city needs ice cream.
The State of Texas. Which department was it? Was it health? Was it agriculture? AARON: The Department of Manufacturing.
SARAH: It's the division that oversees frozen desserts manufacturing for wholesale in Texas.
I had no idea that existed.
AARON: We didn't either. Until they called us, we didn't know that existed.
SARAH: We've been in business for well over a year. We've been to so many places where they were like, "We need to see every single piece of your paperwork saying that you are a business. We need to see your insurance." This permit never, ever came up. We were totally clueless.
What is on the permit?
SARAH: That we either have to use that base or buy a pasteurizer. We think it's really important to state the ingredients we had been using before and that we're going to continue to use. They're on the shelves of a grocery store -- the milk, the cream. We're using ...
AARON. ... pasteurized products ...
SARAH: ... that have been FDA approved for human consumption. We were taking those ingredients and mixing them together in a safe place also cleared by the health department. We're both licensed food handlers, so we're safe people. We made food with those safe ingredients in that safe environment. And the State of Texas said no, you either have to use this base -- they specifically told us Schepp's --
AARON: Well, Schepp's and Borden's.
SARAH: But we had to specifically ask for other brands that weren't Schepps.
AARON: They have high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives.
SARAH: And nonfat milk.
Photo by Emily Stoker.
AARON: Doing that would make our ice cream taste just like the ice cream down the street because they all use Schepp's base. It takes our flavor away from us. So we either had to buy the base from Schepp's and become like everyone else, or buy a $12,000 to $15,000 pasteurizer ...
SARAH: ... so that we could repasteurize already pasteurized ingredients.
AARON: Don't get me wrong -- I know their ultimate goal is to make sure that people are safe, and that people don't get sick. I try to look at it from both sides, because this is a business and you can't just say, "Damn the man" and expect them to turn the other cheek.
SARAH: That's going to get us nowhere. When this first happened Aaron wanted to call every fucking reporter in the state. We realized that's not a good idea because we didn't have the permit yet. We understand that if the state gets pissed off about our speaking to the press, they could make the process hard for us.
They're not kings.
AARON: They kind of are. They could basically make it impossible for us to get our license.
SARAH: So we were shut down during the most profitable season, when we most desperately needed the income.
AARON: This is what we learned in Ice Cream College -- if the state comes down on you, it's usually because a competitor has called them on you. They also mentioned the fact that we were in The Dallas Morning News.
SARAH: It's all speculation.
AARON: They said, "We know you've been selling ice cream." I don't know if they're just not wanting to come down on the two of us with the full force of their might, but they could really turn the screws on us.
You've demonstrated the good faith effort to meet their standards. That probably goes a long way.
SARAH: We were just ignorant.
Photo by Emily Stoker.
I'm struck by how many people use the word "homemade" in marketing: "Bluebell Homemade Vanilla." When they're using the pre-made Schepp's base, that word implies more than the actual truth.
AARON: And Bluebell's not homemade. It's in a factory down in Brenham.
Your tagline is "The First Independent Ice Creamery in Texas." What does independent mean in that context?
AARON: It means we don't buy a base. We make our own base ...
SARAH: ... on site, so we have complete control over what we put into our product.
What led you to Kickstarter?
AARON: Yeah. We had to spend all we had, which wasn't much, on buying this pasteurizer. We scrounged up personal savings, borrowed from our families, that sort of thing.
SARAH: Then more expenses came.
AARON: I haven't had a paycheck in two years. All my personal savings are exhausted. Sarah was having panic attacks about money. I was like, listen, why don't you do this Kickstarter thing? I have a band and we were recording that weekend and I was gone for two days. By the time I got back, she had already written everything and had the video done. I was like, "Holy shit." Then two days later we reached our goal. It didn't take but 48 hours ...
SARAH: ... closer to 36 ...
AARON: ... to reach our goal. Now we're back to where we were before we incurred all these expenses. We still have more to go, but at least we're not dead broke.
SARAH: Because of people's generosity, and because he knows people who know people who know people... Aaron's been here for so long, while I'm a Dallas transplant.
How long have you been here?
SARAH: Four years. I don't have roots here. Aaron's gotten us really far.
AARON: My credit's horrible. I can't get a loan.
SARAH: My stab of rebellion was to not get a credit card.
AARON: She has zero credit!
SARAH: I've never had a new car so there's no car payment. I never had a credit card because I always paid with what I had. So I had a credit score of zero, and it really sucked because in early June, we were met with more expenses. Right after we bought the pasteurizer and totally depleted our whole savings account, I tried. I called four different credit card companies. I got declined. I thought they were giving out credit cards left and right, but I guess I'm still living in 2005. I remember crying in the car because I got declined.
AARON: Did a lot of crying.
SARAH: Lots of crying, lots of fighting, lots of yelling. Yelling followed by crying followed by more yelling. I did finally get a credit card. I have a credit score now, which is kind of cool because I've only had it for like a month now.
AARON: I'm just trying to earn some money so I can get my financial life back together. I'm a mess.
How did you feel about that Kickstarter response?
SARAH: That was amazing.
AARON: Mind-blowing, really. Like I said, it was just a busy project for her to keep her mind from going crazy. I caught her crying in the shower, and I was like, "Fuck. Oh man."
SARAH: Apparently that was very distressing for him to walk in on.
AARON: Yes, very cinematic.
Sarah Miller of Carnival Barker's Ice Creams. Photo by Emily Stoker.
SARAH: It took a while for us to actually get the Kickstarter money. I thought I could just sign up, do an eight-hour binge of project creation or whatever, and it would be up immediately, but you have to submit your project for review. They got back to us within two days or so, and they were like, "Your project sounds good but you have too many cats in your video. You need to put in more pictures of your ice cream." We had to change our video but they passed our project the next day. I wrote the Kickstarter, I wrote the voiceover and recorded the voiceover, and I put the video together.
AARON: I'm really proud of her. She did an excellent job.
Do you have a media background?
SARAH: I majored in creative writing in college.
AARON: She's a writer for sure.
I like that ice creams is plural in your company name.
AARON: We're both writers. We thought it was cool. Accurate. You know.
So what are you doing with your time?
AARON: I've been working, learning, going to the library.
SARAH: He's reading about vanilla extract.
Aaron Barker of Carnival Barker's Ice Creams. Photo by Emily Stoker.
AARON: Yeah, I've gone mad scientist with vanilla extract. I'm aging in an oak barrel, all that crazy shit. It's actually making it a lot better. We've got a kitchen that we work out of that we're still renting.
SARAH: We're experimenting.
AARON: We're trying to make ice cream bars and stuff like that. Product development. We've been waiting on construction of this truck yard.
SARAH: We've had a lot of waiting to do with the construction. That's one of the hardest things for us. The construction date keeps getting pushed back. In January we were told we'd be open by Memorial Day. In April we found out it would be closer to mid-July. In July it became the middle of August. August is here now, and it's probably going to be the beginning of September.
What is the relationship between the new pasteurizer and the space?
SARAH: It's going to take up the whole space. It's seven feet long. There's no way in hell we could fit it in the kitchen we're in now. So we have the equipment that we need, we just don't have the space.
Solving the problem created another problem?
AARON: It's just snowballed like that, like dominoes. We spent all day Thursday down at the city trying to figure out what the city will require from us to open up an ice cream shop. Do we need a grease trap or do we not? Yes, a 500 gallon grease trap.
SARAH: That's $5,000. That doesn't include installation. We're thinking of opening a second space separate from the truck yard location that wouldn't be so cramped. This is all just...
SARAH: Planning for the future. I guess it's our business plan. We just don't know if we can afford it, but we want to have all our ducks in a row.
AARON: We are talking to some Realtors.
Do you know where you want to be?
SARAH: Our biggest concerns are money and how much money we'll have to spend to get it up and running.
AARON: It's the same issue, honey.
SARAH: Yeah but I mean rent money, then in addition to ...
AARON: It's all money.
SARAH: It's all money. Yeah.
AARON: We have people calling us -- restaurants, stores -- and we're telling them we're on hold right now, we'll call you when we get running. We had such a controlled company, and it was perfect. The state stepped in and everything fucking blew out of control. We're just along for the ride now. If I didn't have my band, I would be a mess.
SARAH: And me, right?
AARON: And our cat.
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