Covered in tattoos and wearing a shirt with an image of an ice cream cone with a skull on top of it, Aaron Barker is not your average ice cream shop owner. He's a former journalist, guitar player for a local rock band called Street Arabs, and he has strong opinions about ice cream.
“I want to create an ice cream culture,” Barker says. “There’s a pizza culture. Huge pizzas, pizza shirts, pizza sheets and all this pizza shit. It’s a huge thing. I feel like ice cream should be on the same level. I’m trying to create an ice cream culture that is unmatched and unparalleled.”
Formerly part of the Truck Yard off Greenville Avenue, Carnival Barker’s now has a standalone location on West Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff. A banner designed by artist Bruce Lee Webb hangs inside his shop; it’s a human head with a phrenology chart full of ice cream flavors. Carnival Barker’s sells shirts that read, "Give Me Ice Cream Or Give Me Death." Barker’s guitar is by his desk in the back.
Barker wrote about music and art for years. At one time he could go to Barnes and Noble and find four national publications with his stories inside. But he considered that the height of his career as a writer. After making a living wage no longer seemed obtainable, he resigned himself to a steady job as a copywriter, even though he hated the work.
But in 2011, Barker’s father passed away and he was laid off. After hearing about the oldest, most prestigious “ice cream college,” Barker took a gamble and earned a certificate for a short course at Penn State. Then he took what little money he had and set up shop at Truck Yard. He threw himself into the endeavor with the same intensity you will find in his music, or anything else he does.
“You might find somebody who has better ice cream than me in Dallas,” Barker says. “But this just has more heart and more quality. You’re not going to find anybody as educated and passionate about it. I can’t stop, I won’t stop; this is my life. There’s no plan B.”
But after two years, his lease was not renewed. If you go to his old spot now, they're offering soft serve for the same price. Barker has some things to say about soft serve. “It’s a bunch of chemicals, three-percent milk, whipped," he said. "It doesn’t cost anything. It’s the lowest form of ice cream. It’s not even ice cream.” Barker does not use any artificial colors or flavors, just cream, milk, eggs and sugar pasteurized. He even makes his own vanilla extract.
“Ninety-nine percent of ice cream companies out there buy a base,” Barker says. “It’s premixed, it’s got chemicals in it, gums, and it’s all the same. So all the ice cream shops taste very similar because they all buy their ice cream bases from the same corporations.”
This has created a problem for Barker, who would like to sell his ice cream in stores but needs a manufacturer's license. “I either have to pasteurize all my stuff, even though it’s already pasteurized, or I have to buy a base from one of these corporations," he says. "It’s just all locked down. I buy pasteurized products.” Barker could back down, buy a base and make a lot more money with his ice cream in stores. But he refuses to compromise his product.
“Corporations have all the money, they control the government, they control regulations, and they get away without paying taxes,” Barker says. “They get to cut all the corners. But not guys like me. I don’t have ways to avoid paying taxes or hide money. I’m just an honest small businessman.”
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Barker doesn't mince words. He's been known to rant on social media about customers complaining that the ice cream is too hard. He grimaces when the subject is brought up, then takes a deep breath. “People are just so pampered,” Barker says. “They’re used to being force-fed all this corporate chemical stuff. They don’t want to read a menu; they just want to be told. They have all these expectations because they go to McDonald’s or Golden Corral and get soft ice cream.”
“Ice cream today is not the ice cream we were eating 25 years ago,” Barker continues. “It’s a chemically engineered way to make money. It’s gross and disgusting and engineered to be soft. But when you use real ingredients it doesn’t freeze soft, it freezes.”
The idea of someone getting real, frozen ice cream and thinking there's something wrong with it makes him wince. “I understand the immediate gratification of ice cream,” Barker says. “But it’s ice cream, man. It will melt. Just give it a minute. Be a human being about it.”
Carnival Barker's Ice Creams, 345 W. Jefferson Blvd., facebook.com/carnivalbarkers