Michael Palmer put the health of his future on the line for a legendary brand of Santa Barbara ice cream (the best ice cream, he might tell you). His house had burned down in a major fire, and as he and his wife were just about to break ground on a new construction project in 2012, they learned that McConnell's Fine Ice Creams was looking to sell the business. "It's such a special product, and we felt this urge to preserve it,” said Palmer, who is a winemaker, married to a chef, Eva Ein. “We didn't want it to go away. So we put a halt to the construction, and put the money instead towards McConnell's.” If they’re successful, he says, they'll build that house like they originally planned.
Palmer and Ein took a giant step toward breaking ground when they announced their new McConnell’s location, due to open in July at LA’s Grand Central Market. The 70-year-old business sounds like a welcome addition to a food hall that has recently bulked up on lunch counters, and brings with it a rich tradition that should pair nicely with the historic market. "We're very excited to be in DTLA,” Palmer says. “It has always had a lively artist community and beautiful architecture, and now people have started coming back and recognizing it as an epicenter.” He says they chose Grand Central because it’s such a focus of everything now happening around LA’s food and culture.
The principal distinction of McConnell’s operation is that it is also a dairy company, which gives it an unusual amount of control over the ice cream. In the 1930s, before the dairy migration northward in California to places like West Marin County (where you now see Straus), the Central Coast had a vibrant dairy life. McConnell’s was once the largest dairy company in Santa Barbara.
Typically, ice cream companies—even really good ones—purchase a base mix from a dairy, add flavorings, and process in a batch freezer. McConnell’s makes its own custard base from scratch, using raw materials from its own and surrounding farms. The raw milk, for instance, is pasteurized in-house. The ice cream base has a higher-than-usual butterfat content. And, most notably, McConnell’s uses a high-precision process called French pot, which churns ice cream very slowly in an enclosed system and eliminates the need for stabilizers. What you end up with is a particularly lush, creamy ice cream with a light mouthfeel.
Summer flavors at McConnell’s Grand Central location will include Oaxacan chocolate, Eureka lemon and marionberry, and olive oil with roasted almonds.
Top photo courtesy of McConnell’s; market photo from Grand Central Market / Facebook.
Justin Bolois is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBolois.