The friends are James Johnston and Matt Celaya, the owner and general manager, respectively, of Fire & Brimstone pizza in Gilbert. The gift was a KitchenAid ice cream maker Johnston gave Celaya over a decade ago.
“I always played around with flavors," says Celaya, "and over time we got a bit more serious about maybe opening an ice cream shop."
Then they heard that a spot was opening up at Barnone, the craftsman community in Gilbert's Agritopia development. It sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“We knew we didn’t want to do something traditional or cookie cutter, which is perfect for a concept space like Barnone,” says Johnston. “Plus, we didn’t feel like there was that much good or creative ice cream around, especially for Arizona.”
Barnone is home to 11 Arizona makers who create everything from wood art to wood-fired pizza. On the food side, the hip hub boasts a small-batch brewery, an experimental winemaker, and a health-minded vegan eatery, but, until earlier this year, no dessert go-to. Cream of that Crop now fills that sweet spot.
The shop itself is a playful mix of retro-meets-cartoon, with confetti-speckled countertops on breeze blocks, turquoise metal stools, a wooden shelf lined with Japanese toys, and a flock of origami cranes hanging above.
“James has a background in design, so he found a lot of the materials and came up with general layout and design of the space,” says Celaya.
The pair also loves art and wanted it displayed in small ways, from the painting that looks like smeared ice cream to the playful “Cream of the Crop” neon sign. It’s eye-candy galore, down to the flavors.
“Matt is amazing at creating flavors based on a concept that doesn’t actually have anything to do with food, such as the Van Gogh flavors we had this past spring,” says Johnston. “I think my favorite flavor was his version of the painting Starry Night that was naturally colored with spirulina.”
Rotating flavors are inspired by art, deconstructed childhood favorites like Captain Crunch, or what’s in season at Agritopia, including a memorable recent creation made with medjool dates, orange blossom, and smoked hay ice cream. “It represented everything grown on the farm at one point in time," Celaya says.
The at-home ice cream maker has been upgraded to a top-of-the-line Stoelting machine, and most of the ice cream has a 16 percent butterfat content (by comparison, what you find in the grocery store is usually 10 to 12 percent). The result: an impossibly creamy consistency and the perfect vehicle for flavors.
“We wanted to create some really interesting flavors and support other businesses in the area by featuring their products in the ice cream as well,” says Johnston. “I love that you can always stick with the standards, but there will always be something new to try even if you come in fairly frequently with so many revolving flavors."
The ice cream is fun and flavor-forward, but it’s not the only thing that sets Cream of the Crop apart. Johnston and Celaya have also created new ways to eat the ice cream — new types of ice cream treats:
The Brûlée: Don’t be surprised if the person behind the counter is armed with an ice cream scoop and a blow torch. Order “Brûlée” style, and your Cream of the Crop is topped with sugar that's then torched for a crispy, bubbly finish. “It creates a great burnt sugar crust while keeping the ice cream frozen,” says Johnston. Bonus: The bananas in the banana split, a homemade fudge, Spanish peanut caramel-topped triumph, are also brûléed for extra flavor.
The Fried: It's better than the kind of deep-fried ice cream you can get at carnivals. “The scoops are rolled in a mixture of cornflake, cinnamon, and sugar, then coated in hot honey and topped with whipped cream, “ says Johnston. “It’s my favorite of the special items.”
3000 East Ray Road Building 6, Gilbert
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m to 9 p.m
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m to 9:30 p.m.