Wake Up Call

Lord of the Custard

Some people wander through their lives, wondering why they're here and what to do with themselves. Others are so clear about their purpose on this Earth it's almost frightening.

Marcus Ridgeway knows why he's here, and it's to make ice cream. Not just any ice cream, but frozen custard, which is ice cream in its most original form.

Ridgeway owns and operates Auntie Em's Frozen Custard, on the northwest corner of Hayden and Thomas roads in south Scottsdale. Three years ago, he was a graduate student working in the biophysics lab at Arizona State University, waiting to hear back from medical schools. He planned to be a pediatrician, but the trend toward HMOs in the health-care industry dissuaded him, he says. This sounds plausible, but it also seems possible that a more primordial force was at work as well.

"I love ice cream," Ridgeway admits. "I eat ice cream every single day." He confesses to having planned a weeklong camping trip in Yosemite National Park around stops to the one ice cream stand in the park. Ridgeway eats so much ice cream that his mother, a nurse, worries he'll contract diabetes.

A third-generation Arizona native, Ridgeway grew up in the small towns of Duncan and Willcox, Arizona. His family made ice cream using a traditional hand-crank ice cream maker. Marcus soon took over that job and did it better than anyone else.

"I worked on a dairy farm," he says. It was owned by his Boy Scout troop leader. "My scoutmaster always smelled of milk. I swore I wouldn't and now it's come back to haunt me."

Ridgeway broadened his horizons in Europe where he served on a Mormon mission in Finland. Needless to say, he sampled the native ice creams while he was there. The Europeans, he reports, favor richer ice cream that has a heavier fat content.

As an undergraduate at ASU, he sold his own ice cream and realized he had a gift. He worked for a while as a fly fishing guide at Sundance Resort in Utah, and in Sun Valley, Idaho. But ultimately it came down to medical school or custard, and when it did, the Hippocratic oath didn't have a chance.

"I wanted to work for myself," Ridgeway says.

He sold everything to open the shop, including his car, he says. He even gave up his apartment and lived in the back of the shop for a while, working seven days a week, 14 hours a day. Auntie Em's Frozen Custard is now a going business, with its five employees in winter doubling to 10 in the summer, his high season.

They make their custard several times a day, and offer a flavor of the day for every day of the year. Specials include Brownie Batter Madness, Caramel Cashew (cashews roasted on the premises), and Cinnamon Caramel Crunch.

After three years, Ridgeway's passion hasn't diminished. He's planning to open a second location in the Valley and perhaps one in Sedona. But he wants people to get their facts straight.

Ask him if custard is pudding (a perfectly fair question, it would seem) and Ridgeway will blink at you politely through his scholarly metal-rim glasses, looking as if you've lost your mind.

"Custard isn't pudding," Ridgeway says. "Communicating that to people is my biggest hurdle."

Then what is frozen custard? It's basically ice cream that uses real egg yolks as a natural stabilizer and has 10 percent butterfat. There are about 140 calories per serving of Auntie Em's frozen custard. And despite its appearance, please don't confuse custard with soft ice cream.

"We make our custard Coney Island style, which makes it look like soft ice cream," says Ridgeway, "except that we take the air out of it." That means his custard is a lot denser. Custard is 10 percent air, compared to 20 percent for normal ice cream and 60 percent for soft ice cream. Chemist that he is, Ridgeway has tinkered with his recipe until he's been able to lower the sugar and fat to about half that found in premium ice cream, he says.

When asked why he's so obsessed with ice cream, Ridgeway has enough self-awareness to analyze that.

"As kids, we're conditioned. You hear the jingle of the ice cream truck and you run to it."

Then he gets a faraway look in his eyes. "My mouth still waters when I fire up the ice cream machine in the morning," he says.

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Joe Bardin