by Elena Kadvany
At Cream, downtown Palo Alto's new ice cream sandwich haven, there are an estimated 2,000 combinations of cookies and ice cream to choose from, said co-owner Jimmy Shamieh.
You can go classic with a hefty scoop of French vanilla ice cream smushed between two hefty, warm chocolate-chip cookies. You can indulge your sweet tooth and go with a double-chocolate-chip cookie on top, peanut butter on the bottom and salted caramel ice cream in between.
With 20 ice cream flavors, 10 kinds of cookies (not counting the gluten-free and vegan options) and nine toppings, the possibilities at Cream are seemingly endless.
Cream is a family business, owned and operated by a father-son team from Millbrae. Gus Shamieh, Jimmy's son, said it all began 25 years ago when he and his sister started putting things in between their mother's homemade cookies.
"Chocolate bars, marshmallows. One time I tried to feed my dad a Hot Wheels metal car between two cookies," he said. "That didn't go over too well. Ice cream was our favorite one to do."
Soon the Shamiehs' creations became locally famous, with friends coming over after sports games or practices to eat ice cream sandwiched between two freshly baked cookies.
"We knew it was good and we knew people liked it, but we never thought about making it a commercial venture until a few years ago when the economy changed," Gus said. "We decided ... if we like it, maybe others will like it too."
And they have. In 2010, the family opened up a shop on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, close to the U.C. Berkeley campus. They had lines out the door, and still do, said Palo Alto manager Matt Petersen, who approached the Shamieh family for a job after standing in line for 20 minutes at the Berkeley location about a year and a half ago.
"I was looking for a new project and I was like, 'This is brilliant, this is awesome,'" Petersen said.
With Petersen as Cream's first franchisee, the family headed to Palo Alto, opening the shop's doors on University Avenue in mid-June. The Palo Alto location — which used to house Michael's Gelato & Cafe — is a bigger space than Berkeley's and offers a larger menu, with 20 ice cream flavors compared to Berkeley's 16.
As the store's acronym-name (Cookies Rule Everything Around Me, inspired by hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan's song "Cash Rules Everything Around Me") suggests, at Cream they take their sweets seriously. You can custom-create your own ice cream sandwich, combining any of the cookies — either two of the same or mix-and-match — with a scoop of ice cream, plus toppings.
"I just like that it feels homemade," said Chris Winn, a Redwood City resident who tried Cream for the first time with his son Christian on a recent afternoon. Christian, with a stray drop of ice cream on his chin and his chocolate-chip cookie/chocolate ice cream sandwich already half eaten before he walked out the door, agreed.
Jenny Fernando, who drove from work in Menlo Park on a recent afternoon to get a scoop of salted caramel ice cream sandwiched between two turtle cookies (chocolate with chocolate chips, pecans and caramel) said she likes "that you get to play with the flavors a little bit."
"And it's inexpensive," she added. "And it's delicious."
Paying less than three dollars for a generous scoop of ice cream and two large cookies is almost unheard of, but part of Cream's mission is to make its treats affordable for everyone.
"We don't want to sacrifice premium quality for affordability," Gus Shamieh said. "My dad used to say, 'When I took you to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, I would need to take out a small bank loan to afford it.' So that was really key for us: to make it affordable for families to come and not have to break the bank to treat (their) families."
Though ice cream sandwiches ($2.99 or $2.50 if you pay cash) are the main event, Cream also offers milkshakes ($5.49), floats ($5.49), malts ($5.99) and scoops of ice cream (one scoop for $1.49). Baked goods include cookies (one for 79 cents, two for $1.49), brownies and raspberry, blueberry and lemon bars. Most of the baked goods go for $2.99. There are also two soy ice creams (mint chip and cherry chip), four vegan cookies and various gluten-free cookie options.
In addition, there's a half-sandwich option (one cookie is cut in half and the halves stacked to make a half sandwich for $1.75), multi-flavored milkshakes ($5.75) and milkshakes with cookie mixed in ($6.25).
On Taco Tuesdays — 8 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays — visitors can snag a sweet taco, made from a flat waffle curved up on the sides to create a vessel to hold three ice cream scoops and two toppings for $3.50.
The ice cream shop also operates on the principle that there's more to Cream than cookies and ice cream. "It's not just an ice cream sandwich, but rather an experience," Shamieh said. "When you walk in there's music blasting, and some of the team members are dancing and singing along with the music."
Music is indeed constantly blasting at the Palo Alto location, usually a selection of current pop hits that teenaged and younger customers seem to enjoy. The distinct smell of freshly baked sweets wafts out the open French doors and onto University Avenue, though neither cookies nor the ice cream are made on site.
The Cream experience also sets itself apart on Thursdays and weekends, as the store stays open until 2 a.m. Petersen said the option to stay open late and piggyback off downtown Palo Alto's nightlife was a draw for opening there.
The company also recently launched a delivery service with Palo Alto-based startup Fluc, which allows users to track the status of an order in real time on a map via GPS. Users can communicate with their drivers and update their order if need be. Delivery is only for ice cream sandwiches at this point and for smaller orders (15 or fewer) within a 7-mile radius. Petersen said most deliveries so far had destinations on the Stanford campus.
Online reviewers have made various complaints (the cookies aren't always served warm, cookies harden too quickly, waiting more than 30 minutes in line for a dessert you could make yourself at home is ridiculous) but the ever-present line out the door at Cream speaks for itself.
Info: Cream is at 2440 University Ave. in Palo Alto. Hours: Mon.-Wed. noon to midnight; Thurs.-Fri. noon to 2 a.m.; Sat. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Go to creamnation.com or call 650-321-2390.