Running the expanded Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream is a cool labor of love, owner says
"The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream," poet Wallace Stevens once wrote. I don't know if Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream owner Gary Schoen is a Stevens aficionado, but both men certainly took circuitous routes before settling into their preferred metiers.
Stevens was an insurance-company executive before (and after) poetic fame. Schoen completed stints at Montgomery Ward and Kelly-Moore Paints and worked for a paint-distribution company and in human resources in the high-tech world.
Schoen's grandfather owned a dairy ranch along the Snake River in Idaho where his mother grew up. During high school in Arizona, Schoen worked in an ice cream store and told his school counselor that he loved the ice cream business so much, he wanted to own his own store someday.
By 2001, he'd been someone else's employee long enough and decided to open his own ice cream parlor. He enrolled in ice cream-making school in North Carolina, under the tutelage of frozen-dessert specialist Luciano Ferrari.
Shortly thereafter, the stars aligned and Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream, a Palo Alto fixture for a half-century, became available. Schoen and wife, Andrea, moved quickly to seal the deal.
Schoen inherited about 100 recipes with the keys to the front door. He pulled out all the old equipment and installed modern, efficient machines, reconfigured the space and repositioned the ice cream store as a 1940s-styled soda fountain.
Despite gelato being all the rage, Schoen chose to continue with ice cream.
"I learned how to make both gelato and ice cream in North Carolina. I just like ice cream better, and I think our customers agree."
Recently, the store was expanded, with seating added (for 26 people). It retains its nostalgic decor, but ice cream is no longer made in the store, as it was in the early days. Today it's made in a plant about a mile down the road; Rick's makes its own ice cream, yogurt, sorbets, fudge, frozen cupcakes and ice cream pies and cakes.
Over the years, the recipe folder has grown with the business and now numbers in the hundreds. Schoen and ice cream maker David Williams dream up new and unusual flavors weekly.
Schoen said Rick's ice cream is made in tiny five-gallon batches to ensure quality. Butterfat content is 16 percent (yogurt flavors have 0 percent fat), in line with other top-notch brands, but with a handmade approach. Each batch takes time and precision and is labor-intensive.
Schoen said he logs hundreds of miles per year seeking essences and extracts he cannot get through normal channels. His palette includes saffron from Spain, rose syrup from India, and gata (frozen coconut liquids and extracts from the Philippines). As frozen fruit doesn't have much scent, extracts are added to the fruit to perk up the olfactory senses; taste, texture and visual appeal are inherently present.
Besides the vast repertoire of such old standards as caramel praline, vanilla bean, rocky road and mocha almond fudge, many of Schoen's flavors are exotic and dreamy: saffron pistachio, lemon lavender, white-chocolate ginger, and rose.
The "Sideways" flavor, inspired by the movie, is a wine-infused ice cream made with cabernet sauvignon. The movie touted pinot noir as the king of wines; poetic license has been granted. "We tried pinot noir, but it didn't have enough flavor," Schoen said.
There are plenty of kids' flavors at Rick's — such as blue moon, bubblegum, cotton candy and frosted cake — with wild, iridescent colors and unlikely taste combinations. Kids do adore those little gut-bomb flavors.
Rick's best-sellers these days, though, are cookies and dough (not to be confused with cookie dough, but cookies and dough), industrial chocolate (a very chocolaty affair), and coffee molasses chip, which is downright addictive. Seasonal flavors include pumpkin, peppermint chip, mint chocolate chip and eggnog.
"I bought a box of Girl Scout cookies a couple years ago and decided to mix the cookies with ice cream," Schoen said. "It was good, and I quickly sold out. This year, I bought 170 boxes to make into thin-mint ice cream."
One Girl Scout mother phoned him for an order. Schoen refused and suggested the girl come in herself. "After all, there's more to it than just meeting a quota. It's supposed to build character and skills for the girl," he said.
Rick's new sit-down parlor gives customers a chance to relax with sodas, extra-thick shakes, banana splits and black cows — in addition to the ice cream pies, cakes and frozen cupcakes. On a busy day, Rick's easily serves 500 patrons, Schoen estimated.
Expanding to a second location is not in the cards, he said. Instead, he's beginning to whole-sale Rick's products locally. At this point in his life he stresses "manageability over expansion."
Gary and Andrea have three children and three grandchildren. One son is in the video-games industry. (Talk about grandchild nirvana: His dad designs video games and Grandpa owns an ice cream store. Think that kid's popular at school?)
For Schoen, making ice cream is a labor of love. "I wish I had done this a lot earlier in life. I love it. It's a feel-good business. We put smiles on people's faces."
Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream
3946 Middlefield Rd.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.