The walk-up window at Scooter’s Frozen Custard–where dog walkers and moms with strollers order treats to go–is a far cry from the world of software sales. Yet if it weren’t for the dot-com bust of the late 90s, Chicago’s only custard stand wouldn’t exist at all. Just two years ago, Scooter’s owners Denny Moore and his wife, Mardi, were both out-of-work telecom sales executives who shared a taste for the frozen treat.
“I fell in love with custard while I was going to school at Purdue,” says Mardi. Later, living in Barrington, she would visit Julie Ann’s Custard in Crystal Lake. When she worked in software sales, her territory included parts of Wisconsin. “I used to tease Denny on my drives up to Green Bay and Madison,” she says. “I would stop, call him at home, and then place my order for a chocolate custard while I was talking to him, just to make him mad.”
The couple met at Ameritech in the mid-90s. In 1998, Mardi left for a telecom start-up based in Boston. By 1999 Denny was working from home for a small Houston-based firm. But in 2001 Mardi left her company over a compensation dispute, and later that year Denny was let go after his was acquired.
With their careers at a standstill, the Moores began researching the custard business. The Wisconsin-based Culver’s chain had franchises for sale, but the corporate business plan required rural surroundings, a 40-car parking lot, and a $1.5 million fee. So Mardi, who recalled seeing the name Ross on the custard machine while visiting one of the stores, called Ross’s Manufacturing in Escanaba, Michigan, to learn more. The Moores met with Ross’s sales reps at the 2002 restaurant show at McCormick Place and decided to attend a three-day “scoop school” at the company’s headquarters in the Upper Peninsula. “We learned about the equipment, the frozen custard business, vanilla companies, architectural ideas–they even showed us a sample business outline,” says Denny.
Meanwhile they became regular customers at Dillon’s, a frozen custard shop at 1157 N. State that closed last fall after barely a year in business. “There weren’t a lot of young families there, parking was impossible, and the sidewalks were too narrow,” says Denny. With those factors in mind, he and Mardi started scouting locations–in Bucktown, in Lincoln Park, on Michigan Avenue. When they found a spot at the corner of Belmont and Paulina, says Denny, “we staked it out closely to see the traffic patterns.”
The turn-of-the-century building had housed the Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly soup kitchen for most of its existence, and it needed some updating. Getting a variance from the water department was key, as the custard-making process requires up to four gallons of water per minute–twice the norm for a restaurant. To accommodate the new custard machine (not to mention new restrooms), the Moores had to replace all of the electrical work and plumbing. “We wanted to open by tax day in April,” says Denny. “But with contract delays and the whole permitting process, we barely managed to open by June.” Turns out the timing was right: Chicago had one of its coldest springs on record.
The centerpiece of the open kitchen is a two-barrel custard machine that cost somewhere in the low five figures (the Moores won’t say exactly). Each morning Denny mixes up the two flavors of the day, combining heavy cream, milk, sugar, and egg yolks in tall white buckets, along with vanilla and some “secret ingredients.” The liquid mixtures go into the barrels and, once a knob on top is turned, the custard begins to form. After about ten minutes, the machine starts to moan–the sound of wheels spinning along the sides of its interior, forming the soft custard. The result is dense, velvety smooth, and not too sweet.
“A lot of big ice cream companies will add air to their product, which lets them stretch production,” says Denny. This is called overrun; at 100 percent overrun, for example, you’d get two gallons of ice cream out of one gallon of ingredients, simply from the extra air. The lower the overrun, the denser the product. The Moores’ target is 20 percent overrun, lower than any major manufacturer and well below store-bought ice cream.
To be called frozen custard, the ice cream must contain at least 1.4 percent egg yolks. But at most places it has less butterfat than “superpremium” ice creams–HŠagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, Chicago’s own Margie’s–which have a butterfat content of about 18 percent. The custard at Scooter’s hovers around 10. “Your brain fools you into thinking that since it’s dense and sweet, it must be fattier,” Denny says. “But that’s a result of the overrun and the temperature we serve it at.” Unlike hard ice cream, which is blast frozen at 20 below zero, the custard is kept at a constant 18 degrees.
The final difference between hard ice cream and frozen custard is freshness. Most custard shops–Kopp’s in Milwaukee, Michael’s in Madison, Ted Drewes in Saint Louis–make custard fresh all day long. The same holds true at Scooter’s, where new batches pour out of the machine every two hours. The legendary Ted Drewes stand on Route 66 is known for its “concretes”–milk shakes handed to customers upside down to prove their thickness. Scooter’s also offers concretes, with mix-ins like chunks of Snickers, Reese’s, Oreos, or fruit. “The Saint Louis people are really defensive about their custard,” Denny says. “They’ll accuse me of ripping off the name”–which, he points out, is not copyrighted and is widely used in the industry. “Wisconsin people are more likely to say our custard is as good, if not better, than the stuff back home.”
Scooter’s Frozen Custard is at 1658 W. Belmont, 773-244-6415.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.