Tastes Like the Finger Lakes

The local focus of the handmade ice cream at the Cayuga Lake Creamery in Interlaken sets it apart from other ice cream spots in the area. Just as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is uniquely branded “Made in Vermont,” Jeff and Judy’s ice cream has a lot of Finger Lakes flavor to it.

For starters, founders Jeff Kostick and his wife, Judy Gonroff, buy their milk products through the Upstate Milk Cooperative. Jeff and Judy considered buying from individual farmers around them, but cows’ diets change with the seasons, which can mean subtle – or not-so-subtle – changes to the composition and taste of the milk they produce. And, making good, consistent ice cream requires a consistent base ingredient, with predictably stable levels of butterfat and so on. Upstate brings milk from dairy farms across central New York and blends it together, minimizing the seasonal effects on chemical makeup and balancing the flavors.

And then there’s the location. The Creamery is located on NYS Route 89, about midway between the north and south ends of Cayuga Lake. It’s on the wine trail and not far from local attractions including Taughannock Falls. Also, 89 is a scenic byway that doesn’t go through village centers, so people traveling it find relatively few places to stop. The Creamery’s location makes it a family-friendly place where travelers can stretch their legs, take a break, and stop for ice cream or finger food.

Wine sorbets from original recipes
The Creamery uses other Finger-Lakes-made products to strengthen its regional ties. Jeff has worked with about 12 of the 16 Cayuga Wine Trail wineries to produce over 20 different varieties of wine sorbet. “I usually sit down with a winemaker or a chef who has a general idea about the fruit that might pair well with his wine,” said Jeff. “Often, I’ll taste a little of the wine to see if I agree with his idea, and usually I do.

“Sometimes it happens that the final recipe is different than the original concept,” he continued. “I worked with one winery that wanted to try a Riesling sorbet. The wine had a peach overtone to it, so they wanted to pair it with peach. We tried it and it was good, but it wasn’t great. I said to them, ‘After tasting this, I think an orange sorbet might work.’ So, I made both and people at the winery tasted both, and about 90 percent of them agreed that though the peach was not bad, the orange was really great.”

Jeff develops the recipes himself. His challenge is creating sorbets in which both the wine and the fruit can be tasted and each flavor enhances the other. We’re talking about premium products here, so they have to be good enough to justify the price. That’s why he’s so committed to making them the best they can be. One or two varieties of wine sorbet are usually available at the Creamery, and they sometimes can be found at­­ wineries on the trail.

It’s about more than just the ice cream
Perhaps the best illustration of Jeff and Judy’s strong connection to the region is their Finger Lakes friendliness. The beauty of the area and the kindness of its people kept them coming from Massachusetts for vacation each year for almost three decades. Now that they live in the Finger Lakes, they display the kind of hospitality they appreciated when they came as tourists. For them, it’s critical to leave a good taste in visitors’ mouths – in every sense. “I think some tourists stop at a small, independently owned place like ours, instead of a chain restaurant, specifically for the local feel,” said Judy.

“We’re not just about handing someone an ice cream. We really want to talk with people, get to know them and make sure they have the best experience possible,” added Jeff, “Even when we’re busy, we try to have at least a little interaction with each person.”

Employees are encouraged to do the same. Judy recounted how one Creamery staffer who knew sign language served a deaf couple who came in to order ice cream: “They were so thrilled because they were just going to write down everything and point, but they didn’t have to.” Another time, an employee lent her Italian-language skills to assist a struggling customer.

“Travelers who are lost come in quite often,” said Judy. “They will ask, ‘Where can we stay?’ and we’ll call around for them to the local B&Bs. Also, cars break down, and we’ll call the local mechanic to help. Visitors have told us they are amazed at how friendly we are around here – especially the ones from big cities.”

A large part of Jeff and Judy’s helpfulness stems from their own confusion during their first visits as tourists. “Years ago, we were the ones driving up and down this road asking, ‘Where is everything?’ I know what it feels like to wonder, ‘Where is the nearest gas station?’” explained Judy.

Sweet success, one scoop at a time
The Creamery has grown by about 20 percent each year since it opened more than four years ago because Jeff and Judy work hard reminding people to stop by. They generate repeat customers with a reward program using a “Scoop Card” that keeps track of purchases. After 10 purchases, customers are entitled to a free cone or scoop of ice cream. Visitors can also sign up for their birthday club. Participants receive a coupon good for a free cone, or a discount on an ice cream cake, which they can cash in anytime.

“Going out to events and farmers’ markets with our ice cream cart – even if we give the ice cream away – has been a major factor in the business’ growth,” said Judy. “The only way people are going to know about us is if we get out into the community.”

“Until about last summer, people would see the cart and ask, ‘Where is the store? Do you make your own?’” Jeff said. “Now I’ll overhear people who say, ‘Oh great! The Creamery’s here.’ Others will say, ‘I’ve driven by there so many times! I’ve heard it’s good, but I’ve never stopped. Let’s try some.’”

Their website, www.CayugaLakeCreamery.com, helps to get the word out too. Online customers can have Jeff and Judy’s ice cream shipped anywhere in the United States. Snowbirds can ship themselves some to enjoy at their winter homes. Visitors who’ve discovered them and fallen in love can order a little taste of the Finger Lakes any time, and it makes a great gift. Of course, locals can just stop in during the winter, as they remain open year-round.

If you haven’t tried the Creamery yet, perhaps now is time. Stop in during their extended summer hours, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. To see their menu or learn more, visit www.CayugaLakeCreamery.com.

by Anya Harris

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