Paul McCullough really likes ice cream. Always has, he says.
So much so that he’s trying to start a business, selling handcrafted ice cream, and he’s partnered with The Ember in downtown Grand Forks to move his young business, “You Betcha Ice Cream,” forward.
McCullough rents the kitchen at The Ember, where he stores his ingredients and makes small-batch ice cream, usually about three-and-a-half gallons at a time, he said. He packages his product by hand in pint containers; it sells for $7 a pint.
Though he makes a variety of flavors, he said: “I try to keep the base as similar and simple as possible."
He also tries “to keep the flavors and textures, or ‘mouth-feel,’ as consistent as possible,” he said. “If you change the base, it changes how it tastes, how it stays with you and how smooth it is.”
He chose the name, “You Betcha Ice Cream,” for his business, because he was looking for something that reflected the culture of this region, he said.
“I wanted something so specific to the area," said McCullough who works with a commercial-grade ice cream maker and two consumer-grade ice cream makers.
“After churning, I mix it and freeze it,” he said.
McCullough’s love affair with ice cream began early.
He has fond memories of going out for ice cream with his family after his choir, band and orchestra concerts. It was kind of a family ritual, he said.
His interest led him to try his hand at making ice cream himself.
“Long before it was a business, I was making ice cream for family and friends. I had a little competition with Dad," said McCullough, who would make a quart of ice cream at a time and give it away.
He soon gained a reputation as a capable ice cream maker and it wasn’t long before, at family gatherings, “people would ask, ‘Oh, did you bring ice cream?’ ” said the 2013 graduate of Red River High School, who studied entrepreneurship at UND where he earned an undergraduate degree in 2017.
“I have enjoyed eating really good ice cream over the years,” he said.
With encouragement from some friends, he began experimenting with making ice cream in his parents’ kitchen about two years ago.
“I love the process of making it,” he said. “You can zero in and block out all the things that are going on. I love watching people respond to it.”
Most of his recipes are variations on recipes that come with Cuisinart equipment, but he also gets “a lot of ideas from ice cream recipe books.”
Among flavors he has experimented with, he said: “Probably the three most popular are cake batter, cinnamon and vanilla.”
He also creates “mystery flavors,” he said, noting that he chooses one such flavor, he calls Mystery Blues, for a pop-up event.
One of the most popular -- and obscure -- flavors he’s tried is a juniper-flavored ice cream using dehydrated berries mixed with extract.
“That sold out,” said McCullough, who also has tried lavender ice cream. “People love that.”
But an experiment with peppercorn ice cream “didn’t go as well.”
Last month, he hosted a pop up-event at The Ember where he sold packages of cookies and cream, brown sugar camomille, black coffee and vanilla ice cream “in preparation for Christmas,” he said.
He hosts occasional pop-up events to give customers an opportunity to taste and buy his product. He’s planning just such an event Feb. 11 in the main lobby at The Ember.
“It’ll be right before Giving Hearts Day,” he said, as he expects people will want to stock up on ice cream.
He plans to offer “black coffee, cookies and cream, and maybe some other Valentine’s Day-themed ice cream,” he said.
A sideline, for now
McCullough fits his ice cream-making interests around the demands of his full-time work as a marketing coordinator for the city of Grand Forks.
Alexander “Blue” Weber, director of the Downtown Development Association, is a big fan of McCullough’s ice cream. He was so impressed he asked McCullough to serve vanilla ice cream at a reception following his wedding in August, he said.
“If you ever get a chance to try it, do,” Weber said. “It’s pretty fantastic, I promise.”
Weber “has definitely been a huge supporter,” McCullough said.
He’s also been an important mentor.
“He was one of the first people who talked to me about starting a business,” McCullough said. “He said, ‘How do we get you out of your parents’ kitchen?’
“I didn’t know having a commissary kitchen was possible," said McCullough, adding he is grateful for the opportunity to use The Ember kitchen.
Warren Sai, owner of French Taste crepe business, has also used the kitchen and has been supportive of McCullough’s efforts to start a business, according to McCullough.
Along with Sai, McCullough has connected with other local food entrepreneurs who have similar ambitions and share information on preparation, licensing, marketing and other business matters.
“I’ve learned so much after getting out of my parents’ kitchen,” he said.
“Ice cream has its own challenges; there’s a lot of things you have to learn and a lot of steps you have to take. You have to have the interest,” he said. “It’s like anything else -- it’s one step at a time.
“It’s easier to learn about ice cream when you like it,” he said.
Dreams for the future
While he’s not yet selling You Betcha Ice Cream as part of the menu at The Ember, McCullough is looking at how that might be a more consistent enterprise in the future, he said.
This summer, he’s planning to sell ice cream at local concerts and other community events and have a stand at the farmers market in downtown Grand Forks.
“I’m excited to see it grow,” he said. “Since I’m starting small and been able to work with partnership (with The Ember), it’s been a manageable investment.
“I have dreams and aspirations for my business, but we’ll see what shakes out. If it’s just a summer thing, that’s fine," he said.
But, mostly, it’s about the customer.
“I hope my ice cream makes people happy,” he said. “I hope they enjoy it, in the most simple sense.”