ELKHART — Clara Miller had been running an event bakery out of Shipshewana for eight years. She needed a change.
That’s why Miller started the Vanilla Bean Creamery in downtown Elkhart with her youngest daughter, Krista Miller.
The two had little experience with ice cream before buying the venue at 538 S. Main St. in August 2018. They needed to learn quickly before opening in June 2019.
But if you ask customers, it seems the shop owners have done very well, serving more than two dozen types of ice cream made with “real” ingredients.
Paula and John Frank have already become regulars, visiting Vanilla Bean Creamery three times by July 30.
“It’s addictive,” Paula said. “This ice cream is excellent.”
“It’s a creamy kind of ice cream,” John said.
John is mostly a vanilla-kind-of-guy, but Paula recommends several flavors, including chocolate, salted caramel and half strawberry half chocolate.
Though it wasn’t a certainty that the Millers would set up shop in Elkhart, the building fit their dreams perfectly.
“We asked for hardwood floor, brick on the wall and seating outside. Those were our things that we kind of thought we needed,” Clara said.
First they looked in Goshen, not really thinking much of downtown Elkhart. But that changed when they got to know the district and came across the empty 538 address.
“It was perfect,” Clara said. “Well ... it wasn’t perfect yet then.”
There were several layers of floor on top of the wooden floor that has been re-exposed. There were studs and plaster on the walls, and three large dumpsters’ worth of junk.
The mother-daughter team did the demolition work and renovation themselves, except for the most technical details, they said. Krista’s experience working for Jayco, which she continues to do, came in handy.
Some of the defining features of the shop’s interior include the wooden booths and countertops, built by Krista. Clara fixed the old tin ceiling, and slowly, it all came together, they said.
“Anything we didn’t know how to do, you Youtube it,” Clara said.
The long and narrow shop has large windows in front and high south-facing windows on the Division Street wall. With light brick, light wood and light blue, the shop is bright and summery, just as you might expect from a place trying to sell cool delicacies.
According to the Franks, the business owners did a good job in creating a place you want to be.
“The atmosphere is awesome,” Paula said. “I just love that they pretty much restored what I’m sure this looked like, almost, back in the day.”
“It’s a comfortable place to come and sit and have a date with your wife,” said John.
Switching from one business to another wasn’t easy, but Clara said you have to make your life what you want it to be, and so it was worth taking a risk.
“There’s a risk in making a big investment and really not knowing ice cream. We’d never made ice cream before,” she said.
Some of that risk was alleviated when the Millers went to “ice cream bootcamp” in Florida.
Clara said her experience from her bakery, called Sugar & Spice, has helped, too, because she knows how to create good flavors.
“I know how to dump stuff together until it tastes right, and that’s kind of what I do here,” she said.
The Millers are positively surprised by the number of customers they have had in their first two months. They get repeat customers, and many new customers heard of the shop through word of mouth.
“I’ve been amazed at Elkhart,” Clara said. “The people are so nice, and they say, ‘We’re going to tell everybody,’ and they do!”
Krista estimated that 90% of customers were directed to the store through recommendations from other customers.
“I didn’t expect us to be this busy this fast,” she said.
Though the switch from having a bakery to an ice cream shop might not seem too great, Clara said that going from baking for events such as weddings to having a store with customers and staff is a large difference.
“Because you share it with other people,” she said.
And it doesn’t make the deal worse that she no longer stands alone with all the dishes at the end of the day.
Krista still goes to work at Jayco at 5 a.m. before going to the store. She said she had a lot of spare time and some decent savings when Clara got the idea, and getting involved seemed like a good investment of both.
“I just wanted to do something different, and I don’t want to work in an RV factory for the rest of my life either,” she said.
The Millers have eight staff members, most of them high school students. One is in college and one, general manager Regina Yutzy, comes from 5 & 20 Country Restaurant in Shipshewana.
“I told my husband, ‘I want her,’” Clara said.
But Yutzy ended up being the one to approach Clara when she heard of the new ice cream shop.
“We wouldn’t want to do it without her,” Clara said. “We definitely don’t have Regina’s skills.”
There have only been a few small mishaps so far, like when they bought the wrong type of ice cream buckets and had to get new ones, or when they had a big rush on the first open weekend that they weren’t entirely ready for.
As for the ice cream, Vanilla Bean Creamery goes for homemade. They buy ingredients at various local stores rather than ice cream supply stores.
“The coffee brownie swirl has homemade brownies in it,” Clara said.
“The pecan pie has actual pecan bars in it,” said Krista.
“The oatmeal cream pies have actual oatmeal cream pies,” said Clara.
You get the idea.
All the ice cream sold at Vanilla Bean Creamery is made there. The kitchen is small and simple, but the owners anticipate expanding the menu slightly, perhaps with soups and sandwiches, during the colder months.
Getting all the ingredients for ice cream locally can create problems, they have found.
“Sometimes we have fails, like the mint,” Clara said. “I was out of my regular mint, so I used a different kind ... wasn’t good. So the employees got to take ice cream home.”
After two months of running the ice cream shop, the Millers have yet to become tired of the product that they supply.
“I eat way too much,” Krista said.
But that is OK, because that way they know the quality is as high as it should be, Clara joked.
The worst thing about running an ice cream shop, she said, is that she doesn’t get to see her grandchildren too often. Not because they don’t love visiting their grandmother with all the ice cream, but rather because parents can have a tendency to think that’s not always the best place to visit.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus
If you go
Vanilla Bean Creamery, 513 S. Main St., Elkhart, is open from 2 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m. on Monday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday.