The small-batch, artisanal ice cream at Big Spoon Creamery is every bit as awesome as people say.
It’s deliciously inventive with quality ingredients: goat cheese with strawberry-hibiscus jam, fresh mint chip with Valrhona chocolate chips. Many of these ingredients are locally sourced, supporting area makers and farmers like Stone Hollow Farmstead (where they get the goat cheese) and Terra Preta Farm (where they get mint).
But this ice cream, ultimately, is a way for the husband-and-wife team of Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara to connect with people and support their community.
“When we started the company,” Ryan says, “it was based on two big passions for us: ice cream and people. We feel like ice cream is sort of our vehicle, a platform, to be able to impact the people around us in a positive way.”
I sat down with Geri-Martha and Ryan recently for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here.
Their cart to truck to brick-and-mortar enterprise actually began with a foldout table and a deep freeze the couple hauled to the front yard of their Bluff Park home for a pop-up event that saw lines down the driveway. When a neighbor, who worked at Southern Living, walked over and tasted their ice cream, she was impressed enough to write an article for the magazine’s website. That jumpstarted a dream that now includes two stores and employs about 35 people year round and 55 during the summer season.
The O’Haras founded their company in 2014 with $500. They had just gotten married and bought and furnished a house. That didn’t leave much starting capital. They poured their profits into the business (which they named Big Spoon because, as a kid, Ryan grew up enjoying ice cream and hand-mixed milkshakes in his grandmother’s kitchen; he would always ask for the biggest spoon in the drawer).
In 2016, they went from an old-school ice cream cart to a truck they named Bessie. Parking Bessie at The Market at Pepper Place was their next great idea. “Pepper Place was our launching pad,” Geri-Martha says. “So many people get exposed to your product and learn about you. And so it was just an incredible growing tool for us, for us to really grow organically.”
They opened their first storefront—a light-filled, modern interpretation of a classic ice cream shop—in Avondale at the MAKEbhm building in April of 2017. This past February, they opened a second location in Homewood’s Edgewood neighborhood.
The truck and cart still make rounds for special events.
Both Ryan and Geri-Martha have career backgrounds in fine dining. Geri-Martha was a pastry chef at Bottega where she made desserts for all four of Stitt’s restaurants. Before that, she spent some time in New York where she interned with a couple of star pastry chefs: Dominique Ansel (creator of the Cronut) and James Beard Foundation Award-winner Michael Laiskonis. Ryan began at Bottega as a line cook and worked his way up to sous chef at Chez Fonfon before the couple started Big Spoon.
This high level of training—in creative dishes and in service—influences everything they do.
Geri-Martha’s fully equipped pastry chef’s kitchen turns out a seasonal menu that also changes from month to month as it relies on fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients for the ice cream and the sundae sauces and add-ins like brittles, cookies, cakes and jams.
Geri-Martha can—and will—make just about any cake or other dessert into an ice cream. She created an Italian cassata cake ice cream based on the dessert served at Bottega. For a short time in the springtime, there’s the ultra-seasonal honeysuckle ice cream with blackberry jam. “It’s one of the most special, unique flavors we’ve ever done,” Geri-Martha says. “The milk really stretches the flavor of the honeysuckle, so you get all the beautiful notes of the honeysuckle. It’s just so amazing. And then you get the tart of the blackberry. And it’s so beautiful. Oh, I can’t wait! As soon as we see some blooms, we’ll be out there picking. It’s probably my most favorite flavor!”
The O’Hara’s are making great ice cream, but they also are focusing on people: their staff, their customers and their community.
“We have the most incredible people that work with us,” Geri-Martha adds. “I’m so proud of them, and it’s an honor to work beside them every day and to … grow them and help them get to where they want to go.”
“When people come here, they don’t come here by accident,” Ryan adds. “They come here with high expectations just like any great restaurant or establishment … they don’t come here just for a cup of ice cream. They’re coming for an experience, whether it’s date night or it’s Sunday after church with the family or a special occasion. And so it’s on us to deliver that and give them an awesome experience.”
This graciously served ice cream has become a way for the O’Haras to directly connect with the communities around them.
“Currently, we partner with two different nonprofit ministries that do awesome work in our communities,” Ryan says. “We give a portion of our profits to The WellHouse, which fights human trafficking. The other one is Christian Service Missions, not even half a mile down the street from our Avondale shop, and they do incredible work with food and housing and practical needs for the underprivileged in our city.”
Geri-Martha and Ryan already are reaching out to organizations near the new location in Homewood. “We’re going to partner with The Exceptional Foundation,” Ryan says. “And we just did a give-back night … with The Bell Center. We want to be intentional with some of the success we’ve had and channel that into making an impact.
“In any community we’re in—whether it’s Avondale, Birmingham as a whole, the Homewood community—we want to be a pillar of our community and be a positive impact … not just a great ice cream shop. We want to be doing great things for our community.”