Ryan Berk, Austin Amento, and Ben Cook have a lot in common: they are all founders of new, growing, and successful businesses in Redlands, California; they are all about the same age (30 years old, give or take a few years); and they even look sort of similar.
In a most original way, the three are mixing together their passions and products: ice cream, chocolate, coffee, and beer. You say these don’t go together? Have a look at the results and the synergy that is good for each other and good for the town of Redlands.
Liquid Nitrogen and Beans: Ryan Berk grew up circling around his passion for food, in a way that took him around the world and eventually brought him back to a dream in his native Southern California.
Berk was one of the first to attend and graduate from The Grove School, the small Montessori-based public charter school in Redlands. Like all the other students there, he did internships and service work. From his early teens, Berk was a dishwasher and busboy for a Thai family at their local restaurant.
After high school, he went on to culinary school. He saved up his money and set out to roam the world as a photojournalist, absorbing a core lesson he has since applied: that food and its local culture are essentially intertwined. Back home, Berk was again working at a restaurant, with frozen fished packed in super coolants. Liquid nitrogen, Berk mused, why not use it to quickly freeze ice cream?
Berk was not the first to think of this possibility, but he came to it on his own. He started playing around with the idea, and discovered that indeed, you could almost instantly freeze the liquid base into a smooth, creamy ice cream. And that was when it all came together: the lessons he described from Grove School, to “just get out there and do it”; a passion for food; his self-described perfectionism for what he does.
I stumbled into Ryan Berk one sunny midday just before Christmas as I was stopping in at his A la Minute ice cream shop and he was heading out. With a small-town friendliness, like he had all the time in the world, he told me his own personal story, the new story of starting the business with his wife, Cassie, who runs the financial side of the company, and about how their business works with the energy, revival, and creation of an updated identity of Redlands.
The list of ice creams on the A la Minute board says a lot for the creativity of the owners and the commitment to being local. And as I learned, the flavors are inspired by the local ingredients: honey from Soffel Farms, mint from his own garden, local Redlands oranges, and nearby olive oil , apples, lavender, pumpkin, etc. I chose the orange honey. Why not? I was in Redlands, after all, an orange growing center of California. It was delicious.
Then Berk asked if I’d like to see his new shop, Parliament Chocolate, just a few blocks away. Parliament, as in "a parliament of owls," is named for early tenants of the building, the White Owl Café. The chocolate shop had just opened a few days earlier.
Parliament Chocolate is the Berks’ second dream. Once they had saved enough from ice cream, they turned to chocolate. It makes sense to me. He talked about the process of making his chocolate, from sourcing his beans on a recent trip to see small farmers in Belize and Guatemala, to outfitting the shop to producing the exquisite finished candies. “Look at that drain!” he said exuberantly, pointing to the floor and then to every carefully chosen fixture, tile, machine, drawing in the beautiful, gleaming shop.
I watched the Parliament chocolate makers tending big, rotating vats of chocolate, ladeling small scoops onto trays and decorating them like tiny pieces of art.
Coffee for the People: Austin Amento, along with his father, an electrical contractor, bought a small coffee shop about 5 years ago, called Augie’s Coffee House. They didn’t know much about the business but saw an opportunity to seize and build upon in an uncertain economic climate. They went along for a few years, and then realized that if they were going to make a go of it, they needed to ramp up. That meant identifying their mission and targeting traits that would set them apart: sourcing the best coffee beans; controlling every aspect of the bean-roasting, coffee-brewing, and costs; creating a new ambience for the shop and a clientele that would appreciate the experience.
Augie’s, named for the grandfather of the original owners, kept its name, but changed in every other way. They got a new look and feel for the building; they went to San Francisco to learn some basics from reputable roasters; they sourced growers who came to California and eventually traveled to Colombia to see and buy for themselves. And they catered to their clientele, whom Austin describes as “everyone”, including people from the University of Redlands, the high schoolers (Redlands High is within walking distance), and Esri, the local tech company with a thousand-plus in-town employees. They also educated their customers as they educated themselves, switching brews as many as four times a day for comparisons and contrasts. Some customers, Amento told me, would come in that many times to learn about and to drink the different coffees.