Add Staci Fritz to the ever-growing list of local food producers.
Only Fritz isn’t making salsa, pasta, chocolate, cheese, crackers or craft beer. Instead, she has created a unique line of specialty ice cream that over the last year has continued to grow in sales and flavors. Ultimately, she’d like to open her own scoop shop and sell more of her ice cream in other shops around the state.
Fritz is founder of Calliope Ice Cream, a Madison-based company with five flavors including one that tastes like a brandy old fashioned and is made with bitters. Another tastes like graham crackers. Her pints are available in about 20 locations including area grocery stores, Weary Traveler, the Chocolate Shoppe and at Ian’s Pizza on State Street, where Fritz has worked as an office manager for the past nine years.
Fritz, who lives in McFarland and is the mother of two boys, grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, where her locker in high school was next to that of Frank Fritz. He was not related to her but later would become famous for his role on “American Pickers.”
Staci Fritz, who delivered pizza in college in Cedar Rapids, was living in California before moving to Wisconsin. She was quickly hired by Ian’s and about three years ago was involved in a meeting with Jason Borgmann, who had been making ice cream in eight-pint batches for Weary Traveler. Ian’s was looking for ice cream to sell in its State Street restaurant, and Borgmann was looking for a business partner. However, when the scale of production changed, Borgmann, now the head chef at Next Door Brewing Co., stepped away from the project.
Ice cream for Calliope is now made at the Chocolate Shoppe’s production facility off of Pflaum Road with recipes developed by Fritz. She also delivers and markets the ice cream that comes in Mexican hot chocolate, hot peanut butter and lemon lavender flavors.
Q: How did you wind up in Wisconsin?
A: I had been living in northern California for 17 years and my husband at the time was a tech guy and we were looking to move out of such a big, heavily populated, expensive area. We used to come up to Portage growing up. My great aunt had a cabin on Swan Lake, and I’ve always had a crush on Wisconsin. I can’t say it any other way. When we started looking for places, I wanted a college town, affordable housing and good education. I love Madison. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q: How different is Ian’s from other places you’ve worked?
A: I would say very. One thing that we do there that I love is open book finance. Everybody that works there gets to know the numbers. There are important numbers in business. You’ve got your food and beverage, you’ve got your labor and you’ve got all the miscellaneous. And we talk about that with the 18-year-olds who are working front of house and the cooks so everybody knows where you’re at. It’s like the best business education you can get.
Q: What was your first ice cream flavor?
A: The graham cracker was the first one to be done. That was two years ago, but I couldn’t take it to grocery stores because we only had one flavor. But all the time we kept selling them at Ian’s on State Street and at Weary Traveler. Then as other flavors came out we would bring them into those restaurants. Then in the fall 2013, we finally had four flavors done and that’s when we started approaching grocery stores.
Q: But the timing wasn’t right, correct?
A: It was September and all of the grocery stores had their ice cream (displays) already set. So we had to contact the grocery stores in the spring so it’s really been only a year since we’ve been in stores. And we just added a fifth flavor, lemon lavender.
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Q: What has the last year been like?
A: It’s been a lot of sampling. I don’t have money for advertising. The best thing for me, to sell it, is to get people to taste it. So I’ve been showing up at any kind of festival. It kind of doesn’t matter what it is, I just show up with ice cream. Of course I do a lot of sampling at Hy-Vee and at Metcalfe’s.
Q: What was the difference between making 1,200 pints at a time compared to eight pints of ice cream in a single batch?
A: Gone were the days of reducing brandy and muddling cherries. We had to source flavors and ingredients. A year of it was testing. The brandy old fashioned was hard because you want to get that drink flavor but we maxed out on what we could do with liquid bitters. We couldn’t put any more liquid in it because it wouldn’t be a creamy ice cream it would be ice crystals. So we had the guys from Bitter Cube make us a dry bitters mix so we could up the flavor of bitters. In the case of the brandy old fashioned and the Mexican hot chocolate it took us over a year to get that to where we wanted that to be with that process.
Q: How does a small ice cream company break through to consumers who have many freezer doors to peruse at the grocery store?
A: Right now, I’m hoping people like the local angle and the unusual flavor angle. I call it ice cream for adults. If kids like it that’s awesome, but they’re not my market. I’m trying to go after people who want a new experience.
Q: Your ice cream retails for between $5 and $6 a pint. Are you concerned about being too expensive?
A: Not at all because it’s good and people will pay for it. I didn’t want to be the lowest price. If you want an inexpensive ice cream, which sometimes my kids want, you can get that. I’m looking to sell something that may not be for everybody or may be for special occasions. Right now, it’s the cost of buying from a small local business that uses quality ingredients. People understand that.
Q: How many more flavors are you working on?
A: We have two more. One I’ve been working on for two years is the “Hearty Breakfast” — whiskey, bacon, french toast. I’m going to use a little bit of Old Sugar Distillery’s whiskey in that one because I want to do more with local. The other is a chocolate crispy rice treat. It’s like chewy and chocolate crispy rice with a marshmallow base. It’s amazing. There will be people who like it and people that don’t. If I start making something that everybody loves I’m doing it wrong. If I wanted to sell to the masses I’d sell chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
Q: What was it like having your locker next to Frank Fritz?
A: I was very shy in high school. He kind of scared me because he looked older. He had a mustache.
‘Right now, I’m hoping people like the local angle and the unusual flavor angle. I call it ice cream for adults. If kids like it that’s awesome, but they’re not my market.’ Staci Fritz
owner of Calliope Ice Cream