When Helen Qin and Jesse Mason met and began dating in Los Angeles, Qin’s love for ice cream kept the couple busy. “I am an ice cream fanatic, and I would drag Jesse to every small ice cream shop I could find,” recalls Qin. “Then he got me an ice cream maker for my birthday and I didn’t use the present once. I couldn’t have all that ice cream around.”
Instead, Mason started making ice cream for family and friends, and they loved it. Then in January the two moved to Cleveland, Mason’s hometown, when Qin was offered a job in commercial real estate. When they arrived, they were thrilled to find a booming independent food community.
Mason and Qin always had thought about starting a business. “Even in LA, we’d always talked about starting our own business of some kind,” recalls Qin. “But the city’s so big and people are a lot harder to get a hold of, so we just never got around to it.”
So, why not launch a new business in their new city, Mason and Qin figured. “When we moved here, and while Jesse was looking for work, we decided there’s no better time,” explains Qin.
The duo settled on ice cream, naturally, and set about in search of a used commercial ice cream maker -- normally an impossible task. After scoring one on Craigslist, Mason’s Creamery
was born. Working out of the Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen
, Mason crafts one-gallon batches of ice cream by hand. Everything is made from scratch, with no artificial ingredients. The small batches create a rich and creamy flavor, notes Mason.
“I think it tastes different than anything else,” he says. “I always wanted to be in the food business. After seeing the reactions from friends and family who tried the ice cream I made, I thought this would be a good way in. Also, I wanted to see if total strangers would like it -- and for the most part, I think and hope they do.”
Mason’s Creamery officially debuted in May at this year's Asian Festival and has been hitting the city’s myriad festivals, farmers markets and food events ever since. “There are so many festivals and events, it’s been such a welcoming city to us as transplants and aspiring business owners,” says Qin.
With standards like chocolate, coffee and vanilla, as well as unique flavors like Vietnamese coffee, salted caramel, and Earl Grey, Mason’s Creamery is gaining sweets fans fast. One of the newest flavors features Cleveland Whiskey. Mason also has created a line of vegan flavors, which include concoctions like vegan olive oil with candied clementines, Lambic raspberry, and roasted banana.
“We sold out of our vegan vanilla with sweet Sriracha sauce at the Asian Festival,” says Mason. "We’ve found there are a lot of vegans in Cleveland.”
In fact, the vegan flavors have become something of a niche for the startup. “Vegan ice creams are something we focus a lot of our time on,” says Qin. “I think ours is unique in that it's not always a fruit sorbet, and that we try to make interesting vegan flavors.”
Qin’s personal favorite is the salted caramel, which makes Mason cringe because he often burns himself while making the caramel from scratch. Mason is partial to the Earl Grey.
The couple has found Cleveland to be a city that not only loves ice cream, but that supports small businesses. “Cleveland has a small town feel in a mid-sized city; people go out of their way to help and support small businesses,” says Qin. “It’s been incredible. I’ve had so many people happily give me their personal numbers so they could help us out with some aspect of the business. To me, Cleveland would be a good place to start any small business.”
When they are not making or scooping ice cream, Qin and Mason enjoy hiking in the Metroparks, visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art and exploring Cleveland’s historic neighborhoods. “We’re still relatively new, so we love going to new places,” says Qin. “We just checked out the Gordon Square Arts District the other day, which was really cool. The best part about being mobile in our ice cream business is that we’re always in different neighborhoods.”
Mason enjoys lounging in his hammock, rock climbing and playing fetch with Atwood, their greyhound rescue. He says he's amazed by how much the city has changed in the 10 years since he left. “The downtown area used to clear out after 5 p.m., and now there’s so much going on there,” he says. “The same could be said for other neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont. It’s really exciting to see and be a part of that growth.”
Qin is surprised that Clevelanders are so self-deprecating and often seem shocked that she would swap the West Coast for the North Coast. “Come on, guys, Cleveland is great,” she says. “The weather may not be sunny and 70 degrees year-around, but having seasons and seeing the leaves change is just beautiful. There’s lots of art and culture, and really great food at even better prices.”
And, apparently, it’s an ideal city in which to launch an ice cream business. “I’m not looking to start a war of which city is better, because I’ve enjoyed something about every place I’ve lived. But I think it’d be a lot tougher to start a business and do what we’re doing in a lot of other places, so I’m really happy to be here.” Qin says.
Qin and Mason are in talks with other tenants at the Culinary Launch about partnerships. Mason just hired his brother to run samples to restaurant chefs. They hope to hire additional staff and find a permanent location later this summer as things take off. Ideally, they’d like to have a storefront, or a few storefronts, and establish a business they can pass down for generations.
Believe it or not, the couple is not sick of ice cream -- yet. Mason makes Qin do all the tasting, though, and Qin sticks to sample-size spoons. “Turns out, you can have too much of a good thing,” says Qin. “So now, while I still eat it, it’s definitely in moderation -- one sample spoon at a time. Especially since I am the official sampler!”
Photos Bob Perkoski