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Scooping up Success: Loblolly Creamery Delivers Flavors of Arkansas

6 min read

Ice cream seized a permanent place in Sally Mengel’s life partly because it’s a fleeting delight.

“You have to focus on it. If you don’t, it’ll melt,” she said. “When kids get their ice cream, they get quiet and focused, before the sugar rush comes in. You know it’s going to melt if you don’t enjoy it right away.”

But as co-owner of Little Rock’s Loblolly Creamery, Mengel also appreciates the menace of melting.

“Ice cream is really a fragile business model, because the product is not shelf stable and you need freezers, and you need to transport in freezers and keep it at temp, because if it melts even a little bit, it ruins the quality,” said Mengel, who started the business in 2011, somewhat accidentally.

“It’s also a very temperamental business, and very expensive, working with ingredients that fluctuate in price in the market,” she said. “All ingredients fluctuate, but especially milk and eggs and butter, which we use a lot of.”

The Long family of Sikeston, Missouri, visited the Loblolly Creamery SoMa store in Little Rock on a recent Friday. Clockwise from left in the bottom right photo are Martika Long, Daniel Long, Parker Long, 8, and Eli Long, 5. (Steve Lewis)

But Mengel proved good at juggling.

More than a dozen years in, she and her mother, co-owner Laura Frankenstein of Little Rock, have a full-scale production kitchen in the Quapaw Tower, scoop shops in Little Rock and Benton, and a new concession in partnership with Pinnacle Mountain State Park. That location, called Loblolly Outpost, is in Roland.

At 50 employees, Loblolly is tied at ninth on Arkansas Businesscurrent list of women-owned businesses in the state. It even has an $18,000 solar-powered ice cream truck.

Loblolly offers 15 signature flavors — including Arkansas Mud and Little Rock-y Road — and seasonal flavors, vegan and dairy-free options. At present, the seasonal flavors include Blueberry Lemon Sorbet and Strawberry Buttermilk.

Mengel likes to think Loblolly won over hearts and mouths as a hometown business making high-quality products from scratch with locally sourced ingredients.

After moving to Little Rock in 2009, Mengel noticed that the SoMa neighborhood lacked a local ice cream shop, and she got a break from Shelley Green of the Green Corner Store at Main and 15th streets.

“She gave me this wonderful opportunity to kind of open a soda fountain,” Mengel said. Mengel had worked in an ice cream shop in her college days at Emory University in Atlanta. “I knew ice cream, and I wanted to follow the mission of the Green Corner Store, and I couldn’t find ice cream that met that mission. So I was like, oh, I can make it myself.”

The Green Corner Store’s mission, Green said, is to showcase local, sustainable and organic products.

From the start, Loblolly used local farmers’ produce and sourced other ingredients from around the state. Mengel named the creamery for Arkansas’ state tree, the loblolly pine.

“We wanted to tie it to Arkansas and something natural since we try to make all-natural ice cream,” Mengel said. “But if you look up the definition it also has some funny meanings like a wet place [or a mudhole]. It also is a bit of a tongue-twister, so we try to have fun and have some whimsy.”

Local Favorites

Business took off quickly.

“I just kind of kept saying yes to things,” Mengel said. When the Hillcrest Farmers Market wanted her to sell there, she said yes. When a friend working at a restaurant asked about putting Loblolly ice cream on its menu, she said yes.

Then she realized she needed to formalize the business. “You know, get that license and sales tax ID, all that fun stuff,” she said. “We just kept making ice cream and kept realizing people wanted it.”

Lead baker Melissa James makes brownies to go in sundaes and in one of Loblolly Creamery’s most popular flavors, Arkansas Mud. (Steve Lewis)

She didn’t think she’d be manufacturing ice cream that goes all across Arkansas, or running multiple retail shops selling products by the scoop or the pint. “I don’t think that was my vision, but that’s what we’re doing now. We make everything from scratch, except for our sprinkles, and that means having a whole bakery department.

“We have marshmallow and cocoa mixes now for the winter, and we do seasonal flavors with local produce,” she added. Loblolly’s Bourbon Pecan, a flavor favorite, uses bourbon from Rock Town Distillery, a few blocks away on Main, and nuts from York Pecan Co. in Foreman (Little River County).

The Strawberry Buttermilk seasonal flavor uses strawberries from Barnhill Orchards in Lonoke.

2017 Turning Point

When retail space next to the Green Corner Store became available in 2017, Loblolly opened its first scoop shop. “That’s when I feel like it became a business,” Mengel said.

She was in the bright, colorful Main Street shop on May 3, wearing a Loblolly T-shirt and cap, along with a broad smile. Nearby, happy children and families intently ate their ice cream.

Mengel explained how manufacturing began, first for a few months in the kitchen of Trinity Episcopal Church. But when the Little Rock church needed its kitchen back, Loblolly started renting about 1,500 SF of kitchen space in the Quapaw Tower, a downtown landmark just off Interstate 30, and the partners have invested “a lot” of personal capital in the business over the years, Mengel said. Last year’s revenue was about $2 million, she added.

Annie Kleve, left, departs to cater an event from Loblolly Creamery’s production facility at East 8th St. and Ferry St. in Little Rock. At right is Rachel Lamb. (Steve Lewis)

Some companies that say they make their own ice cream actually produce only the finished product, Mengel said. “They’re not pasteurizing their milk and cream and sugar together. We do it all from scratch. Instead of buying Oreos, we make our own cookie sandwiches to mix in. We’re roasting and toasting our nuts. We’re making our own compotes and jams with fresh fruit. A lot of labor goes into it, but we’re basically a dairy process. That’s why we say creamery; we’re processing cream.”

Loblolly makes small test batches of what Mengel calls “adventurous flavors,” and she concedes they’re not for everybody.

“We had a Dill Pickle Sorbet, and it actually sold out. People couldn’t get on board with one of my favorites, which we called Mayo-politan. It was like Neapolitan, but instead of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, it was ketchup, mustard and mayo. It was really good, I thought, but I don’t think there’s a market for that.”

Savory flavors are fun to play with, she said, but ice cream lovers tend to want sweet things, chocolate and fruit.

“Ice cream is a base that lets you layer in any flavors or scents. It’s a social food and a celebration food. There’s not a lot of food establishments you can go into and try all the different flavors before you order. Maybe no one is buying a scoop of it, but they can sample and create that conversation.”

Sweet Success

Mengel had several ideas at once when asked about her secret to success.

“Three things are burning in my brain,” Mengel said. “Support from the community was really amazing. I couldn’t have done that without help from Shelley [Green],” Mengel’s former boss and founder of the Green Corner Store on Main Street in Little Rock.

“And making products that people like. They’re coming to Loblolly, but they could go anywhere to get ice cream.”

Little Rock seems particularly supportive of small local businesses and startups, Mengel said. “I feel like it’s the community’s ice cream, hopefully.”

And then it’s her team, Mengel said. “We have 50 people on the payroll now; it’s not just me. It’s the people who make the ice cream, who scoop it and serve it.

“In terms of success, I’m not sure if we’re good at the money side, but we’re good at having fun and being a welcoming place. Hopefully, we’re providing a special treat. So we just try to keep maintaining those goals.”

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