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True North Ice Cream delivers handmade, boozy flavors

In the middle of Southwest Michigan’s long, cold spring came the rare gift of an April Saturday when the temperature hit 80 degrees. That day, True North Ice Cream in Marshall sold 82 gallons of ice cream to 1,100 people — creamy caloric sweetness all handmade by owner Vaughn Frentz.

Even on a cool weekday afternoon, there was a steady stream of customers trying to choose from 32 varieties, including six boozy flavors (yes, you must be 21 to order) — Cherry Amaretto, Honey Bourbon, True North Slide (chocolate ice cream with amaretto and kahlua), Bailey Mountain, Rum Chata and Limoncello. Frentz says the quantity of alcohol in those formulas varies.

“It doesn’t take a lot of bourbon for the Honey Bourbon, but it takes a lot of Bailey’s to get the flavor where I want it,” he says. These spiked flavors require a longer, colder freeze (–8oF) because of the alcohol and are served only in bowls, since they melt so fast that serving them in a cone would be very messy for the customer.

Frentz, 58, makes 50 to 60 gallons of frozen goodness each day, including several dairy-free flavors, like Lemon Poppyseed and Chocolate Pecan Chip, which are made from plant-based milks, and water-based cherry, mango and strawberry-lemonade sorbets. Any necessary food coloring comes from natural ingredients such as turmeric, spirulina, beet juice and purple carrots.
With summer in full swing, lines out the door shouldn’t daunt visitors to True North, since its secret ingredient is a surprising approach to quick service: There are no glass display cases showcasing the ice cream and no free tastes offered at the counter.

“Gawkers take too long,” says Frentz, adding that keeping his super-premium ice cream in covered tubs also prevents cross-contaminating flavors with drips and dollops while scooping. As for the free tastes?

“Look, you don’t get free tastes when you’re out for dinner, but here, if you don’t like anything I give you, I will throw it in the trash and get you something else,” he says, recalling a teenager who went through three cones, which Frentz says he was happy to provide to make the young man happy.
That’s not to say he doesn’t ever share free tastes. He can frequently be found visiting with the shop’s patrons holding a gallon of fresh ice cream and a fistful of spoons.

“My goal is to give away two gallons a day one spoon at a time,” Frentz says.

Steady pricing & quality

Committed to selling “premium ice cream for grocery-store prices,” Frentz has kept prices steady since opening the shop a year ago, in spite of a 15 percent increase in the price of virtually all of his ingredients — like Madagascar vanilla, which is averaging around $300 per gallon. He sources his ingredients locally as much as possible.

“I don’t care what it costs to make it, it’s all about flavor,” he says. “You can get good ice cream anywhere, so if it’s not exceptional, it’s not here. Maybe people wouldn’t notice if I cut back and saved a little money, but for 10 cents more, would you give your best friend an OK cone or the best cone you could?”

When asked what his favorite flavor is, he replies, “That’s like asking me to pick my favorite kid!” He does say he likes OreoTM and Coffee Crunch and points to the trash with a smile when asked if he takes flavor suggestions from customers, though he admits that a few of the shop’s flavors have indeed been customer ideas, including Root Beer Float, Chocolate ReesesTM and Turtle Cheesecake.

Customers who rack up 10 visits on a punch card can spin a giveaway wheel for a chance to win free ice cream for a year (or a bottle of water). After being up just six weeks, the wheel had been spun 50 times and two customers had indeed won the big prize.

A dream come true

Area residents since 1997, Frentz and his wife, Amy, who owns Harvester Flower Shop in downtown Marshall, imagined “way back when we were dating” 30 or so years ago that running an ice cream shop would be fun. Over time, they explored a Ben and Jerry’sTM franchise and selling gelato, but the expense put those options out of reach. Instead, Frentz learned how to make his own ice cream in his basement. One thing led to another, and he ended up selling upwards of 200 quarts a month from home.

“People said it was so good I had to open a shop,” he says.

True North, at 403 S. Kalamazoo Ave., occupies a building that housed Side Track Ice Cream for 12 years. In 2020, Frentz asked the owner if he’d ever thought of selling, and two weeks later Frentz had bought the building. The previous owner continued to run his business through November, and the Frentzes took the winter to gut and redesign the interior.

The shop was supposed to be a side hustle for Frentz, who had been working full time for 24 years as general manager of Albion Ford Motors after emigrating from Canada with his wife. Just before the launch, the ice cream shop’s manager backed out and Frentz decided to take the helm, giving two weeks’ notice at his job.

Since then, Frentz has averaged 16-hour days seven days a week, somehow not gaining any weight while working with all that chocolate, caramel, sugar and cream — even losing 30 pounds as the result of the more active job. Frentz says he’s looking forward to his next day off — on Thanksgiving! — and his next vacation, roughly eight weeks starting at Christmas.

“I would open sooner, but I like to help my wife deal with Valentine’s Day (at her flower shop),” he says, referring to the mid-February opening for the ice cream shop.

True North employs 13 staff members, including many teenagers working part time as well as Frentz’s daughters — Hannah, 25, a nurse with Grace Health in Battle Creek, and Megan, 22, a graphic design student at Western Michigan University.

On a second visit — for important research — this Encore writer spoke with two patrons sharing ice cream flights of three flavors each ($6). Of three boozy flavors, the Rum Chata was proclaimed best, and the SnickersTM was declared tops among three chocolate-forward choices. Neither customer was able to finish the generous servings, and while they were sad to throw the remainder away, they were happy and full, waving to Frentz on their way out.

It’s clear that his second career has given Frentz a creative outlet and a community of fans.

“We don’t look at this as our shop,” he says. “This is not Vaughn and Amy’s shop. This is Marshall’s shop.”

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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