Building an enlightened ice cream business that favors craftsmanship over ‘thoughtless consumerism’

During these hazy, not-so-lazy days of summer, a woman’s mind turns to ice cream.

In her quest for the perfect chocolate-chip mint, the greatest of all flavors, that has lots of chocolate bits per bite and is white, not fake-green, she wander the ice cream parlors of Philadelphia. And there are lots of good ones.

What she (ok, I) didn’t expect was all these good things wrapped up in a principled business model, mixing Ben Franklin’s 18th-century Enlightenment ideals together with the early 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement, with a good helping of 2015 Old City demographics folded in. Sort of … a thinking woman’s ice cream.

But I found it, at Franklin Fountain in Old City.

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When you head in from the heat — usually queuing up in a robust line of tourists and locals happy to wait patiently for the good stuff — you step back into an early 20th-century ethos of architectural details, as well as the clothing and amiability of classic soda jerks, updated to include the 2015 faces of young men and women from different backgrounds. But the way the line gets you to pause from the busyness of Old City for a few moments, the atmosphere that makes the pause a nice hang-out, and the cold, creamy ending all work because it feels authentic rather than gimmicky.

So I asked the owner, Eric Berley, how they managed that. Without skipping a beat, his answer went straight to principles of the early 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement — against the industrialism that was obscuring manual skills and hand-made products, and for solid craftsmanship and the uniting of principles and product.

“Using one’s hands and minds and hearts in one focus,” Berley says. “That’s a big part of our inspiration. We want to be against some things — like thoughtless consumerism — but to be for something as well — the importance of craft, transparency, and responsible stewardship such as buildings and environmentally friendly packaging and the local supply chain.”

Those ideals had motivated Berley and his brother Ryan from the inception of Franklin Fountain. When they bought the building in 2001, they immediately diverted from the usual business plan. Instead of starting with the idea of an ice cream shop and forcing that into the space, they began with what the space itself suggested.

“It was from the bones of the building that we were inspired to adapt a use specifically to what customers would be looking for in Old City,” he says, “but also harness the natural details that were there. Old houses are organic. Nothing’s ever plum. You need a lot of shims and custom work. We wanted to love the space.”

It wasn’t ice cream right away. This was around 2003, and Berley was working as a tour guide across the street at Christ Church, a good way to do a little on-the-ground research on folks in Old City. “People were asking me about where to get cheesesteaks and ice cream, and in the neighborhood there was no ice-cream destination. So that’s how we ended up there.”

Working in the place that Benjamin Franklin had helped build, had worshiped in, and in which he was buried also brought the Enlightenment ideals into Berley’s thinking.

“I was a tour guide at Franklin’s grave,” he remembers. “We started to get juiced up about Franklin being our cheerleader — a self-made businessman on this very block — and our being able to harness both the Arts and Crafts interest with some of the things Franklin was about, and the needs in Old City.

“To be in a service business, you really need to know your customers and what they’re wanting. The general public was starting to get higher standards for what they really wanted. Stephen Starr was no stranger to serving at the Continental 10 years before we were here, so we were in his genre of ‘experience’ hospitality.”

So the recipe was formulated — and then held to. “We created a ‘values tree’ in our office,” Berley says. “The branches list the values we try to come back to. The root system of the tree showing the people like our parents who’d influenced Ryan and me in the biz. Like any organic thing, it needs to be pruned and edited and adjusted. As business has grown, it has to be updated. It’s what we’ve done in management, like: What does it mean to strive for honesty and authenticity and how does it come across in decisions on the menu?”

The fountain affiliates its work with current movements focusing on transparency and quality as well, such as Slow Food USA, Buy Local PA, and Fair Food Philadelphia.

Which brought us back to the menu (like, oh, say, the crème de menthe chocolate chip). “The ice cream business is quintessentially American, in that democracy can be expressed through menu options,” Berley says. “We try to serve different flavors for people based on different places they may have come from in the world. While we do stick with classics, we like to see what we’re serving as democratic values.”

Examples? “It’s a paradox,” Berley explains about the fine points of researching the ingredients of ice cream. “Cocoa bean’s not going to sprout up in West Philadelphia. When we do resource vanilla or chocolate, they’re going to be around the Equator for the most part. Raspberries or blueberries, we can drive over to Jersey and pick ourselves. The world flavors like coconut ice cream tend to be familiar for folks who have a memory of that flavor in their childhood, so we try to do that for festivals, like those at Penn’s Landing, that celebrate certain cultures. Like our mango sorbet — it gives me a chance to learn more about Indian supermarkets, and the ice cream maker is a Chinese grandmother who teaches me about ginger.

“Cream can be flavored with just about anything and taste good. Like green tea, which is resonant for people from places with a deep history of green-tea drinking. Canadians and Upstate New England tend to like the maple walnut. The butterscotch we use in the butter pecan ice cream has a buttery backdrop reminiscent of New Orleans pralines and Charleston.”

But the fountain still never wanders far from its namesake: “Our approach toward a recipe lab is rooted in old-fashioned traditions, but at the end of the day it’s trial and error. It’s the empiricist, pragmatic Franklin coming through. If it works and people love it, make more. If not, we learned from this too.”

Berley cites Elbert Hubbard, a printer who was inspired by Franklin and hired young people to teach them trades, before he died on the Lucitania: “Get your happiness out of your work, or you will never know what real happiness is.”

Berley and his wife Kirsten even wove those themes into their vows and celebration at their wedding.

And the fountain moves on: The building has recently been rezoned to expand the second floor into a 45-seat serving space for the general public — more of a chance to make community as well as ice cream.

As for me — whether it’s a day I feel like thinking or a day I just want the ice cream, it’s win-win.

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