The Crema Crop
3403 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Myself and everyone I know are pretty much idiots, because a straw poll revealed that each and every dim, ding-a-ling one of us thought that the Sonny's Ice Cream and Crema Café empire on the corner of West 34th Street and Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis was some Nineties-born gourmet yupscale money-minting kind of thing that wasn't open enough, and probably out of spite. Oh, how I hate myself and everyone I know.
In fact, the place has been a part of south Minneapolis life since the 1940s: There was a version of Sonny's with a malt shop on the corner of 34th and Nicollet in 1945, staffed by Sonny Siron himself. You know how there's a big sign on the side of Crema Café that says "Home of Sonny's Ice Cream"? Well, it could also say "Home of Sonny Himself" because now, at 76, he lives above the café. Sonny has spent his life hip-deep in ice cream: He still spends his nights checking the freezer and being surrogate grandpa to a neighborhood. (That's him at a side table, talking to all the kids, and telling all the moms how beautiful they look.) And he spends his days delivering ice cream to his own carefully tended old-school ring of Twin Cities clients who predate Starbucks and organic chic by about two generations. Places where Sonny's means old-neighborhood Italian-American; places like downtown Minneapolis's Cafe di Napoli, St. Paul's Cossetta's, and northeast Minneapolis's Delmonico's. So, first misconception debunked: Sonny's is not new, it is old-world, old-fashioned, pre-cool.
Second misconception debunked? It is not big. Yes, Sonny's Ice Cream (the wholesale part of the business, separate from the retail operation Crema Café) may be available in big grocery stores like Lunds and Byerly's next to big names made by big companies, like Häagen-Dazs. But, according to Sonny's proprietor Ron Siron (son of Sonny, and born in the current Crema Café building) and his business and life partner Carrie Gustafson, there are only a handful of employees of Sonny's Ice Cream: basically Sonny, Ron, Carrie, a couple of people in the factory, and the guy who drives the truck. They make all the ice cream by hand in tiny, tiny, tiny five- and ten-gallon batches, in the tiny, tiny, area in the back of the café that has no windows. (If you've been to Sonny's before, you've probably seen it and thought, yeah, that's where the staffers keep their coats. Nope. That's the whole darn factory. Small, but mighty.)
So it's not new, and it's not big. Why does everybody think Crema and Sonny's are national deep-pocket players? I've been thinking about it, and I've got to conclude that it's the high-gloss sheen of perfection that glazes everything they do: Their pint containers look like something a focus group and design team spent a year doing; the coffee is a light and sharp Italian-style bean that makes a piercing cup of espresso, which is served appropriately, in a heated cup; sandwiches (around $4) are made with imported ingredients on fresh bread and slathered with fresh butter--just like they are in Europe. The Sirons credit Gustafson with all these detail-oriented triumphs, from the well-chosen plantings in the exterior courtyard to the new addition of a pastry case filled with treats made by pastry chef Aubrey Karki, who also makes sweets at Sapor Cafe and Bar.
Gustafson says they hired Karki because they didn't want to have the same desserts that every other coffee shop in town has--and, hallelujah, they don't. I tried a slice of a chocolate bombe ($4.25) that was as rich and plush as a golden yacht on a satin sea, each bite of the chocolate mousse dissolving in an intensity of pleasant, bitter, and shadowy. A blueberry tartlet held fresh, vividly ripe fruits on a pillow of homemade vanilla custard atop a buttery crust. Even without a single dish of ice cream, Crema Café would be one of the best places in Minneapolis for desserts.
But they do have ice cream--amazing ice cream. Trying to single out the top ice creams in this ever-changing case is like trying to pluck your favorite notes from a symphony. Crema, the signature creamy latte flavor, tastes like a sweet, sharp blade of rich coffee foam. Cabernet-chocolate-chip tastes grapey and ripe and a bit like blackberries. (At the café, each flavor is $2.15, $3.65, or $4.95 for, respectively, a single, double, or triple scoop.) Watermelon sorbet communicates everything distinct and juicy and good about watermelon, plus lemony and flowery notes. A special one-time-only batch of Douglas-fir-tip sorbet tastes like the shadow on a forest floor: piney, minty, evanescent. Even the vanilla ice cream tastes like a complex composition of the toasty, oaky, winey and floral notes of vanilla, all tied together with a sweet-cream bow.
No big surprise to find, then, that Gustafson blends several vanillas from various countries together to make every batch, so convinced is she that the beans change according to season and weather. "Our vanillas cost $350 a gallon," Gustafson explains. "Meanwhile, we're competing with people who use vanillin, a paper-milling byproduct for probably $15 a gallon." For Sonny's green-tea ice cream, "we could just get green-tea extract like everyone else does," Gustafson told me. "But we actually get the matcha tea they use in the tea ceremony in Japan, and infuse it in cream." And there's more: "We use beet juice to color the spumoni; it's $200 a gallon, while red food coloring is practically free. We do it because some people really do get why you'd want to put food--and not chemicals--in your body. Though, of course, lots of times it's hard to stay the course."
Ron Siron nodded sympathetically when he heard his partner's explanation as I interviewed the two in the beautiful courtyard garden next to Crema, a garden they put in by hand. Clearly this is not the first time the topic of tossing high-quality ingredients before the uninterested has come up for the two: "Everyone thinks ice cream is cheap and cheesy," says Ron Siron. "It isn't, if you do it right." High-cost ingredients mean that Sonny's has a lower profit margin than that of any of its competitors, he says. "All these people think we're this huge company," agrees Gustafson, "but in a market this small, we're struggling to make a living a lot of the time. In the summer in the café, we'll put in 90-hour weeks to break even."
"Are we breaking even?" wonders Siron. "When did that start?"
And with myself and everyone I know witlessly complaining about the café's summer-only hours. Never again! Because even in the face of running a gorgeous, heartfelt, delicious sort of operation that can't break even, Siron and Gustafson continue to improve their product. For example, seven months ago a dairy opened in Sauk Centre that provides cream and milk from only a few organic (or making-the-transition-to-organic), western-Minnesota family dairy farms. "We go and look at the cows," says Gustafson. "They eat better than a lot of people--all organic food--the barns smell great, their eyes are clear. We know our cows, we support Minnesota farmers, and since the cream is fresher than ever, the ice cream is better than ever."
Dozens of local and Chicago-area restaurants agree, putting Sonny's Ice Cream on their dessert menus--whether they admit it or not. Locally, places that proudly tout the stuff include Big Bowl, La Toscana, Lord Fletcher's, Bar Abilene, the Dakota, Fuji-Ya, Murray's, and others. I couldn't get the names of restaurants that won't admit it, but Gustafson says she has been served ice cream she made with her very own hands by a waiter who insists it was made by the restaurant. Consulting the list of Sonny's custom restaurant flavors, like Champagne-cassis sorbet and cardamom-black-pepper ice cream, I think I've been hoodwinked before, too.
Restaurants. Can't trust them, can't build your own. Or can you? Turns out Gustafson and Siron just passed the first round of community approval to add a wine bar and restaurant to the Crema complex. Timetable? Oh, a year, maybe two. (After a couple of eons at the keyboard, I've finally learned that announcing coming restaurants is like betting on horses: Many a slip between cup and lip has nothing on many a slip between dream, community approval, liquor license, parking, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, and lip.)
But I'd place a little more weight on this one than other restaurant pipe dreams, because I have seen the waist-high fireplace behind Crema's cash register. What's so special about that fireplace? Not much--till you realize that Gustafson and Siron excavated three feet of earth by hand, using buckets and shovels, for 16 months, removing seven dumpsters of dirt and cement to lower the level of the floor for wheelchair accessibility in order to build the café. You know how it goes. Making ice cream by hand in the mornings, excavating countless tons of dirt and rocks by hand in the evenings. For 16 months. So that you can maybe break even and everyone can get mad that you're not open more often. Oh, this plague of myself and everyone I know!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.