Hugh Balthrop is busy in his spacious and intoxicatingly scented ice cream factory.
Housed in Clarksdale’s Chamber of Commerce business incubator, Balthrop creates artisan-quality ice cream from local organic ingredients, including whole milk and cream from Oxford’s Brown Family Dairy.
Flavors – more than 200 of them – beckon lovers of this sinfully sweet, creamy delight. One wall in the Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Company factory is neatly lined with alphabetized rows of labels bearing delectable sounding names – Whiskey & Pecans, Espresso and Sweet Tea. Those who dare to sample are sure to find a favorite flavor, and judging by the rise of this ice cream maker’s popularity, that flavor is bound for a number of distributors and stores.
“My favorite part of what I do is creating. It’s what I am best at,” he says, as two of his employees Ricardo Nava and Donald Sutton hand pack pint after pint of Banana Pudding Gelato. They carefully add additional tiny vanilla wafers to each pint. “Technically our ice cream is a gelato. Most American ice creams are at least 50% air. Ours are only 30% air, so the flavors are much more concentrated and intense.”
When the Banana Pudding gelato is packed and placed in the freezer, it is time to begin packaging the next flavor, Candy Cane. Nava carefully weighs and adds the ingredients to a large mixing bucket, then pours the mixture into a commercial ice cream machine, which pasteurizes it and then mixes it. “We will make whatever flavors our customers want,” Bathrop says.
“We like to do seasonal flavors, like the Candy Cane and Eggnog this time of year, and we always like to have some special Southern flavors like our Moon Pie, Delta Gravel and Miss Mary’s Poundcake.” Balthrop admits a personal penchant for the Lemon Drop and the Pistachio. They remind him of his childhood. He says he can’t pick just one.
Originally from Washington, D.C., and formerly the owner of an art gallery there, Balthrop moved to Clarksdale in 2000 with his wife, a physician. When his children came along, he was the primary cook at home, and he began experimenting with making ice cream for them. Soon he was sharing it with friends and neighbors.
Intrigued with the possibilities, he experimented and researched and studied, eventually attending Penn State’s ice cream short course. Then he began giving samples to local Clarksdale restaurants. When orders started to come in, his wife insisted his expansion be outside the home. That was three years ago.
Nava admits he is partial to the Strawberry Champagne, while Sutton’s favorite is the Sweet Potato Roasted Marshmallow. Both employees readily admit their love for working at the ice cream plant – and Balthrop wants it that way.
“I want to help young kids, providing them with a good place to work and instilling in them a strong, passionate work ethic,” he says. “Ultimately I want to really impact the Clarksdale community in a positive way.”
The company supports local and regional programs and charities, including the Griot Youth Program, The Batesville Boys and Girls Program and the March of Dimes.
Balthrop says he is dedicated to expanding Sweet Magnolia’s distribution. Besides supplying his ice cream to local and North Mississippi restaurants and stores, Balthrop now delivers to Whole Foods in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi, and Duluth, Georgia.
More locations are coming, and perhaps even larger chain stores across the South in the next year. And of course, there will be more flavors.
Want to try some? For a list of retailers, or for a list of flavors, visit www.sweetmagnoliaicecream.com.
Courtesy of Legends Magazine, story By Marilyn Storey, photography by Joe Worthem