Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” pairs lavender-honey ice cream with pecan shortbread. Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” is vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles in a brownie sandwich. Elphaba from “Wicked” is, of course, green mint chip ice cream sandwiched by minty brownie.
Sugarwitch’s ice cream sandwiches are unarguably delicious, with surprising and nuanced flavors, each one cleverly named for a witch in literature or pop culture. While the witchy names are endearing, they’re also a window into the minds of chefs/owners Martha Bass and Sophie Mendelson, and the care they’ve taken into launching their small business in St. Louis.
Bass and Mendelson moved to St. Louis in 2021, after Bass received a job offer for a software mapping role in St. Louis’ rapidly growing geospatial technology sector. While both had grown up making ice cream with their families (Mendelson brought her Cuisinart ice cream maker with her to college), Bass first began dabbling in making ice cream sandwiches in 2016. At the time, she was in Denver and the couple were dating long-distance; Mendelson was in Massachusetts for an organic farmer training program. When the duo began their graduate studies (for Bass, a Ph.D. in rural sociology; for Mendelson, a master’s in agroforestry and agricultural education) at the University of Missouri – Columbia, they converted their hobby to a small business: in 2019, Sugarwitch was born.
Columbia turned out to be the perfect place to launch a food business. “It’s not oversaturated in terms of the food scene, and the way regulations are set up, it’s really easy to share kitchens, which is fantastic for little startup food businesses,” says Mendelson.
When Bass and Mendelson, who are now married, relocated to St. Louis, they wanted to keep Sugarwitch going in their new home, but ran into difficulty with regulations on kitchen sharing. The couple began working out of an incubator kitchen and reaching out to local restaurants who might be interested in partnering with them.
One of the people they reached out to was James Beard-nominated restaurateur Ben Poremba, co-owner of Elaia and Olio, among others. Before even tasting their product, he responded to their email with the offer of access to a vintage Airstream trailer for the summer on Olio’s patio.
“It was a phenomenal place to get started. It located us on this corner where all this amazing food was already happening,” Mendelson says. “All of a sudden we had a lot bigger audience than in Columbia. It was just so helpful to not have to start from scratch.”
That corner at the intersection of Tower Grove and McRee Avenues in Botanical Heights is not only home to Olio, but also to contemporary Mexican restaurant Nixta, Union Loafers Café and Bread Bakery, French bakery La Patisserie Chouquette, Mediterranean fine-dining destination Elaia and lauded Southeast Asian restaurant Indo.
The duo draws upon their academic backgrounds in choosing to source locally produced ingredients as well as native crops, fruits and nuts, which informs the monthly-rotating menu of ice cream sandwiches, push pops, dipped cones and pints. A particular favorite of Mendelson’s is the sandwich inspired by Italian rainbow cookies.
“With The Hill in St. Louis, and the availability of this Italian American food culture, I wanted to translate that into an ice cream sandwich,” she says. “The cookie part is very similar to the actual rainbow cookies, which is basically like a pressed cake. It’s more like a cake batter, with almond paste for denseness and richness. We spread a red and green cookie with raspberry jam on one side, and melt dark chocolate on the other side. Then the ice cream is an apricot jam ice cream with a little almond extract. We stack those up and slice it – it looks just like a rainbow cookie. I just absolutely love that one.”
Other customer favorites include Kiki from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (dairy-free and gluten-free mango sorbet with toasted coconut rice crispy) and Tonks from the “Harry Potter” series (peanut butter pretzel brownie).
Sugarwitch plans to expand production this year thanks to its new commercial kitchen space, one with deep roots in St. Louis. Bass and Mendelson have taken over the Carondelet Bakery building, which dates back to 1875. The larger kitchen will allow Bass and Mendelson to open the Airstream Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, instead of one day a week, and to rotate more flavors, as well as store more seasonal ingredients. It’ll also offer them an opportunity to pay it forward in a way — the building has more space than they can use, so they’ll be able to partner with other small businesses who are in need of commercial kitchen space.
They also plan to continue to expand their business with the same level of care and intention shown in their approach thus far:
“One thing that we’re really interested in at Sugarwitch is the question of labor in the food industry. When we’re hiring, are we creating jobs that are sustaining to the people who are doing them?” Mendelson says, stressing the ethos behind their ice cream sandwiches. “How do we create jobs that can be fulfilling, pay a living wage and provide a creative outlet? That is a real focus of ours.”
As for what else is next for Sugarwitch:
“I’m so excited for strawberries to come in,” says Mendelson. “I just got a whole bunch of rhubarb from Double Star Farms. All the berries, peaches – I can’t wait for that stuff to be able to highlight it in the seasonal rotation.”
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