Four years ago, Margaret Schankler was just another anonymous Internet retailer. When competition killed her business selling cool kids’ clothes and toys, she bought a streamlined vintage delivery truck and started Hello! Ice Cream. Now she and her truck, “Ingrid,” are a welcome sight around town. Even when she’s off duty, she says strangers give her smiles of recognition; two children who live near her house in the Kerrytown neighborhood shout “ice cream!” whenever they see her.
This summer, she and Ingrid have been a steady twosome at monthly “food truck rallies” at the Farmers Market. On the first Wednesday in July, a boy of kindergarten age in a U-M T-shirt worries aloud about what to order. It’s been a busy night, and Schankler’s choices have been narrowed down to an ice-cream sandwich made with sugar cookies, a lemon sorbet, and three flavors of gelato–pistachio, salted caramel, and strawberry-rhubarb.
“Do you want a sugar cookie sandwich?” his mom offers. Finally, the boy says, “No. Lemon.” When Schankler, a long white apron covering her dirndl top, scoops his cup, he watches with a dreamy expression that morphs into a grin after he bites into the lemony coldness.
Such reactions are what drew Schankler to the business. She explains that when she closed her web store after a dozen years, she wanted to “do something to make people happy. What makes people happy? Ice cream!” Aesthetically minded, with an appreciation for early to mid-twentieth-century design (“I used to be obsessed with old-school diners”), Schankler grew excited about owning a vintage truck. She found Ingrid, an International Harvester Metro purportedly designed by the famed Raymond Loewy, online. She spent more than $20,000 to restore the truck, which spent most of its life on an Air Force Reserve base in Wyoming. Ingrid is now painted white and a peaceful light green, with pink details. People often pose with her to get their pictures taken.
I meet Schankler, fifty-eight, at her house near the Farmers Market. She and her husband, computer entrepreneur Steve Glauberman, are empty nesters: their daughter, Dory, works for a mobile app developer in Austin.
The home blends artistic thoughtfulness with meticulous housekeeping. Small, with light brown hair clipped back in a short ponytail, Schankler balances her love of whimsy with a head for business–something she says she got from her dad, an engineer who did some inventing on the side. She says he impressed on her, “Keep your overhead low.”
Though Schankler sometimes has helpers, she makes the Italian-style ice cream herself–a process that can stretch over two or three days to maximize flavor. Her recipes use less cream and more milk than American-style ice creams, and she churns the mix more slowly, giving it a denser consistency. And, unlike ice cream, gelato can’t be served hard frozen–“you have to balance the freezing point very carefully.”
She learned about calculating the right mixture of milk, cream, and sugar in a gelato-making class in California where many participants, like herself, were middle-aged career changers. A New Jersey native and University of Pennsylvania grad, Schankler has also worked as a technical writer and at Enlighten, the digital marketing company Glauberman founded in 1983 and sold last year. The couple both volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Schankler also is active in Crossing Water, a small Ann Arbor-based nonprofit active in Flint (see p. 33).
Schankler says Hello! Ice Cream is “successful, not a huge moneymaker.” In addition to food truck rallies, she’s sold at soccer tournaments, charity fundraisers, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. Since Ingrid can’t go much above 35 mph, Schankler also has a pushcart that she takes to out-of-town gigs in a newer truck. Ice cream is delicate stuff, and there’s an occasional close call–like the time she set up in the Pine Knob mansion in the Detroit suburbs. When she plugged in her freezer, fuses kept blowing. A meltdown was averted only when she broke out her emergency extension cords (“Like a Girl Scout, I’m prepared for everything”) and found a more powerful plug.
Now in her fourth summer with Ingrid, Schankler says salted caramel continues its reign as the most popular flavor, followed closely by “anything chocolate. Mango [sorbet] is popular with the dairy-free crowd.” If customers want something not on her menu, she’ll do her best. When someone asked for a “coconut lavender” ice cream, she ordered a special rose water from Pakistan.
Asked for her own favorite, she admits that, though she used to love pistachio, she’s no longer hungry for any flavor. “It’s like Bread and Jam for Frances,” she says, referring to a popular children’s book whose title character finally tires of the snack she constantly demands.
But she still gets a kick from seeing happy customers. Last month, she drove Ingrid to a birthday party for a woman who was turning eighty-four. Over her dulce de leche, the birthday gal told Schankler, “I’d like to be an ice cream lady.”