Food & Drink

Meet Chicago's Most Futuristic Ice Cream Shop

Who's up for an everything bagel ice cream pop?

Pretty Cool Ice Cream
Courtesy of Pretty Cool Ice Cream

Pretty Cool Ice Cream’s name is deceiving. The bubble gum pink shop doesn't contain a single metal scooper, cone, cup, or spoon in its 800 square feet. Instead, frozen milk and juice are molded into a bar, propped up on a stick, and wrapped in bright and luxurious packaging. Whatever you call its products -- co-owner Dana Salls Cree says they're "ice cream bars or pops" -- Pretty Cool Ice Cream is the rare place where the taste lives up to the vibrant Instagram aesthetic.

At any given time, customers have three dozen flavor options to choose from, and there’s something for everyone at the Logan Square counter (though in the COVID-19 era, customers order online and pick up at the store). Plant-based options include passionfruit hibiscus, dark chocolate, and litchi lemon tea. Those without dietary restrictions might opt for the Pusheenicorn magic pop, a sugary confection of birthday cake-flavored ice cream dipped in a vanilla shell with sprinkles and sparkling popping candy. Even those without a sweet tooth can order a savory everything bagel pop made with cream cheese ice cream.

Salls Cree’s creations can be had at a dozen restaurants across the city. Among those partners is Bill Kim, owner of Urbanbelly, who collaborated with her to reinvent his popular peanut butter and jelly soft serve in an ice cream bar format. But don't call it a "chef collab."

“Chefs are tied to management positions and those are disproportionately held by white men,” says Salls Cree. “If we look at people using their culinary voice, we will see many of the people who were either pushed off or just not offered the ladder to climb in restaurants. So less ‘chef’ more ‘culinary voice.’"

Pretty Cool Ice Cream
Courtesy of Pretty Cool Ice Cream

The frozen delights, colorful palette of the shop, and a photogenic product might be what brings people into the store, but Salls Cree is using her platform as a Trojan horse for change. Her work is often described as nostalgic, but that's a disservice to how much forward thinking is happening behind the operation -- both in how the ice cream is made and in the progressive approach to the business itself.

“All of the science is in the tech we use,” Salls Cree says in response to how the shop is able to create flavors that, in theory, shouldn't really work. “That modular piece took six months to develop. It wasn’t trial and error, it was formulations. It was done long before the shop opened -- now we just get to work with our toys.”

Salls Cree’s Willy Wonka journey began years ago. She solidified her status in the world of desserts when she became a James Beard Award finalist for best pastry chef in the country -- first in 2014, and again in 2015. From 2012 to 2017, she ran One Off Hospitality’s pastry program, which includes (James Beard-winner) Blackbird, Avec, and The Publican.

In 2016, Salls Cree enrolled in Penn State’s Ice Cream College, and upon completion, wrote her first book, Hello My Name Is Ice Cream, which focused on the art and science of the frozen delight and received the prestigious IACP award in the single subject category. During her promotional tour for that book, a friend in St. Louis reintroduced Salls Cree to a machine that made ice cream bars that sparked the idea for Pretty Cool Ice Cream. 

“I just fell in love with it because there was so much untapped creativity,” Salls Cree says. “By the time I got back from St. Louis, the whole concept had formed. Almost a year to the date we opened [Pretty Cool Ice Cream].”

“We” is Salls Cree and Michael Ciapciak, her business partner and owner of Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, another Chicago favorite. The two drafted a business plan, showed it to mentors and confidantes, and were pitching for start-up capital by January 2018. All the partners from One Hospitality -- which includes industry heavy-hitters Donnie Madi and Paul Kahan -- invested in the concept, alongside friends and strangers. By February, the pair had raised $600,000.

Salls Cree was still working at The Publican as a pastry chef. She had also found out she was pregnant. Within a month, she left her post and took time to rest before opening Pretty Cool Ice Cream.

The pair hired Tumu, a wife and husband team, to design the kid-friendly space. There are no sharp corners in the shop. The magnet board became an interactive piece to keep parents and children busy. The viewing area into the production room came outfitted with steps to give small children the height to see. The water fountain has a wand so kids can wash their hands there instead of having to step into one of the bathrooms, which are also equipped with diaper stations and complimentary supplies. Stadium seating meant kids could run around as parents kept an eye and ordered at the counter, and a separate area of backless barstools provided space between families and those without children. 

Pretty Cool Ice Cream
Courtesy of Pretty Cool Ice Cream

“They did an incredible job designing for kids without it looking like a daycare,” Salls Cree says. “Children were missing from my life in fine dining.”

Family and creating a healthy work-life balance is a top priority for Salls Cree. Her products begin at $3.50 and top out at $5.50, and while some have told her this is too expensive, she says it's what's needed to ensure a livable wage for her staff. Salls Cree provides a rare benefit in the hospitality industry: healthcare. 

But that’s not the only issue hospitality workers are facing. There’s a surge of workers airing their grievances with allegations of problematic workplace behavior, at a time when the entire country is experiencing a cultural reckoning sparked by protests against police brutality. Salls Cree’s investors from One Off Hospitality are among the restaurateurs outed by former staff for their inequitable hiring and pay practices and lack of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American people in positions of leadership.

Because of the recent and welcome cultural uprisings, Salls Cree has been looking at further ways to improve business practices in her own operation. A monthly community pop, the sale of which promotes and donates $1 from each sale to various non-profits and activist groups, is currently selected by Salls Cree, but she’s opening that up to staff to make the process more transparent and inclusive.

“I don’t know if tearing things down is the role I'm meant to play,” says Salls Cree. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t look at the opposite direction and lift people up. I’m working to put my energy and resources in creating a network for underserved communities -- the same way the bro system does for white guys.”

While she had to cut staff at the start of COVID-19, Salls Cree was in her slow season, and the workforce didn’t see a drastic impact. She was able to rehire all of her team once high season began and has continued to fund their healthcare.

“The money from sales goes places it needs to go,” says Salls Cree. “What is happening right now [with COVID-19] is a chance for customers to reset their expectations. Staff was being underpaid to pass savings to the guest, and that has to stop. It’s no longer about giving the customer what they want: We need to get staff what they need.”

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Ximena Larkin is a contributor for Thrillist.