I had been warned that the Sea Salt Caramel Ice Cream from Reilly Craft Creamery was unbelievable. It is rich and creamy with just the slightest salty bite, and the buttery caramel has the perfect hint of bitterness from coaxing the turbinado sugar to caramelize just before it burns. Go try it for yourself, because words can’t do it justice. It is sublime.
Visiting Chris Reilly at the Avalon Bakehouse where Reilly Craft Creamery operates, we wend our way through the labyrinth of rooms to the corner where he’s set up shop. The sweet smell of cookies baking and the sour tang of bread proofing are hanging in the air.
“Hey, do you mind just chilling for a bit?” Chris asks.
Standing in Reilly’s kitchen is Chef Brad Greenhill from Katoi, who is just finishing up a batch of ice cream for a pop-up they’re hosting. We talk about the unfortunate fire that has temporarily shut down the restaurant, the optimistic hope that they’ll reopen by July, and the vegan jackfruit ice cream he’s just finished making. It is velvety and sweet, with luscious chunks of jackfruit, the taste falling somewhere between banana and coconut.
“It is awesome to be an entrepreneur in Detroit right now,” Chris says. “There’s a whole economy here to just support small businesses.”
He acknowledges that he probably would have sunk quickly without their support.
“There’s an entire network of people who are here to help us succeed,” Chef Brad added.
When I ask Chris how he got into the ice cream business he says, “It’s kind of a convoluted story.”
His daughters attend the Detroit Waldorf School and he was always bringing ice cream to social events − it was something he learned to make at his previous gig. The families loved his ice cream. Hatch Detroit Executive Director, Vittoria Katanski, also had a child who attended the school and she suggested that Chris give Hatch Detroit a shot to see if the idea had legs. So he submitted an application, impulsively named it Uncle Bug’s Supernatural Organic Creamery, and placed in the Top 10.
With a full-time job and a family to support, Chris put Uncle Bug’s on the back burner, but was often asked what he was going to do with the creamery. Jackie Victor, also a Detroit Waldorf School parent and one of the founders of Avalon Bakery, was one of those people.
“Jackie is super-supportive of her friends and entrepreneurs, she really tries to spread the love,” said Chris.
After Jackie offered him space at the Bakehouse, Chris committed full-time to the creamery.
“The first three months were really scary,” he said. “It was then that I realized I didn’t know how to make great ice cream. What I knew how to do was make great flavors.”
His past experience making ice cream was with pre-made mixes and adding delicious final ingredients like homemade pecan brittle or sea salt caramel, painstakingly made by hand.
“I was wondering if I had made a huge mistake trying to make ice cream from scratch, but then Vittoria Katanski called, she’s such a huge champion of small businesses, and wanted to know if I’d like to make 2,500 servings of ice cream for Tour Detroit.”
As it turned out, a big order was exactly what Chris needed to fix the recipe.
He had been trying to develop ice cream in small five gallon batches, but even the slightest change in one variable would cause incredible variation in the finished product. When he started making bigger 10 gallon batches to fill the order for Vittoria, a small change in a single variable instead created subtle nuances that led to the perfect marriage of sweetness and creaminess.
Chris had perfected the ice cream, but rightly so, wasn’t feeling the Uncle Bug’s brand. It had been a hasty decision and it didn’t match his vision for the creamery − high quality, traditional flavors, made with 100 percent, grass-fed milk. So, he turned to another Detroit Waldorf School family, Andi and Tim Mahoney, for advice and direction.
“They are total creative types with backgrounds in marketing and advertising,” said Chris.
This was a pivotal time for him, because Vittoria had called again. As a Hatch Detroit alum, Chris was eligible for a scholarship to Retail Boot Camp at Tech Town.
“There was a lot of discussion about brand in Boot Camp and I wasn’t owning mine,” he said.
The Mahoneys suggested Reilly Craft Creamery.
“I know it’s my name, but I was never confident enough, wasn’t sure it was cool enough, but they came up with incredible artwork and it just felt right,” Chris said.
Boot Camp really opened his eyes to all the things he didn’t know that he didn’t know about running a business. He had always wanted to open a scoop shop, but going through Boot Camp made him recognize that there would be a tough road to success.
“I realized I’d need 100 customers every day to turn a profit − cold days, rainy days, holidays,” Chris said.
Then he had a game-changing conversation with John Schoeniger from the Detroit Development Fund.
“He asked where my revenues were coming from now, and I told him I was selling pints,” said Chris.
Schoeniger told him distribution was the business to be in and if he ever wanted to do a scoop shop to make sure it was never more than 10 percent of the business − words to live by.
Now that Chris was focused on making pints, he needed grocers to distribute his ice cream. His first retail customer was Fresh Farms Market in Grosse Pointe Farms.
“They are two guys who started from nothing and now have a great little market with a really strong clientele. They picked up all nine flavors and it gave me some much-needed capital to move forward,” Chris said.
Fairfax Quality Market in Grosse Pointe Park and The Farmer’s Hand in Corktown were soon to follow.
Today the business is growing and he’s excited about a distribution deal that he’s just inked with Eat Local Eat Natural that gives him freezer space at Plum Markets, Better Health Stores and Whole Foods Markets in Michigan, along with Western Market in Ferndale and Oryana Natural Foods Market in Traverse City.
“I’m almost ready to hire employees. It’s really important to me to be able to provide someone a living wage, so until I can do that I’m doing it all on my own,” said Chris.
He credits his wife, Gabby, of Flowers by Gabrielle, for instilling in him the importance of taking care of your employees.
“She treats her employees really well and in return she has such great loyalty,” Chris said.
Last summer Chris participated in Motor City Match and won a $20,000 design grant. He was paired with Virtuoso Design + Build to create a retail space at the Alger Theater in East English Village. The shuttered theater has been raising money to renovate the space.
This year he’ll be opening that scoop shop right in his neighborhood in one of the renovated storefronts.
“It’s really important to be committed to my community, and help revitalize my neighborhood,” said Chris.
In the mornings he plans to serve coffee and Dilla’s Delights Donuts (the legacy of hip-hop artist J. Dilla), another start-up working out of the Avalon Bakehouse.
The journey hasn’t always been easy, and when he feels like quitting, Chris thinks of his daughters.
“I don’t want them to think they have to take the safe job to pay the bills. I want them to dream and take risks and find out what they really want. I want to be an example for them, so I try not to get bogged down with the missteps. Things always work out, even if in the moment it doesn’t feel like it’s working out.”