FARMINGTON, MICH. - Alcohol and ice cream may not seem like an obvious pairing at first, but Farmington’s Browndog Creamery & Dessert Bar has caused quite a stir since it opened this past summer.
“From what we can tell, there are only five or six dessert bars in the country,” said co-owner Brian Scherle, a physician assistant for the University of Michigan Health System who grew up near Canton. “And we think we’re the only one that makes our own ice cream in-house.”
“The drinks we make here can’t be replicated, using our flavors, without our ice cream,” said Scherle’s business partner, co-owner Paul Gabriel. Along with regular desserts and typical bar offerings, the menu is stocked with alcohol-infused ice creams and drinks like beer floats (small-batch ice cream dropped into craft beer) or martinis featuring a scoop of the sweet, cold stuff.
Fittingly, Gabriel spent nearly a decade working as a bartender, among other jobs (paramedic, firefighter, insurance salesman, etc.) and pursuits (culinary school at Schoolcraft College). And he grew up near Walled Lake, with ice cream as the family business; in 2009 he reclaimed the seasonal shop in Novi now called Stuart's.
He was aiming to open a restaurant in Northville and came across a “for lease” sign at Chocolates by Renee, where owner Stephanie Acho-Tartoni was looking for an ice cream business with which to share the store’s commercial property on Northville’s Main Street. Browndog Creamery opened in 2015.
“I’d been in ice cream,” said Gabriel. “But I knew that in order to open an ice cream shop in Northville – there were already several other ice cream places, so I thought, ‘Maybe we could make our own, and make some crazy flavors.’ But then we also started doing ice cream cakes, and birthday cakes and wedding cakes, and the business just took on a life of its own.”
Scherle and Gabriel made a point of using Michigan-grown/made ingredients as often as possible, and after they created bourbon pecan ice cream – the first ice cream flavor they conceived and put into production – the duo began to notice a trend.
“The alcohol-infused ice cream was hugely popular,” said Gabriel.
The pair learned that they could sell this kind of treat in Northville, even though they didn’t have a liquor license for that location. “It’s a very gray area within health food code law,” said Scherle. “As long as its frozen, it’s considered a confection, so you can do that.”
But the Northville location lacked sufficient space. For this reason, the two decided to expand to a second Browndog location that would primarily focus on the manufacturing of Browndog ice cream, so Gabriel’s father scoped out an empty storefront that’s part of Farmington’s Exchange Bank Building on Grand River.
A bar is born – with bourbon shakes
“The dessert bar concept had been something we’d wanted to do,” said Gabriel. “And in the process of finding this place (in Farmington), we stumbled upon a liquor license, and we thought, ‘Now’s the time.’ … When we put the bar in, we realized the space really got small suddenly. But Farmington’s got this food scene that’s starting to flare up, and we love being a part of it.”
So the renovations began – the space had previously been home to Off the Beaten Path Books – and a banner with the Browndog logo went up.
The finished space – with its intimate seating capacity of about 35 – has a walk-up counter where anyone can walk in and buy hand-crafted ice cream (with witty names like, Who Needs a Therapist?) in cones or bowls near the entrance, while further back, a few high top tables flank the bar.
Browndog’s homemade ice cream menu – minis cost $2.75, while a triple scoop costs $6.75 – includes popular original flavors like Salty Dog (salted caramel, ice cream, salted caramel swirl, pecans, home made brownies) and Who Needs a Therapist? (dark chocolate ice cream, with ribbons of peanut butter), as well as vegan ice cream. For those 21 and over, there are alcohol-infused flavors like Bourbon Pecan (Beer Barrel Bourbon infused ice cream with house pralined pecans) and Old Fashioned (Detroit City Distillery’s 1 Year Bourbon, Luxardo cherry juice, and orange peel). Plus, Browndog also offers “high octane ice cream sundaes” like the French Monk, which tops vanilla ice cream with Yellow Chartreuse.
“We were definitely excited about the opening of Browndog and went there several times in the first few weeks,” said Farmington’s Dwayne Hayes, founder and managing editor of the men’s magazine Stand. “It’s been great to have an ice cream place with good vegan options, too. They did a nice job with the design of the place, and I think it’s a cool spot to hang out and grab an ice cream or a drink.”
Of course, because bar and ice cream parlor patrons aren’t necessarily used to rubbing elbows in the same space, Scherle and Gabriel have had to figure out what policies work best, and how to communicate them to patrons.
“People come in expecting a sundae bar kind of thing,” said Gabriel. “We have to explain that, no, we really mean this is a bar, but we’ve also got ice cream, desserts, small plates and amazing cocktails.”
How have Scherle and Gabriel negotiated the varying needs of their patrons? “We found out in the first few weeks of being open that it’s not an appropriate environment for kids at night,” said Gabriel. “We still want to be family-friendly, so we have a few seats up front, but after 7 p.m., the rest of the space is 21 and over only. … People seem to be receptive and understanding.”
And in case Northville’s residents are feeling left out, Scherle said that he and Gabriel hope to bring this rare ice cream parlor/bar combo there eventually. “It is coming,” said Scherle. “We’re looking for a new space there. We want to bring this to Northville, too.”
For more information give visit Browndog Creamery & Dessert Bar's website or give them a call at 248-615-2955.
Detroit Free Press