We All Scream for Ice Cream
On the Expanding Empire of Local Ice-Creampreneur Molly Moon
Of course Molly Moon Neitzel, the founder and owner of the very successful local ice-cream shop Molly Moon's, has always loved ice cream. As a child, while spending summers with her grandparents, she'd get a cone every day with her grandpa. Later she spent a summer scooping ice cream in her hometown of Boise, Idaho, then put herself through school at the University of Montana by working at an ice-cream shop called the Big Dipper.
"That's where I learned everything," she says, "from an awesome punk-rock guy named Charlie—I owe him everything."
But it wasn't until spring 2008 that she decided to turn her tasty habit into a career.
"I got burnt out on my job in politics and music, and one of the things that really burned me out was national travel. Music for America, the nonprofit that I ran before, had offices in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, and during presidential elections we had staff in all the swing states. So I was flying to Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and San Francisco, and I just didn't really feel connected to a place. When I was starting to consider the ice-cream idea, I really wanted something that was local. I wanted to invest myself in a neighborhood, be a neighborhood institution."
So Neitzel took a year off and researched her idea of opening up a shop—and she decided to do so right here in Seattle, where she'd been living on and off since 2001, partly because she fell in love with the city the moment she moved, but also because Seattle loves ice cream.
"Seattle consumes the third most ice cream of any city in the nation," she says with a proud smile. "The number one is Saint Louis, Missouri, and number two is Portland. And in Portland and Seattle, we mostly buy our ice cream at the grocery store."
There was clearly a niche to be filled. When Molly Moon's first opened in Wallingford, people lined up out the door, around the corner and all the way down the block. Business hasn't slowed down yet. Restaurants, movie theaters, and local boutiques line the same street as Molly Moon's, and the smell of fresh-made waffle cones and chocolate sauce pulls in an endless stream of Wallingford's foot traffic—even in the middle of the winter or on a rainy night.
Part of their success, no doubt, can be attributed to the rotating selection of curious flavors that you have to try to believe. There's creamy, fresh strawberry ice cream swirled with a ribbon of balsamic vinegar reduction, maple ice cream laced with bits of real bacon, and pungent salted-caramel ice cream (which is heavy on the salt), one of their best sellers. All the flavors are made with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. Strawberries come from the Skagit Valley, lavender comes from Sequim, and Molly Moon's coffee ice cream is made exclusively with Vivace coffee. Even the sugar is as local as you can get, from beet farms in Idaho.
"I think one of the reasons why we're successful, despite some people's complaints about the line length and wait time, is because it's an experience," says Neitzel. "You stand in line, meet your neighbors and talk to people, and when you get to the counter you can taste all you want. Then you either sit or walk away with your ice cream, and that whole process took 45 minutes to an hour. What else can you do in the city for 45 minutes to an hour for three bucks? I feel like you're buying the experience as well as getting an ice cream. I hope other people see it that way, too."
And they do—it's a recession-proof treat that's worth the wait. Now, after 11 months, instead of capping off the first year by simply being thankful her new business survived at all, Neitzel has already introduced a second location—the Capitol Hill branch of Molly Moon's officially opened last weekend in the Odd Fellows building (also home to restaurants Oddfellows and the Tin Table).
The new shop is small but very efficient. It's flooded with natural light and has an open seating area that can easily accommodate large groups. And it's got two ice-cream stations, serving twice as many people at a time as the Wallingford branch (a blessing on Saturday, as the line was still about 50 people strong an hour after opening). Despite the good smells and cozy seats, the majority of people crossed the street to Cal Anderson Park—where almost everyone basking in the springtime sun had cones or bowls of Molly Moon's goodness.
Neitzel also hints at secret plans involving an ice-cream truck "with some unique things to it." With the two shops and an impending mobile Molly Moon's—as well as West Seattle's awesome Full Tilt Ice Cream, Ravenna's newish-and-already-beloved Peaks Frozen Custard, and Capitol Hill's Old School Frozen Custard opening soon—we can totally knock Portland out of number two. Let's eat some ice cream and kick some ass.