Kris Swanberg, owner of Nice Cream (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)
A few years ago, Kris Swanberg, having been laid-off from her job as a Chicago Public School teacher, remembered she received an ice cream maker as a wedding gift. The Chicago mom fished it out of her kitchen cabinet and eventually started a new career.
Today Swanberg’s Nice Cream — on offer at local Whole Foods and farmers markets — is considered a star of Chicago’s rich and beloved artisanal ice cream scene, one that could be shut down entirely by state rules, she recently learned.
She says that a couple of weeks ago a representative from the Illinois Department of Public Health came to Logan Square Kitchen and informed her she’d have to shut down if she did not get something called “a dairy license.”
Swanberg and others in her field had operated for years now without ever hearing of such a thing and, indeed, they say, the City’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, to whom they applied for business licenses, never informed them they would need one to operate.
To get this license Swanberg wrote, in an email, she would have to:
“Work out of our own space. Currently we work out of the Logan Square Kitchen.”
“Have our product tested once a month for bacterial levels.”
“Change all of our packaging and labels to meet state standards.”
“Purchase a pasteurizer, which from what the state tells me will be about $40,000 or use a pre-made ice cream mix.”
Swanberg says that the IDPH officer who visited told her that her ice cream probably wouldn’t pass the bacteria tests if she continued to use fresh strawberries. Instead the officer suggested she use “strawberry syrup,” Swanberg said.
IDPH spokesperson Melanie Arnold said that it isn’t illegal to use real strawberries but that IDPH “does not encourage it simply because when you try and clean a strawberry to make sure it doesn’t have any bacteria, it kind of deteriorates.”
The department’s Dairy Equipment Specialist, Don Wilding, said that other ice cream producers use irradiated strawberries. He says look good but he can’t vouch for the taste.
Swanberg could continue to work without a license, Wilding said, if she used a premade ice cream mix that is usually formulated with stabilizers and other additives — the kind of thing typically used at Dairy Queens, Wilding noted.
Still, Swanberg feels that using strawberry syrup and a premade soft serve mix might not attract the same customers who buy her product made from fresh organic cream blended with local and often organic produce like basil and strawberries she picks herself.
The department could not confirm the $40,000 price tag on a pasteurizing machine. But it did confirm that, even if she uses pasteurized milk and boils all of her ingredients together, she would then need to pasteurize it in this special machine again.
Although the state is focusing on Swanberg first, other artisanal ice cream makers in Chicago are concerned they might be next.
“I have to be worried. I am in too deep to cut my losses now,” said a fellow ice cream maker who asked that her name not be used. “This is my life and passion, so I don’t want to be shut down.
“Our biggest thing is wondering whether or not there is a way, considering the organic and local food movement, to change the regulations so that small local producers are not being regulated in the same ways as massive creameries — I mean, this is what they enforce for Haagen Dazs.”
Indeed, IDPH confirmed that these small operations are governed by the very same rules that apply to billion dollar ice cream companies. And although Illinois recently passed the The Illinois Local Food Entrepreneur and Cottage Food Operation Act, (currently awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature) which suggests that the different sets of rules should govern tiny food operations and giant corporations, the bill does not apply to ice cream.
Until she gets her license, Swanberg says she must stop putting product on the shelf. She hopes to meet with her fellow ice cream makers to figure out a plan that can allow them to deliver the same quality while abiding by state rules.