For the Hillmans, making ice cream is a family affair.
Brett Hillman had been in the ice cream business for more than 30 years when he and his wife, Ellen, opened their first homemade ice cream shop in Raleigh: FRESH. Local Ice Cream.
Their son, Jason Hillman, later left his corporate job to join the family business. One year later, Jason’s own ice cream dream is about to come true – opening a shop in his hometown.
The Hillmans hope to open their second FRESH. Local Ice Cream location in the spring in a vacant downtown Cary spot that was occupied by Rich’s Roffler Style Shop until the barber shop closed a few months ago. It will be between Crosstown Pub & Grill and Johnson’s Jewelers on East Chatham Street.
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“We’ve just kind of always had a dream to open a business in the Cary community,” said Jason Hillman, who grew up in Cary and attended Apex High School.
FRESH., whose homemade ice cream is created with ingredients from a local farm, opened its first location at 6033 Glenwood Ave., in 2011. It is ranked the No. 1 ice cream shop in Raleigh on TripAdvisor.com.
“I saw the community being super supportive of the store, and I was like, we need to grow the brand,” Jason Hillman said. “Because we had people coming from Garner and Cary and Apex all the way out to Raleigh, so we were like, let’s try and bring it closer to them.”
The shop offers traditional flavors but also flavors like cheesecake, Georgia peach, banana pudding and pumpkin pie. The shop sells ice cream cakes, floats and sundaes, as well as a non-dairy option using almond milk and a dog-friendly sundae for customers’ four-legged friends.
Jason Hillman envisions the new location as a fun destination with music, a dog-friendly atmosphere and an open-window concept that allows people to sit at a bar and look out over East Chatham Street. There will be enough seating for about 20 people, including some outside.
“We’re going to try to make it where people want to come there, because it will be that not only do we have great ice cream but the atmosphere is a lot of fun,” he said.
A history of ice cream
Brett Hillman, also known as the “Master Ice Cream Maker,” previously owned several ice cream shops in New York and North Carolina – one at a time – before deciding to stop selling other companies’ products and to start making his own.
He opened FRESH. in 2011, but a year later, the business already had grown so much that they had to add more space to the building about 2 miles north of Crabtree Valley Mall.
On any given summer day, about 30 people can be found waiting in line to get ice cream, and the business continues to grow every year, the Hillmans said.
That’s why they expanded again this year to add an ice cream truck, which is available for business events, weddings and more. Jason Hillman, who has since been dubbed the “FRESH. Trucker,” and his wife, Casey, have been operating the truck, which they named “Chuck.”
But Jason Hillman said his wife and his father are the “brains behind making the product,” creating new flavors for customers to try and earning Casey the nickname of the “Flavor Ninja.”
They come up with new flavors by mixing the existing flavors and seeing what tastes good, Jason Hillman said. He once mixed strawberry and peanut butter together, which inspired him to create a peanut butter and jelly ice cream.
The family prides itself on its natural, local and homemade product, including using milk from a local farm. Jason Hillman said said the milk is hormone- and preservative-free.
“My dad searched for years to find the right milk and the right cream to use for homemade ice cream,” he said.
Finding a home
The Hillmans’ decision to open a second location in downtown Cary started about two to three years ago when the Jones House became available. The historic house on South Academy Street was renovated and housed the restaurant Belle at the Jones House restaurant until January.
“That’s what started actually our thought of coming into the area,” Jason Hillman said. “Because we thought, ‘How cool would it be to have an ice cream shop, kind of like we have in Raleigh, but in a downtown community, in a house even?’ ”
“It seems like an area that is up and coming for so many different demographics of people,” Jason Hillman said.
The Hillmans hope to expand further in the future, branching out to other municipalities like Apex, Holly Springs, Garner or Clayton.
“The community has just been phenomenal to us,” Jason Hillman said. “We have hundreds of people who come from all over the Triangle. That’s where we noticed we could grow and bring it closer to our customers.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon