Aaron Cohen never planned to own an ice cream shop. Less than a year ago, in April 2014, he didn’t.
Ben Sherman’s eponymous Union Square restaurant, Sherman Café, sold Toscanini’s ice cream when it opened 11 years ago but hadn’t done so in recent years. And Sherman—who once worked for Toscanini’s—had been wanting to sell ice cream again for a while.
Thus, in May, Sherman and Cohen met through mutual friends and partnered to found Gracie’s Ice Cream, named for Cohen’s then-infant daughter.
“We talked about it and it kind of started to seem like it made sense,” Cohen told the Observer in November. “Union Square didn’t have any ice cream.”
Over the next 6 months, Sherman and Cohen updated the space that had once held Sherman Market, a small “grocery-type store with local foods,” Cohen explained. They bought a 20-quart ice cream maker, and Cohen began experimenting with recipes. In September, they previewed the shop at Union Square’s What the Fluff Festival, where “people went bananas” for the special chocolate fluff flavor, Cohen recalled. And, finally, in late November, Gracie’s officially opened.
“Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you had planned on,” Cohen said, explaining that he and Sherman had hoped to open far earlier. But he added that opening in November gave them “a chance to nail [their] recipes over the winter before it starts to get hot again in the summer or spring.”
So, for now, Gracie’s is growing and experimenting. The gleaming white walls are covered in Star Wars-themed paintings and pop blares from iPhone speakers in the corner. Fruity pebbles, salty whiskey, and earl gray occupy menu space alongside chocolate, vanilla bean, and a special cookies and cream, with just a little bit of chocolate (they don’t wash the ice cream maker after finishing a batch of chocolate).
But even though Union Square didn’t have an ice cream shop before Gracie’s, the surrounding area has an impressive history of good ice cream. When it opened in 1973 on Elm Street, Steve’s was the first to offer branded ‘mix-ins’ like Oreos and Heath Bars in its super-creamy, low-air ice cream. Now owned by a former employee, the brand has moved to Brooklyn, like many other former Somerville residents. Christina’s and Toscanini’s, in Cambridge’s Inman and Central Squares respectively, have been serving up 82 flavors at a time, combined, since the early 1980s.
But Cohen said the creativity has slowed in recent years. “The Boston area eats way more ice cream than most places in the country, all year round,” he explained, “but it’s been a while since there’s been a new ice cream shop.”
Somerville is a different city than it was in Steve’s heyday—it may be that Union Square’s first artisan-esque ice cream shop is a sign of greater change coming for the neighborhood. The planned Green Line Extension project has already brought much development to East Somerville, but Cohen says he hasn’t yet felt the effects on businesses.
“There aren’t a ton of like new places [in Union] yet; it’s still check cashing places and insurance places,” he said, adding that these types of businesses haven’t survived rising rents in other Somerville and Cambridge squares. “I think over the next five years that’ll all turn over. Hopefully the ethnic grocery stores stay because we get a lot of ingredients from them.”
He admitted, however, that as rent prices have risen, the demographics of the Union Square neighborhood he’s lived in for nearly 8 years have shifted rapidly. And even if he doesn’t feel the pressure himself, businesses in Union are closing, including a family-owned insurance broker the week of the interview.
“As far as opening a new business, we are gentrifying the neighborhood because we are opening an ice cream shop that’s needed here. But then, at the same time,” he added, “I consider myself part of the community. I’m not someone who has lived here my entire life—we have neighbors here who have, and they might not consider me part of it. But we came before Union Square was, you know, Union Square.”
The future of Cohen’s project and the neighborhood it’s a part of are unclear. But for now, it seems that an unexpected venture has become something sweet.
“I think at some point I’ll start thinking things through a lot more than I do now, but I haven’t yet,” Cohen said. And then he laughed.