It’s not easy to create a truly unique ice cream experience, but that’s exactly what 24-year-old Andy Chen and his partner, Nick Ni, have done with Ice Lab, the newest snacking experience on Franklin Street.
Featuring rolled ice cream, Chen says the idea originated online, where he first saw the newest ice cream trend. However, finding the tools necessary to create it proved to be more difficult.
Rolled ice cream originated in southeast Asia and was called “Thai fried ice cream.” The treat is poured in liquid form onto a freezing cold metal surface, which got its name because it looks like a grill. Instead of heat, however, the surface is well below zero. The ice cream is then kneaded and spread into a thin layer, before being pushed into tight rolls with a spatula.
The Ice Lab has a myriad of toppings, ranging from chocolate chips to Pocky sticks. With the first three toppings included, there's a seemingly endless number of combinations.
Chen said they ordered a machine that mixes the ice cream base from China because they couldn't find it in America. Customers can choose from a myriad of ingredients to create their own flavor. The last step is the key: rolling a thin layer of ice cream into its characteristic shape.
Nestled next to the Franklin Hotel, it would be easy to almost miss the shop if it weren’t for the bright pink exterior, which Chen says he chose to appeal to college customers. He carefully designed every aspect of the store, including the snail logo and twinkle lights decorating the narrow space.
Chen’s work began shortly after high school, but he’s always thinking ahead. His ultimate goal is to expand into a chain, but in the meantime, he’s bringing shaved ice and possibly smoothies to the Ice Lab.
“I got the idea around three years ago,” Chen said.
He spent one year finding and renovating the space and several months dealing with city permit requirements. But two weeks ago, all of that work came to fruition when Ice Lab opened to the public.
Kevin Mendoza, a senior at Chapel Hill High School, works at Ice Lab.
“I was walking by one day and it looked interesting, so I came in,” Mendoza said.
His favorite part thus far is playing with the ingredients and creating his favorite flavor, which he described as “strawberry banana.”
Chen says business was slow the first week, but it has since picked up. For their part, students seem excited for the new sweet treats, especially with punch cards offering a buy five, get one free deal.
Abi Mlo, a junior human development and family studies major, said she planned on trying the rolled ice cream with her friends.
“We heard it was new and it’s the only rolled ice cream place in Chapel Hill,” she said.
Besides the variety of toppings, she said her favorite part was that it was sweet.
The most popular flavor so far?
“Oreo and chocolate,” Chen said. “Definitely.”