Bethany Clough

Eating Out: Ampersand Ice Cream opens to huge crowds, tamale maker headed to Tower District

Ampersand Ice Cream owners Jeff and Amelia Bennett in their new ice cream shop in Fresno, California.
Ampersand Ice Cream owners Jeff and Amelia Bennett in their new ice cream shop in Fresno, California.

Ampersand Ice Cream’s first day was so busy the shop sold through three days worth of ice cream and had to shut down a day to restock.

The locally owned ice cream shop opened last week at 1940 Echo Ave. across from Fresno High School. About 15 people were lined up outside when it opened and the shop served so many scoops of ice cream — 2,000 to be exact — that it almost ran out.

It reopened Wednesday, again to a line of people waiting.

Ampersand has about 15 flavors of ice cream it makes from scratch on site using milk from Top O’ the Morn Farms in Tulare. Caramel whiskey ice cream is the top seller, and — once they convince people to try it — the strawberry balsamic is popular, too. Ampersand sells all the old favorites too, like chocolate and vanilla, milkshakes and ice cream sandwiches.

People get pretty excited about ice cream, but such a big opening-day response in Fresno is usually reserved for big chains such as Chick-fil-A. Castillos Mexican Food in the Tower District had a huge response on its first day, but that’s a family that has run restaurants in this town for decades. Most new little mom-and-pop shops here tend to open quietly and ramp things up as they work out the kinks.

So why was Ampersand so different?

It was a combination of things: A neighborhood that was ripe for a local ice cream shop, a big social-media campaign before Ampersand opened, a cute couple with connections throughout the community and tapping in to a desire shared by many south of Shaw Avenue to improve their neighborhood.

Ampersand straddles the Tower District and Fresno High neighborhoods and is near Fresno City College. Neighbors like Lisa Fialho say they have been waiting for something like this to open here.

“It’s in our neighborhood. It’s not Baskin Robbins. It’s not a chain,” she says. “People can walk there from their homes. You’ve got the college there. You’ve got the high school there.”

The ice cream shop will be open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. Owners Jeff and Amelia Bennett keep it open late in hopes people will visit after a movie as an alternative to a bar.

Ampersand was helped along by an active Facebook page and a fundraising campaign, which included a video introducing the brand and the couple, that raised more than $20,000.

Before it even opened, many in the community were already familiar with Ampersand.

Jeff, 33, and Amelia, 27, Bennett are also part of a young, optimistic group of Fresnans who want to reinvest in central Fresno and downtown. The couple says they hope their business is the type of place Fresnans show off to out of towners.

“Our mission is to be the connecting piece between great ice cream and community,” Jeff Bennett says.

They hope to draw from outside the neighborhood too, and to get people comfortable with it — and by extension, downtown.

“Our hope is we’re kind of a gateway drug” to the rest of Tower and downtown, Amelia jokes.

There’s already plenty of hometown flavor: The countertops and table tops are reclaimed wood from the former Cedar Lanes Bowling Center. The Bennetts live in the Tower District and Amelia is a Bullard High graduate. Their strawberries and other ice cream ingredients come from Valley farms.

Their connections in the community don’t hurt either. Amelia’s family has longtime roots in the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno (Jeff is from Santa Barbara and met his wife online). And the pair go to The Well Community Church’s Fig Garden campus, where they’re friends with entrepreneurial types who lead Fresno-based Lanna Coffee and Bitwise Industries.

Ampersand’s challenge now is to sustain the interest in and keep customers coming into the shop. They’re already focusing on consistent scoop size.

And although the first goal is to sell ice cream, the “BHAG” — entrepreneur code for “big hairy audacious goal” — is to create community at Ampersand, Jeff Bennett says. That’s what the name Ampersand, the “&” symbol, is all about — pairing ice cream and community.

“We want to make it a place people want to come and feel connected to,” he says.

Casa de Tamales

Casa de Tamales is taking over the former Charlotte’s BakerEatery at 609 E. Olive Ave. The Fresno-based company will sell its tamales — traditional ones and its modern and vegan ones — and its line of tapas including tortas, fish tacos and other light meals there. It will also offer beer and wine.

Charlotte’s and Dusty Buns Bistro had originally announced that Dusty Buns would take over the space, but that didn’t pan out. With Ampersand and Kuppa Joy bringing new life to Dusty Buns’ corner at Weldon and Echo avenues, Dusty Buns decided to stay focused on its restaurant there, Dustin Stewart says.

Casa de Tamales taking over the Tower spot is technically a move because the business will close its West Shaw Avenue location in a few weeks. They hope their regulars there will come to “Tamale Central,” the former Organic Fresno space at 903 Parkway Dr. that is a tamale-making production center. They are experimenting with limited lunchtime hours there that should be finalized soon.

Casa de Tamales is also getting closer to opening in the T.W. Patterson building on Fulton Mall at Tulare Avenue. That one is scheduled to open in late July, maybe early August, and will also carry tamales, tapas, beer and wine.