Some people think big, and get there.
Kristina Zontini thought small, but got there just the same.
What began as a modest ice cream-making venture for friends and family in an old ski tuning shed behind her house in Bethlehem has led to a business that keeps her beyond busy to meet popular demand.
“My friend, Nick, from Lonesome Woods, offered me a chest freezer and that’s what pushed me over the edge to do it,” said Zontini, owner of Super Secret Ice Cream. “I just really liked ice cream but never made it before. I put the chest freezer in the shed and would send out an email to friends and family mostly, and they would come and pick up their ice cream.”
Around that time, she had recently visited family in Chicago, where she picked up a cookbook and became inspired.
Then, her husband, Dan Huntington, suggested she buy a small ice cream maker.
“I was working at the Littleton Food Co-op then took a break,” said Zontini. “Then I did a stint at the Beal House as a line cook, which was really fun. I considered getting into consulting work. Then I got the ice cream maker and something came over me and I just kept making ice cream. I was thinking, ‘let me give it away to friends and family.’ That’s how it starts. Then it just snowballed and kept going.”
She was making the ice cream out of the shed for about a year beginning in the summer of 2019 before she started selling what she made at the flash farmers market in Littleton in 2020, then during the pandemic.
“The farmers market was a very low-key step and not a ton of investment,” said Zontini. “I got a tiny ice cream machine and a pushcart off of craigslist from a fellow ice cream business in Maine. Then the farmers market happened and I was working seven days a week trying to keep up with enough ice cream for the market.”
The steps were small and not part of any big vision.
Soon, though, she needed a larger workspace and found it in the upstairs commercial kitchen at Ski Hearth Farm, in Sugar Hill, that she began renting in 2020 with Heidi Cook, co-owner of Bethlehem’s Mountain Roots Farm.
“Heidi and I split the cost to rent and we got so lucky,” said Zontini. “It’s the only way I have a business. There’s zero kitchen space anywhere to rent. The reality is I need a ton of space. It’s hard to be a nomadic ice cream maker.”
Her tagline is straightforward - “Tiny batch. Made from scratch. No weird stuff.”
What about the business name?
“People ask me about that all the time,” said Zontini. “I wish I had a better one-liner. Once I started the farmers market, I needed a name and needed labels. I had sticky notes all over my house and I was reading marketing books and I was trying to think of the perfect name. Nothing was sticking and I was letting it stop me from progressing and having a business. I was like, I need a name, I need a placeholder. The name popped into my head because I started off keeping it a secret. I was doing it out of my house, people came to my house for pickups, it was on the honor system. I had a secret Instagram account where you had to request to follow me, and I only accepted people that I knew or who someone referred. So it was this super-secret club.”
She said, “There is no secret to good ice cream, which is really quality ingredients. There’s nothing that special that I’m doing. I’m just sourcing well.”
Milk and ice cream comes from Hatchland Dairy Farm in North Haverhill.
Duck eggs for all of the baked goods that go into the ice cream come from Tellman Hill Farm in Whitefield.
Mix-ins, herbs, and fruits come from whichever local farm has something at the time.
Coffee comes from Trillium Beans and Bars, a local roaster in Bethlehem, that, like Super Secret Ice Cream, launched as a hobby.
Honey comes from White Mountain Apiary, in Littleton, owned by Janice Mercieri.
“One of our favorite flavors is honeycomb with bits mixed in the honey,” said Zontini.
She also sources from Trenchers Farmhouse, in Lyndonville, which has helped her get chocolate and ingredients that don’t grow in the region.
“They have these incredible chefs who have worked all over the world and are really into sourcing,” said Zontini. “I was making candy cacao nibs and the cacao nibs are from deep in the rain forest somewhere in the Amazon.”
Although her business started off small, it didn’t start off simple.
“Your average ice cream shop has their few main flavors,” said Zontini. “I’ve probably made hundreds by now. I rotate everything every single week. I don’t make the same flavors, but I will bring stuff back. I repeat honeycomb a lot and a version of coffee. If I want a sustainable business long-term, I will have to make some decisions, but right now I’m letting the community decide. I’m seeing what’s popular.”
She offers half-pints, pints, hot fudge sundae cups, ice cream cookie sandwiches that are popular, ice cream pops, and personal-size scoop cups at the farmers’ market.
Last year at the market, she sold pre-packaged ice cream because of the pandemic-related restrictions.
“Now, people are coming to the market in droves,” said Zontini. “It’s packed and it’s way busier. There’s a lot less pre-package going home to put in your freezer and a lot more eating at the market. The market is flourishing and there are record sales.”
Several weeks ago, she was called on to cater an employee appreciation event in Fairlee, Vt., for some 150 employees of the Monroe-based Pete and Gerry’s Eggs.
“Right and left, I’m getting called for events and I’ve had to say no to a ton of farmers markets, just because of the logistics of getting there and making enough,” she said.
As a business, Super Secret Ice Cream is sustainable, but at some point, Zontini, who recently brought on a part-time kitchen assistant to help her with the workload, will have a pivotal decision to make - keep the status quo or make a sizable investment to grow larger.
“I’m doing well and the numbers are good, but I’m just relying on the Littleton Farmers Market and you can only make so much,” she said. “I’m working way over 40 hours a week just for this one day. I need to make it more efficient, but to make it more efficient I have to invest a lot of money. That’s where I am at this point.”
So far, the pieces have fallen together and the future is open.
“It’s about letting people want what they want and letting that steer it,” she said. “I have no grand vision of being this massive enterprise. I don’t need to be a Ben and Jerry’s, but I do think it would be really fun to have this local ice cream shop that you bike to or walk to or go to for family events, and do it in a way that is very conscious of the art of ice cream making.”