The Velvet Grill & Creamery wants to be known for ice cream — again.
Three branches of the restaurant — two in Modesto and one in Lodi — are making ice cream in-house, serving up old standbys (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry) as well as more unusual flavors (maple-walnut, coconut-pineapple, Belgian chocolate with port wine).
It's the idea of Kirk Smith, who's owned the three restaurants for 20 years.
When the economy turned sour a few years back, he looked for ways to distinguish his restaurants from others.
"At the time, we were making our own soups, and they were so superior," said Smith. "We asked ourselves, 'What else can we make ourselves?' "
The answer was ice cream, something very few restaurants make in-house. A few Modesto-area ice cream parlors, including Cold Stone Creamery locations and the Ice Cream Co., do. Fine-dining establishments, such as Galletto Ristorante, may offer a few house-made flavors each night.
But Smith and his staff, whose restaurants were known for their ice cream creations in the 1970s and '80s, turn out 20-some flavors per day. These aren't your run-of-the-mill flavors. Think chocolate-brownie avalanche, banana split and apple pie.
"One day, we started shoving a pie in the machine, crust and everything," said Cindy Roehrick, manager of the restaurant's McHenry Avenue location.
Ah, the machine.
Smith, who took an ice-cream-making class on the East Coast, spent about $10,000 at each store for an ice-cream machine. They're small, about the size of a dorm refrigerator, and turn out small batches, three to four quarts at a time.
Customers clamor for the ice cream, called "super-premium" because it has such a high butterfat content — 16 percent.
It's not unusual to see diners toting ice chests, buying quart after quart to take home. Sales of ice cream, both dine-in and takeout, have doubled since last June, Smith said.
That could be because, when each batch of ice cream comes out of the machine, staff takes complimentary spoonfuls to each table. Or it could be because the restaurants take flavor requests. Craving fresh peach ice cream? Raspberry sorbet? Velvet Grill will make it, freeze it, and it will be ready the next day.
The most unusual flavor request for Smith and his crew? Black licorice. They haven't made it yet; they're waiting for Halloween.
The biggest ice cream disaster? They haven't had one yet, although they did discover that jelly bean ice cream wasn't the best idea.
"They freeze really hard," Smith said. "But nothing has been horrible. How could it? It's ice cream."