By Rachel Cromidas
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

There’s never a bad time to start a new business. In the toughest economic times it’s often the job that you figured out yourself that will be the best job for you”
—James Schrager
Prof. New Venture Strategy Class

When alumnus Jason McKinney enrolled in the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, he assumed he would pursue banking or consulting after graduation. He never imagined he would become a pioneer in the ice cream business until he worked on a group project with Cora Shaw, a student who insisted they could turn air into ice cream—and turn a profit.

Today, the duo owns iCream Cafe, which combines science with sweets to create a bevy of made-to-order, instantly frozen desserts, from blackberry sorbet to chocolate pudding—and even goat’s milk ice cream upon special request—with the help of one not-so secret ingredient: liquid nitrogen.

The cold smoke billowing from iCream’s gleaming blenders is more evocative of magic tricks than cooking, but according to McKinney, the science is simple. iCream stores liquid nitrogen—a colorless, tasteless gas—in tanks suspended from the ceiling at about minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit. When it contacts the churning milk, the mixture freezes in seconds into a consistency somewhere between hard- and soft-serve ice cream.

Three years ago iCream was little more than an idea for a class project at Chicago Booth. But since re-opening March 9, McKinney, MBA’06, Shaw, MBA’07, and their unique frozen confections have again become a hit in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. iCream originally opened for a week in August 2008, but closed shortly after due to equipment malfunctions.

“Some of the skills we learned during that 10-week class [have been useful],” McKinney says, “like, how to evaluate ideas and risk—you have to really be ready to make sacrifices.”

More Than a Class Project

Their original assignment in Prof. James Schrager’s New Venture Strategy Class was to create a business plan for a new concept, and a Food Network segment about creating ice cream using liquid nitrogen inspired Shaw.

“I loved the idea, and I had a couple of parties where friends came over and everybody got to make their own ice cream. It was like a small-scale version of this [store],” she says. But when she first proposed the idea to her group, which included McKinney, they were skeptical.

At the culmination of their project, Shaw and McKinney mixed enough ice cream for their 60 classmates to eat.

“No one believed it would work at first,” says Shaw. “I said, ‘OK, if we can make the ice cream for the whole group, and it works, will you agree?’ And they really liked it.”

McKinney worked as a trial lawyer in the Loop, while Shaw held jobs in teaching and retail management before they matriculated to Chicago Booth.

Shaw always envisioned owning a business, which Schrager encouraged after seeing her group’s presentation.

“There’s never a bad time to start a new business. In the toughest economic times it’s often the job that you figured out yourself that will be the best job for you,” he says. “I think that the kind of unique treat that they’re attempting to put together has a market in any climate.”

Thousands of Possibilities

Unfortunately, a week after the business opened in early August, the liquid nitrogen dispenser, which was designed to pump freezing cold, smoking air into the mixing bowls, couldn’t adequately freeze the ice cream, Shaw says.

The ice cream store has only been reopened about a month, but so far, McKinney and Shaw say they have had no problems making lemons into sorbet.

“It’s really impossible to try every combination of ice cream, with all the different flavors, toppings, sugar, and fat content choices,” McKinney said. “There are literally thousands of flavors.”

Shaw recommends the Nutella and mint chocolate chip-flavored ice cream. McKinney’s favorite is white chocolate with Heath bar. But the possibilities are endless.

“You can get soy, organic, light, ‘fro-yo,’ non-fat, or low fat, and still have every single flavor available to you,” Shaw explains. “[On the day we opened,] a man came back again and again and bought four things because he was so excited to have ice cream that was sugar-free.”

Customers can choose what they want in their concoctions, including flavors, mix-ins, toppings, and color—even if it’s not on the menu.

According to Shaw, one regular customer brings goat’s milk from home for the staff to mix into ice cream. “As long as you bring it in a sealed bag, we’ll make virtually anything you want.”

Originally published on April 20, 2009.