By Jenny Neyman
Soldotna’s Ken Laing is hoping for some sweet success this summer, from something that tastes better than it sounds — green ice cream.
Well, the ice cream isn’t green. The hues are what would be expected of chocolate and vanilla. But the contraption used to make it is what catches the eye — a John Deere-green trailer equipped with motorized belts and gears that turn an old-school ice cream churner. Laing saw one in Talkeetna last summer and the combination of John Deere plus ice cream struck him as an idea that would appeal to Alaskans on the spring, summer and fall festival circuit.
“I thought, ‘That will work on the Kenai, too,’” Laing said. “It’s old-fashioned ice cream, it’s made just like the old hand crank. (But the John Deere part), I think that’s what’s going to sell the ice cream, too. That’s what intrigued me when I saw it.”
Laing is already fairly familiar with the fair food circuit. Under KL Enterprises he runs corn-roaster carts, also John Deere green and yellow, and a concession trailer hawking funnel cakes, reindeer sausage, chili and corn chowder. He started in 2003 after retiring from a 16-year career as a millwright at Unocal.
“It gets boring sitting around doing nothing. There’s no reason to get out of bed if you don’t have something to do,” Laing said.
A friend, Fred Sturman, came up with the idea of setting up as a corn-roasting vendor, but wasn’t going to pursue it. Laing thought it sounded like too good an idea to go to waste, so he took it on, buying his first roaster in 2003.
“You know, some of my friends say, ‘You didn’t even know how to boil water, how did you ever get into something like this?’ But it’s just the way that it worked out,” he said.
Now he’s got four corn roasters, which operate at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik, Soldotna’s Progress Days festival, the Arctic Thunder air show at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson held every other summer, and at Fourth of July festivities in Anchorage, Seward and Kenai. His concessions cart is at the Saturday and Sunday markets in Anchorage all summer long.
“It’s worked out pretty well,” he said, so he decided to give ice cream a try.
“I don’t know if this will ever produce as much as the corn as far as a profit, but it’ll make money. I’m sure it will, or I will be awful disappointed,” he said.
The contraption came from Ohio, where he also bought the corn roasters. The roasters cost about $10,000 apiece, and more with shipping to get them to Alaska. The ice cream maker was about $8,300 with all the bells and whistles — extra belts, extra metal cans in which the ice cream is churned, batter to start the recipes and clear, plastic guards to keep curious fingers from poking into the moving parts. With freight it set Laing back a little over $10,000.
That’s an expensive ice cream cone, though, so he’s hoping to make it up one lick at a time — $3 for one scoop or $4.50 for two. But before he can start charging anything, he’s got to work out the process and the recipes, so he’s been giving test batches away for free. He’s brought the machine to his standing Sunday card game at Northwood Retirement Apartments in Soldotna. Last month he sweetened up lunch at the Soldotna Senior Center. It made for a very lucky day for a class of fourth-graders from Soldotna Montessori School that happened to be visiting the seniors. The novelty got several mentions among the notes written by the students thanking the seniors for their hospitality.
“Thank you for letting us eat your yummy food. Your homemade ice cream was so good,” wrote Jordan.
“I liked the ice cream best. I wish we could do this next year,” wrote Justin.
The manual came with pages of recipes for a sugary smorgasbord — grape sherbet, coffee mousse, fluffy marshmallow ice cream, maple caramel ice cream, and on and on. Laing’s not too keen on getting fancy, though. Good ol’ fashioned flavors should be good enough for ol’ fashioned ice cream, he thinks.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to get into that. It’s a lot more trouble. Most of the sales I think are going to come from the uniqueness of the paint. And maybe I’ll be mistaken, maybe I’ll have to do, like, strawberry or something like that after awhile. But I’ll just start out with the vanilla and chocolate and hopefully that will work,” he said.
He bought enough starter batter — to which sugar, milk, heavy whipping cream, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla are added — to make 300 gallons of ice cream.
“It’s a lot, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said, in keeping with his modified “Field of Dreams” business strategy: If John Deere churns it, they will come.
“Other than that, there ain’t much to it,” he said.