Natasha Kothari stares at the sign on the door, trying to will it to read "open" instead of "closed."
She's standing 10 feet from the storefront at 4535 West 119th Street, in Leawood, with her boyfriend, Glenn Dunne. She wants to get — needs to get — inside this building. It's full of ice cream. Ice cream by Christopher Elbow, whose second Glacé location is the latest tenant at the One Nineteen shopping center at the intersection of Roe and 119th Street.
"We've been stalking this place," Kothari says. She was here on the first Friday in August, before the sign had been installed out front, just in case it opened early.
Inside, Elbow is making sure that there are enough tasting spoons. His black T-shirt and jeans — his usual uniform — make him stand out from his staff, all clad in white.
He waves in Kothari and Dunne, and they eagerly push through the door. Elbow is behind the counter, comfortable, a little amused. The young couple look at the gleaming Sevel freezer that holds the ice cream. Hovering over the display case, Kothari first asks to sample rosemary caramel. Then she tries lemon verbena. There are plenty of freshly unpacked spoons. This could go on awhile.
She leans her head back slightly, eyes closed, savoring the flavor. When she opens them and looks up, her concentration shifts from the product to who is serving it.
"Are you Christopher Elbow?" she asks.
"Oh, my God, can I shake your hand?"
Ice-cream shop owners aren't supposed to fluster young women. But Elbow is not your average scoop jockey. He's a 37-year-old chocolate maker who, with two ice-cream stores and his confectionery flagship in the Crossroads, has spent the past five years making it safe to utter that dreaded foodie adjective, artisan, in this town. This summer, Glacé was named one of the 25 best ice creameries in the country by Food & Wine magazine. In February, his Chocolate Ale collaboration with Boulevard Brewing caused a mini market panic that saw the limited-release bottles selling on eBay for triple their retail price.
"We thought about how much we normally make," says Steven Pauwels, Boulevard's brewmaster. "We just forgot about Christopher's customers. And, my God, he's got a lot of customers."
Seven hours before Kothari becomes the first Leawood Glacé customer, Elbow waves to another visitor. He's carrying a mop handle outside to a rented Hertz van in the One Nineteen parking lot. Its rear compartment is packed with paper goods, furniture and equipment.
The building inspector has just left, after turning up minor issues — outlet covers that need to be fixed, a bathroom sign missing Braille. The inspector has promised to return later in the day and sign off on the opening if everything is corrected.
Until four months ago, this space was home to Mochi-Yo, a frozen-yogurt shop awash in bright pink and green and lousy with candy toppings — the opposite of Glacé's cool blue and stark-white interior.
"Think you'll have 300 people lined up, like Trader Joe's?" jokes Josh Hoddap, a food and beverage director with Dean & Deluca, which carries Elbow's ice cream and chocolate. An outpost of Trader Joe's opened at One Nineteen in July to a crowd of shoppers mad for frozen Indian entrées and inexpensive cheese.
"No," Elbow says with a laugh. "It won't be like Main Street, where the health inspector was waiting on the fridge to be hooked up."
Main Street is 4960 Main, Elbow's first Glacé location, which opened in May 2010. There, the pans were filled only minutes before the doors swung open to a waiting crowd.
"We didn't even know how to scoop ice cream," Elbow says. "The first one that one of the young guys filled up looked like the Matterhorn." It's a good-natured reference to the towering dessert at nearby Andre's.
Elbow grew up in Liberty, where ice cream came from Baskin-Robbins, Dairy Queen or the porch of his childhood home. He remembers churning the black-handled crank on his family's White Mountain ice-cream machine for hours, with neighborhood kids taking turns until their forearms began to burn, all for the magic instant when dessert was apportioned directly from the beater. On Saturday mornings, he plopped in front of the television to watch Great Chefs instead of cartoons.
"The show was broken up into appetizer, entrée and dessert," he says. "And I could never wait for them to get to the dessert."
But if it's television, a meal or a career, it always seems to start with appetizers. Elbow found that out when he took his first kitchen job, at the Lincoln Country Club. Executive chef Mike Miller saw something in the University of Nebraska undergraduate with no kitchen experience.
"I told him I'd work for free," Elbow says. "Thankfully, he didn't take me up on that offer."
Elbow worked at the country club for two and a half years, learning each station and discovering how to deal with the stress of being on the line. After graduation in 1996, he intended to go to culinary school, but the allure of a job in the kitchen at Shiraz (which closed in 2008, after 14 years in business) and being closer to home brought him to Kansas City.
Shiraz was Elbow's first taste of the Crossroads. Owner Ali Shirazi, a native of Iran, introduced him to Persian spices over the six-burner stove wedged in the back. Elbow wasn't yet making chocolate, but he began to experiment with sorbet and ice cream. Saffron and black pepper were some of his early attempts to push his own boundaries and those of Shiraz's diners.
He'd been at Shiraz almost three years when his father guided his career in a new direction. While on vacation, David Elbow was having dinner with Christopher's mother, Linda, at Emeril's in Las Vegas. Elbow told the general manager that his son was a chef. Emeril Lagasse was preparing to open Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian and was hiring. Christopher Elbow called the manager and sent a resumé. A week later, he was driving his Toyota pickup and a U-Haul trailer to Las Vegas.
He shared an apartment just off the strip with a roommate from Liberty High School who, two weeks earlier, had secured a position in the nightly show at Treasure Island. The role: pirate. Elbow's friend was in the process of growing a curlicue mustache.
"I was there a year on the nose, and that was probably nine months too long," Elbow says. "He's still a pirate to this day."
While still at Delmonico, Elbow took a second shift under chef Jean Joho at the brand-new Eiffel Tower Restaurant in the Paris Hotel. It was there that he learned to make chocolates from a French pastry chef in a kitchen that served up 200 soufflés a night, in seven flavors.
"It was brutal, but I discovered I could cook in a kitchen with people who had gone to culinary school," Elbow says.
Do you have toilet paper?" asks Pamela Henry, environmental compliance manager with the Johnson County Environmental Department. It's 11:06 a.m., and she has just checked the temperature of the ice-cream freezer and noted her findings in a small voice recorder.
"Yes, it's out in my van," Elbow says.
"OK, I'll see you in about 60 days for the first routine inspection," Henry says.
She walks out the front door, catching it before it snicks closed behind her. "Actually, when will you be opening?"
"This afternoon, if all goes right."
Elbow taps his iPhone, concerned that he hasn't yet heard from the menu-board printer. Meanwhile, the building inspector returns and is satisfied with what he sees. It's 11:45 a.m., and Glacé is set. Elbow texts his manager, J.K. Hufford, who splits time between Main and One Nineteen, and tells her to begin bringing over ice cream.
"The last place didn't make it. We wish you the best of luck," the building inspector says.
"We're going to give it a go," Elbow replies.
After Las Vegas and a return trip to the kitchen at Shiraz, Elbow was hired as a pastry chef at the American in 2000. Within three years, his signature at that downtown restaurant had become his chocolates. The American's menu was the first to feature his rosemary caramels, a marquee item for his retail operation today.
"It was the perfect storm of falling in love with the craft of making chocolate and having all these new single-origin chocolates come to market," Elbow says.
He left the American with two wholesale accounts — Halls and Dean & Deluca — and no idea how to run a business. In the beginning, it was just Elbow in the back of a building that once held the High Cotton furniture store, at 118 Southwest Boulevard. He struggled to keep up with demand, which was high from the start and has seen double-digit growth every year.
He was reluctant to use his moniker in the chocolate shop's name, but his wife, Jenifer, convinced him that it was his name that should stand for his work.
The look of Christopher Elbow was born on the West Side, and Jenifer Elbow has served as his creative partner. His color whirls are painted in the chocolate, while her sense of typography and balance defines the packaging. (She's a graphic designer at Hallmark.)
"I thought it would become something because everything he does is so perfect," Jenifer says. "I don't think he ever thought in a million years that would happen, that people would be banging down the door to get it."
People were hungry for more than his chocolate, though. They wanted access to him. The crisp storefront at 1819 McGee, the Elbow store that opened in April 2007, made him visible in a new way. He was no longer toiling in a small back room. On McGee, he and his product are on display through a window wall that shows the production kitchen to customers waiting in line. (There is often a line.) The transparency allows Elbow to highlight what he values most: process.
The ice-cream concept developed as a complementary idea to the chocolate shop — a way to keep his employees busy during the slower summer season. The first batches were sold in the summer of 2009 at the McGee store, a test to see if Kansas City was ready for $7 pints.
His expansion, while rapid, has been calculated. Each of his partners seems to have more than one connection to him. Lisa Monyakula, the owner of Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop, remembers him from his days at Shiraz but thinks they originally connected through the sign shop owned by her husband, Dennis Baughman. (Midtown Signs has made both front signs for Glacé.) Lulu's carries exclusive ice-cream and sorbet flavors, including fried banana, lemongrass with ginger, and lychee.
"You can approach a table and tell them you have Christopher Elbow ice cream and just see them get excited," Monyakula says. "It's said that everything he touches turns to gold."
For now, he's touching cardboard — boxes filled with cups and spoons, and kits for tables that he'll build himself. He's still in physical therapy, recovering from back surgery in March to repair a ruptured disk. After carrying in a 24-pack of Charmin for the bathroom, Elbow hears back from his menu-board maker, who thought Glacé would be opening the following week. Elbow pauses a minute and asks if printed mock-ups can be made in the next few hours. They can.
Elbow begins stocking the countertop refrigerator with Izze sodas, his hands moving deftly to arrange the bottles in tight, even lines.
"I'm craving ice cream right now," he says. "The blueberry and coffee ice creams are really good together."
Hufford arrives at 1:22 p.m., exactly four hours before the first cup will be sold.
"It better be blueberry," Elbow says, smiling, as he opens the door.
The ice cream is in the back of Hufford's black SUV, the pans packed over dry ice inside enormous white Igloo coolers ready to be wheeled in on a dolly.
"I'll be excited when the freezer truck is done," Hufford says.
The recent heat wave has meant that the foam insulation inside the freezer truck has refused to expand; without it, the truck can't maintain an ice-cream-friendly temperature. Hufford has brought one of everything, each shrink-wrapped and marked with a sticky note to show its flavor and its location in the freezer.
After unloading, Hufford leaves to retrieve backups of each flavor as well as a banner from Digigraph Xpress, another of his Crossroads neighbors. Elbow dips a taster spoon in the blueberry-cream-cheese pan. His right cheek yields to a small smile. This is lunch, a meal he often forgoes.
The weirdest thing for me is that I didn't do this to become famous," he says.
The famous guy is sitting cross-legged on the tile floor, the metal base of a cocktail table in front of him.
"I remember this being a challenge," Elbow says as he threads a rod that will support the stem of the table. He abandons the instructions and hops into a crouch, remembering how he set up the tables on Main.
It's the closest he'll get today to playing mechanic in his garage. At the home he recently purchased in south Kansas City, he keeps the five motorcycles that he has bought over the past two years. The first: a 1971 Honda CB 350 that has gone from rust-colored to shiny silver and black. He rebuilds the bikes so that he can escape into the night, riding a two-lane farm road in Excelsior Springs or Kearney.
"I approach everything the same way," Elbow says. "I take it all apart and then I figure it out."
He has figured out the table. But it's 3 p.m., and he has three tables to go. Hufford arrives with the second run of ice cream, and Elbow sits down with a label maker in front of the imported Italian freezer. The first to be labeled is fleur de sel caramel, the top seller in his ice-cream and chocolate shops. Elbow, who calls himself a "salt junkie," knows that we love salt in our desserts, whether or not we know it.
Venezuelan dark chocolate and French lavender are next. Glacé's flavors come from fresh herbs, mostly from Lulu's Garden in Lawrence, which provides Elbow with cilantro, purple basil, rosemary, and the sage he's thinking of pairing with blackberry in a sorbet.
Elbow eventually wants to sell his ice cream to other cities. In February 2008, he unveiled a satellite chocolate store in San Francisco, after discovering that a high concentration of his Web sales came from that area. He found a willing local partner in CocoaBella Chocolates, and it's a natural spot to put his ice cream. He's curious about other cities, too, particularly Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.
"You'd have the Glacé experience, just with regional ingredients," Elbow says. "I'd love to be in Napa, not just for the wine but because of all they grow out there."
The technology to significantly increase production of his chocolates doesn't exist, but ice cream can be produced in larger batches and be held for longer periods of time without losing quality, he says. With a new production facility on Southwest Boulevard, he seems ready to teach people all over the metro how to pronounce Glacé.
"You don't want to get so big that the quality goes down," Jenifer Elbow says. "The minute you have your product everywhere, it isn't the same. We talk about just how big we need to be."
The ice cream, made in what Elbow calls a "French custard style," is designed to highlight the essential characteristics of each flavor after a base of milk fat, egg yolk and sugar has been established for texture. His search for the best sources means that his vanilla beans have come from Tahiti and Mexico and, right now, from Madagascar. (There's always a little bit of extract, too, which he says "makes all the difference.") And his constant tinkering leads him to regular discoveries: for one, the notion that the Roasterie's Ethiopian blend neatly brings out the flavors in his blueberry-cream-cheese ice cream while accentuating the fruit notes in the coffee.
The Roasterie is one of Elbow's partners. His chocolate is sold in Roasterie's cafes, and Roasterie coffee is sold at Glacé on Main. The partnership was born out of a chance meeting in New York City, when Roasterie founder Danny O'Neill ran into Elbow in Times Square and wondered why they'd never paired coffee and chocolate. They attended Penn State's Ice Cream Short Course in January 2010, and O'Neill lent Elbow the use of his trucks for setting up the first ice-cream freezer on Main Street.
"Christopher is successful because he's curious," O'Neill says. "He's always pushing boundaries, and I love that."
Elbow has a specific approach to ice cream. He serves it only in cups, and the toppings are limited to two sauces: chocolate and caramel.
"I've just never been a cone guy," Elbow says. "I didn't want that overpowering smell of cones when you walked in."
Still, there are signs that he won't leave the freezer case alone forever. He's working on ice-cream bars in four flavors (one of them: a blackberry-swirl ice cream that's flash-frozen, dipped in chocolate and rolled in almonds). And he's reconsidering sundae toppings, but nothing you'd find at Dairy Queen. At the top of his list: olive oil and sea salt, the savory elements he first embraced during his line-cook days. It's also perhaps a concession to sugar-shock buffets like Mochi-Yo and Yogurtini. Elbow admits that the latter, a neighbor of his Main Street store, has hurt sales a bit.
Not every experiment will make it out of the back room. Elbow is still trying to perfect a Neapolitan, one that would give the eater a layer of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla in a single scoop. The staff has also been treated to batches of avocado, glazed doughnut, and Cap'n Crunch.
"It's just ice cream," he says. "You're supposed to have fun with it."
Moments after wondering what he'll do with sage, he professes his love for Whitey's Ice Cream in Moline, Illinois. The parlor serves light, fluffy American ice cream. When grandparents Bob and Josie Larson took him there in the summer as a child, Elbow always ordered cookies and cream. Grandpa Bob called his nightly dessert at home "bed lunch." He can still picture his grandfather at the kitchen table with an Old Style and a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in Hershey's syrup.
"I understand why people like Russell Stover's," Elbow says. "It's always great because it's nostalgic. I don't want to compete with that."
At the Leawood Glacé, a stack of empty cardboard boxes has reached the door handle. A security guard stops to advise that trash can go out the back door to the Dumpster.
"We don't have a back door," Hufford says, a little amused.
"What time do you open?" the guard asks. Hufford looks at Elbow.
"Five p.m.," Elbow says.
"So I'm going to be your first customer?" the guard says. He moves on to the Apple Store.
Elbow looks down at a wasted pile of labels.
"The 'r' button on the label maker was sticking. That's why I kept getting only one 'r' in 'berry.'"
He pauses. "Well, the 'l' wasn't working, either," he says, and laughs.
A woman stops outside the front door and taps her fingers to her wrist, the pantomine for "What time do you open?" Elbow walks out to greet her. This time, he adds an "around" before the "5 p.m." pledge. He could open Saturday or Sunday or Monday, but he's determined not to let the evening pass without a sale.
"This is just my own doing," he says. "We could be opening tomorrow. But we can open, so we're doing it."
At 4:54 p.m., the last of the four tables has been assembled. His first employee, a brown-haired teenager named Annie, has arrived in her white Glacé T-shirt. Hufford is sweeping the floor. Elbow shuttles his tools and the remaining boxes of tables to the back room.
"I don't ever see things like this going away," Elbow says. "I expect my staff to work hard, so I do the same."
Kothari is in front with Dunne. They're students at the University of Kansas, spending the summer in their hometown.
The security guard is a no-show. This moment belongs to the young ice-cream lovers. Dunne takes a bite of the peanut butter and jelly.
"That one is so good," he says.
"You just need to put some bread on it," Elbow jokes.
Kothari asks if he'll pose with her for a photo. Dunne takes out a camera. The shutter clicks. At 5:22 p.m., the suction-cup sign on the door switches from "closed" to "open." Elbow is behind the counter again, ready for the next in line.