For Sandra Sproles, something of a watershed moment occurred earlier this year: she perfected a recipe for nutty-coconut ice cream.
That moment — which resulted in a tub of fresh coconut and three different flavors of nuts (almond, walnuts and pecan) crafted into creamy ice cream — capped more than two years of effort by Sproles to recreate a taste similar to one of the similar ice creams served up by Baskin Robbins.
“Nutty Coconut was our favorite from Baskin Robbins, and I decided that I could make it,” Sproles said. “I tried for a couple of years but never could get it right. I just kept testing it and testing it until we finally got it right.”
And now? “It’s actually better,” she said. “It’s delicious.”
In some ways, perhaps, that sums up a legacy of making ice cream that goes back six generations among the Phillips and Yancey families: constantly trying to improve on the formula for churning out the perfect homemade ice cream.
Sandra Sproles — who is one of the faces behind B&B Ice Cream, along with her husband, Jack, her daughter and son-in-law, Brian and Kristi Russ, and her grandkids, Bryson and Braelyn Russ — dates her family’s history of making homemade ice cream back to her great-grandparents, Tom and Martha Yancey. To hear Jack tell it, Tom Yancey was fiercely proud of his hand-cranked ice cream, to the point that he took sole possession of the chore of making it. He would let his grandson — former Scott County Schools superintendent Jerry Willard Thompson — bust up the block ice and fetch the salt, but the actual churning of the ice cream was Yancey’s job.
The art of homemade ice cream was handed down to Yancey’s son, Arthur Yancey. He and his wife, Truie, made ice cream every 4th of July. Meanwhile, Sproles’ other grandfather on her father’s side — L.C. Phillips, and his wife, Berthie — also made homemade ice cream. They made it all summer long, but especially on the 4th of July. It became an Independence Day family tradition.
“All the men and their wives would make it together,” Sproles said. “Mostly the men would crank it for hours, and let all of us grandkids help, too.”
Perhaps when this Phillips-Yancey brand of ice cream really began to take shape as a summer treat that could be shared with scores of others came when L.C.’s son and Arthur’s daughter married. That was where the Phillips and Yancey traditions of homemade ice cream merged . . . and took on a new direction.
Bud and Rochelle Yancey Phillips spent years experimenting with homemade ice cream before finally figuring out a way to take eggs out of the equation.
“Dad and Mom loved making ice cream so much,” Sproles said. “That’s why Dad kept fooling around with it until he figured out how to make it without eggs. He was afraid of raw eggs making someone sick.”
Jack Sproles said his father-in-law was worried about the risk of food-borne illness.
“In the old days, they used eggs, but Bud didn’t want to use raw eggs,” he said. “So he changed the recipe to a no-egg formula.”
Later, Jack and Sandra Sproles became the fourth generation to make ice cream. They would make ice cream to feed hundreds of people at a time at church events hosted by White Rock Baptist Church and for hospital events when they were both employed by Scott County Hospital.
It was Bud Phillips’ recipe that Kristi Russ used when she started making homemade ice cream herself, becoming the fifth generation to do so. She took her grandfather’s no-egg recipe and continued making the vanilla- and lemon-flavored ice cream that had been a family tradition for so long. But she wasn’t satisfied with just two flavors.
“Kristi would just make it for friends and family all the time,” Sproles said. “Then she started making cherry, because she liked cherry ice cream. And all her friends would try to get her to sell it because they liked it so much.”
Eventually, Russ decided to do just that. And B&B Ice Cream was born.
The Past Meets the Future
These days, B&B Ice Cream is pretty much a staple when summer festival time arrives in Scott County. You can find the familiar ice cream trailer at every major event, beginning with Brimstone’s White Knuckle Event on Memorial Day weekend and continuing through the late-season events, like Allardt’s Pumpkin Festival. The family often sets up at Creative Pools in Oneida on weekends, as well. Along the way, they have built something of a loyal following. When Sproles or Russ make a Facebook announcement that the ice cream is ready, the orders start to flood in.
In B&B Ice Cream, the past and future collide. The recipe, though modified, comes from generations of yesterday. The name comes from the generations of tomorrow. When she first started preparing to sell her grandfather’s ice cream a decade ago, the health inspector told Russ that she would need a name. She settled on B&B, for her children: Bryson, who was a young boy at the time, and Braelyn, the new baby in the family.
These days, both Bryson and Braelyn help with the process of making and selling the ice cream — especially Braelyn, and Sproles says her granddaughter is quite good at it. With the men of the family — Jack and Brian — pitching in as well, it’s a family tradition that continues . . . just in a different way. Instead of hand-cranking the ice cream for 4th of July family get-togethers, the Sproles and Russes now spend their Independence Days on the mall in Huntsville, where they will serve up dozens of gallons of ice cream to festival-goers during the two-day holiday period.
Stepping Out On Faith
Kristi Russ was not convinced that the homemade ice cream she was making from her grandfather’s old family recipe was good enough to sell . . . but her friends were. It took some coaxing, but as the date neared for the annual Firemen’s Fourth Festival 10 years ago, she decided to step out on faith and try it.
Brian, who owned a construction business, had been critically injured in a fall from a building he was putting up. He was unable to work. Kristi had her hair salon, which she continues to operate today, but needed a little extra money to help make ends meet. That was the beginnings of B&B Ice Cream.
“It was right after Brian’s accident that she decided she was going to go to the mall and sell some ice cream,” Jack Sproles said. “She made cherry and vanilla that first time. And everybody liked it.”
Sandra Sproles said her husband is being modest.
“They didn’t have a lot of vendors at the mall that year, and Kristi just decided, ‘I’ll go sell my ice cream,’” Sproles said. “She came back that night and said, ‘I have to make some more.’ I said, ‘Do what?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, they bought it all.’ So she made some more that night and some more the night after that.”
The rest, as they say, is history. This year, the ice cream business is too much for Brian and Kristi to handle on their own when event time rolls around. With her kids, her mother and her stepfather pitching in, B&B spent last week churning up nearly 50 gallons of ice cream for this week’s Firemen’s Fourth Festival. And they expect to sell every last bowl-full.
To some, 50 gallons may not seem like a lot. But Jack throws in some perspective: “If you go into Baskin Robbins, they probably don’t have 40 gallons of ice cream in their store right now.”
Perfecting the Tradition
Sproles is proud of the effort that went in to discovering a way to replicate Baskin Robbins’ Nutty Coconut ice cream. It is the kind of dedication that has gone into making Bud Phillips’ recipe an art form over the years. Her daughter did the same thing with orange-pineapple. And the same can be said for several of B&B’s other flavors as well.
Today, B&B has 10 flavors altogether — in addition to the original vanilla and lemon, there are blackberry, butter pecan, peach, cherry, strawberry, orange-pineapple, chocolate and the brand-new nutty-coconut. There are also homemade cobblers — blackberry and peach, which Sproles makes in her kitchen at home on the morning of each event — to go with the ice cream, and the baked goods are almost in as high demand as the frozen treats.
It’s a far cry from those first couple of years at the Firemen’s Fourth, when Russ sold only vanilla and cherry, and worked from under a tent. These days, B&B has an air-conditioned trailer to help beat back the summer heat, and a variety of flavors you won’t often find at even larger festivals.
But the secret behind B&B goes beyond the flavors. While Sproles isn’t about to give out the recipe, she says the real secret is in the ingredients.
“It’s all fresh fruit,” Sproles said. “It isn’t canned or frozen fruits.”
In fact, the blackberries that go into B&B’s blackberry ice cream and cobblers grow in the Sproles’ back yard.
“After Kristi started making the orange-pineapple, Sandra and I started making blackberry,” Jack Sproles said. “Once we started making that, you can make strawberry, peach, whatever. And so we did. We would just work around and come up with a recipe that worked. Over time, we changed all the recipes. Through trial and error, when you make so much, you get to where you know how to make it.”
Then there was the process of figuring out how to freeze the ice cream. As anyone who has attempted to simply make homemade ice cream and put it in the freezer can testify, the end result is ice cream that somewhat resembles a brick. With time, though, B&B figured out which ingredients to add to make the ice cream freeze soft, so that it would turn out just right.
‘More Than Sugar & Milk’
The ice cream that will be served up at the Firemen’s Fourth this week isn’t just whipped up on the spot. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to create the 10 flavors of B&B Ice Cream.
Jack Sproles said the process begins about five days before the event, by mixing the ice cream ingredients. When the ice cream is ready to be churned, the flavoring ingredients are added. With eight ice cream makers going at once — fortunately, the era of the electric motor has eliminated the need for hand-cranking each batch like the early Phillips and Yanceys did it — B&B can make 24 gallons of ice cream in a night. Then it goes into the freezer for two days before being dipped and ready to serve.
“It’s a five-day process from the time we start mixing up the mixture to actually making the ice cream, freezing it, then dipping it,” he said.
“It’s a family thing, and everybody works,” Sandra Sproles added. “It’s hard work. It’s not just sugar and milk, that’s for sure.”
A Continuing Legacy
Sandra Sproles is proud of the people who keep coming back for more B&B ice cream — even people who aren’t from the local community. There are the customers from Cookeville who drive to the Museum of Scott County’s Heritage Festival each September just for a bowl of ice cream, or the train passengers who returned to Oneida for a second time from Chattanooga just because they knew the “ice cream people” would be there. Then there is the North Carolina man who wanted to buy an entire load and carry it back home with him.
“People tell us all the time that we should open a full-time ice cream store,” she said. And it isn’t that she hasn’t given it some thought. But life keeps interfering. There’s Kristi’s job at the hair salon, and a second job at Fairview Elementary School, and Jack’s job at University of Tennessee Medical Center. So, for now, the B&B trailer will just stick to festivals and the occasional weekend at Creative Pools in Oneida.
But, no matter what, Sandra Sproles wants to see the legacy started by her great-grandparents live on. She’s watched her own grandchildren try their hand at the art of making ice cream, and hopes they stick with it.
“Homemade ice cream is a thing of the past,” she said. “Nobody does this anymore. There are a few families who will do it every now and then, but it’s almost gone. Our goal is for it to live on. When me and Jack are dead and gone, Kristi and the kids can take it by themselves, and then hopefully their kids will go on with it after them.”