Suddenly everyone is screaming for their handcrafted, artisan ice cream.
How did two Lockport High School teachers make Lake Effect Ice Cream into an award-winning brand and a wildly popular shop?
Owners Jason Wulf, 40, an art teacher at Lockport High for almost 18 years, and Erik Bernardi, 39, a biology teacher there for the past 15 years, go back a long way. They grew up in the same Lockport neighborhood, went through school together, graduated from Lockport High, and are next-door neighbors, fellow teachers and now business partners. Both are married, and Wulf said their children – each has one boy and one girl – play together.
The two have been in the ice cream business for five years, and they opened their first ice cream shop at 79 Canal St. this summer. Nearly 30 area stores carry their products, and they’ve grown from two employees to 20. Their ice creams offer ingredients such as whiskey, beer, sponge candy, corn, blackberry, honey and blue cheese, with quirky hometown names like Redrum, Levitreland (for former Bills guard Andy Levitre,) the Full Minty and Nickel City Heat.
“We’ve created hundreds of new flavors and still have 50 more in the hopper,” Wulf said. “It’s hard to screw up when the base is ice cream.”
Bernardi said, rolling his eyes, that many call Lake Effect “The Ben and Jerry’s of Lockport.”
You both are teachers. How did you start making ice cream?
Wulf: The ice cream part started when Erik had a little ice cream maker, and so did I, and we started making ice cream. It started just as a fun thing, and then we kinda both started getting into it, and it ended up being much more than your family could eat in an average day. So we started giving it to neighbors and friends. And they started critiquing it.
Was there a turning point?
Wulf: I think the turning point was we started to make things that no one had made, like the beer ice creams, and we realized we could make things that no one had ever made before.
How did it become a business? Tell me about the first sale.
Bernardi: It was actually just around the corner at the Lockport Craft Festival. People were surprised and weren’t sure. Jason had done such a great job with the graphics that we looked like a big commercial business.
Wulf: People were asking, “Where did you guys buy your ice cream from?” and we’d say, “We didn’t buy it – we made it.”
How was that first day?
Wulf: It was not a great day. It was raining and dark. It was terrible.
Bernardi: Leading up to that first festival, we had these huge expectations about how much we could sell and how well we could do.
Wulf: We had no idea. We had no clue.
Bernardi: We had no clue.
Wulf: Are we going to bring a 100 and sell a 100, or bring 500 and sell 500? We had no idea.
But I’m guessing it did get better.
Wulf: The first festival was a miserable day, but when we did the Taste of Lockport, people came there to eat. We don’t know why we showed up with 1,200 half-pint ice cream containers, because we hadn’t sold more than a 100 in a day before that, but we sold every one of them. All different flavors.
Bernardi: It was the first time in three months we took a sigh of relief, because up to that point we started getting nervous.
Did you take some business courses?
Wulf: No. (He laughs.) It was a lot of experimental learning. And fate was involved in a lot of this. I used to work in a frozen department at Tops Supermarket. I teach a lot of advertising design. (Erik said he worked in an ice cream shop). All those things led to where we are. This (building) wasn’t sold for a while; it was almost like it was waiting for us. But it was a pie in the sky.
You seem to have a vision. Did you ever imagine something like this?
Bernardi: Before the festivals we discussed an ice cream shop, but that seemed like too much. So we started with the tent.
Wulf: I would never have envisioned this. (His eyes sweep across the ice cream shop.) We wanted it to be classy. Buffalo Spree named us the “Best Scoop Shop.”
The comment we get is, “I can’t believe this is in Lockport.” We wanted to do well, have a little extra money and a place for our kids to work. It was a natural evolution. It didn’t happen in just one year. You have to keep your nose to the grindstone.
Bernardi: We were two teachers involved in an ice cream business, and everybody likes ice cream.
This takes more than summers now. Will this take over as your main job? Would you ever give up teaching?
Wulf: We work hard to keep things separate. Erik and I both really enjoy teaching.
It’s not like we were looking for something to replace it.
Bernardi: Our business right now is growing, and we are utilizing good people to grow our business.
Wulf: We were pack horses when we started. But even now we still like to do all the new stuff. We know how happy it makes us to make something new.
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