BY BRIAN VANOCHTEN
PHOTOS BY DIANNE CARROLL BURDICK
GRAND RAPIDS – You walk into any frozen yogurt or ice cream shop anywhere and the toppings are all the same: prepackaged, processed, canned or bulk-purchased items full of additives and preservatives.
Spoonlickers Handcrafted Frozen Yogurt dares to be different.
At each of their three locations, co-owners and co-founders Dianna and David Darling insist upon fresh-baked, scratch-made and locally sourced toppings that customers won’t find anywhere else. It’s all part of the farm-to-table – or, perhaps, kitchen-to-spoon – concept the Darlings have brought to frozen desserts.
“It goes right from here to there – kitchen to spoon,” baker Alecia Fanning said of the Spoonlickers’ uncompromising approach to scratch-made toppings using the freshest ingredients. “A lot of people are a lot more conscious of it. I think people are more willing to pay a little extra for that if it’s homemade stuff, rather than if it was made in a factory or mass produced or came from a machine.
“I think the love goes into it,” she added. “They can tell it’s a much better product.”
It’s all about quality at Spoonlickers, with its signature chocolate ganache, butterscotch, homemade granola, scratch-made brownies, cookies, pumpkin pie, whoopie pies, cinnamon streusel crumble and marshmallow squares. It grinds the peanuts for its peanut-butter sauce. It toasts its own coconut.
No one in the industry comes close to that sort of freshness.
“A lot of people don’t do it, so, for us, it’s especially unique, just knowing a lot of what us bakers make is from scratch,” said Grace Tuttle, a junior supervisor at Spoonlickers who preceded Fanning as baker. “I think it is important to a lot of people. There is a difference in quality a lot of the time.
“It’s just about knowing that you’re eating something homemade or local products, it’s just different than getting it from wherever,” she said. “I’ve been to several of the frozen yogurt stores. I think when you go around and sample them, you can really tell the difference. I can immediately tell when I try other places that it’s a dry powder mixed with water.
“It’s a lot better here.”
The proof is in the pantry and refrigerator at Spoonlickers’ flagship Eastown store at 1551 Wealthy St. in Grand Rapids. Top-shelf ingredients, such as couverture chocolate and Nielsen Massey vanilla, go into making ganache and buttercream, respectively. Farm-fresh eggs, King flour milled in Lowell and Meijer brown sugar are examples of locally sourced items Spoonlickers’ baking staff uses.
All of the milk and cream used in production of its soft-serve frozen yogurt and baked goods comes from southwestern Michigan dairy farms, which results in a freshness its customers truly can taste.
No compromises. No cutting corners. Period.
“Everything we can buy locally, we do,” David Darling said. “All of the milk, all of the dairy for our yogurts and gelatos, it comes from southwest Michigan. People love the fact that we toast our own coconut.
“We have never wavered. The reason we do this is, because if we don’t, nobody else will,” he said. “It makes us different. It’s so much better because we control what’s going in (these toppings).”
For example, Spoonlickers uses only couverture chocolate for its ganache.
It has a higher percentage of cocoa butter than regular chocolate. Sure, it costs more, but the difference is quality is worth it.
“It’s the reason our ganache is as good as it is. We don’t cut any costs when it comes to the quality of ingredients,” David Darling insisted.
The objective is using the fewest ingredients of the highest quality to achieve unprecedented results.
It requires keeping a close watch on inventory, since many of the ingredients have a shorter shelf life than other packaged and processed FroYo and ice cream toppings at national chain stores.
The staff gets its fresh fruits, whenever possible, from Grand Rapids Downtown Market or Fulton Street Farmers Market.
“Sixty-five percent of what’s kept on the shelf is raw ingredient,” David Darling estimated.
The commitment to using the freshest and highest-quality ingredients is a reflection of what’s happening in the farm-to-table dining movement, as well as the craft beer and independently distilled spirits industries.
Earlier this year, the Darlings posted an item on the company website at www.spoonlickersgr.com that challenged the status quo when it comes to sacrificing freshness and quality for inferior mass-produced toppings. It sparked a profound dialogue and more than a thousand responses.
“I’m not sure all of our customers understand what we do and why we do it, but a lot of them do,” David Darling said. “It’s why they tell us, ‘You have to do our wedding, our children’s birthday parties and other events.’
“It really matters to people.”
It is a constant source of pride for the Spoonlickers’ kitchen staff.
Fanning, 27, a recent graduate of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College, uses her own hands to make and bake everything from puppy chow to pie crusts.
“It definitely adds a lot more enjoyment to what you do, especially because they don’t cut any corners here. They’re using real ingredients, like real butter, not shortening. That makes it a lot more enjoyable,” she said.
“You just make sure it’s made right.”
Tuttle, 21, of Kentwood, said the same commitment goes into making larger cakes, which can be ordered for special occasions or purchased from the freezers located in all three Spoonlickers’ stores.
“I don’t know of any other frozen yogurt places that make homemade cakes. We make the batter, we freeze the yogurt, mold it all together, make our own frosting, make our own chocolate ganache for it, and decorate it all by hand,” said Tuttle, who’s pursuing a degree in food and beverage management at Grand Valley State University. ‘That takes a lot of time. There are a lot of local homemade products going into that cake.
“I think that’s pretty unique. I don’t know of other ice cream places that bake their own homemade cookies or homemade brownies,” she added. “I don’t know of anyone else that quite does that.”
David Darling refers to Fanning and Tuttle as the “rock stars” of the operation.
Both says they’re delighted to be part of a local business that does things the right way for the right reasons.
“I think it’s something we should talk about a lot more,” Tuttle said. “People hear ‘homemade’ and think that’s cool, but a lot of them don’t realize that what we’re actually making … they’re eating. That’s something really unique. I don’t know of any other frozen yogurt places or ice cream places that do that.”