A Cafe Bar starts with frozen coffee — not a coffee-flavored coating but actual, full-tilt cold brew coffee. Underneath, there's ice cream, with a stick for a handle.
It’s a dessert with a caffeinated kick. It also comes with a backstory of collaboration between two homegrown New Orleans brands and an unlikely business development path that's been more social than strategic.
The ice cream is from New Orleans Ice Cream Co., a company that has made ice cream flavors from classic New Orleans desserts (lemon doberge cake), cocktails (brandy milk punch) and even a former mayor’s faux pas (“Chocolate City”).
The frozen coffee shell is from CoolBrew, another New Orleans success story that made cold brew coffee a household term in its hometown long before the trend grew nationally.
Adrian Simpson started New Orleans Ice Cream in 2006. Jeff McCrory is a partner in CoolBrew, the company his father founded in 1989.
McCrory is from Metairie, Simpson is from England and the two have been friends since their college days at LSU. Simpson later worked in marketing for CoolBrew as the company was making the leap from a local brand to a national brand.
Neither is the prototypical suit-and-tie businessman. Instead, as the two have developed their own businesses they’ve grown into jovial New Orleans entrepreneurs who continue to do what friends do — hang out, drink together, dine and drink a bit more, tease and needle, encourage, advise and eventually collaborate.
“We finish each others’ sentences,” McCrory said, just after doing so during an interview with Simpson. “We get together at the pub or at home and we talk about ideas, and sometimes they turn into something. This is one of them.”
The idea was to pair their respective products for something new. To them it was simply frozen coffee and ice cream, together at last. When they started presenting the product to potential buyers, they discovered the timing was fortuitous.
“The feedback we started getting was that this is very on trend. But we're not trendy, it’s what we've been doing for a long time,” said Simpson. “It's like our old clothes just came back into fashion again.”
Cold brewing, fast growing
Cold brewing calls for steeping ground coffee over a long period, a process that minimizes acidity and can accentuate the beans’ natural nutty, chocolaty flavors.
The term is commonplace at modern, independent coffee shops. It’s been popularized by Stumptown, a growing Portland, Oregon-based chain that recently expanded in New Orleans. And the biggest national chains have caught on, with Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts each introducing cold brew coffee products at their stores. The research firm Mintel recently clocked the growth of cold brew between 2014 and 2015 at 115 percent, though it remains a small portion of the overall coffee market.
But cold brew was largely a hobbyist pursuit when Phil McCrory, a pharmacist, began tinkering with it in the 1980s.
"He made a great cold brew coffee at home, and we talked about bottling it and selling it,” his son Jeff said. “That's usually where ideas like this die. People just talk about it. But we found a way to do it.”
CoolBrew eventually grew into a multimillion-dollar company with its product distributed nationwide. Its Mid-City production facility can turn out 20,000 gallons of cold brew coffee a week. These days, a small trickle of that production is dedicated to the new American Cold Brew for Café Bars.
The coffee arrives in 55-gallon drums, it's sweetened with sugar and made into a coating for the ice cream, with mocha, vanilla, caramel, peppermint or hazelnut ice cream at the center. But one flavor, called the Noir Bar, has no ice cream at all. It’s simply sweetened, frozen coffee on a stick. The bars have about as much caffeine as a one and half cups of coffee.
"It’s a different kind of caffeine delivery system,” said Simpson. “We call it having a coffee shop in your freezer.”
During a recent tasting for the new product held in the aisles of the Robért Fresh Market grocery in Lakeview, Jeannette Dufrene was surprised by the flavor and ingredients.
“I thought it was chocolate, but I gave up chocolate for Lent,” said Dufrene, a religion teacher at Mt. Carmel Academy. “So, this was all the pleasure without the guilt.”
While Café Bars draw on familiar ingredients, McCrory and Simpson say it’s also the relationship behind the brand that has made it possible.
"When you start these companies, it's a lot of pressure: you have to get money together, you have to get out of your comfort zone and do a lot of different things you didn't foresee in the beginning,” McCrory said. “We both built our businesses from scratch, but we were always helping each other. It's really allowed us to work it out.”