In this season filled with fear, grief and bitter disappointment, there is one sweet solace for Vermonters: It's still possible to obtain a maple creemee.
As long as you keep your distance.
Purveyors of our state’s beloved concoction — just please don’t call it soft serve — have adapted their spaces, ordering protocol and payment methods to ensure food, customer and employee safety amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And as Vermonters begin to emerge from seven weeks of staying home and staying safe in accordance with Gov. Phil Scott’s order, which officially expires this Friday, May 15, the timing couldn’t be better.
“We’re getting tips like we’ve never seen before,” Barb Bragg, the co-owner of Bragg Farm Sugarhouse and Gift Shop, in East Montpelier, said in a phone interview last week. “People are just so excited. It’s such a comfort food.”
To limit crowding, Bragg Farm has consolidated its three-room storefront into a single room — “where, of course, the creemee machine is,” Bragg says — and erected plexiglass to protect masked employees. Just two customers are allowed in at a time, and others must wait in line six feet apart.
It’s one of many solutions at creemee operations around the state, which collectively answer a question posed to VPR by listener Mary Fafard: “Are maple creemees essential items?”
I need a @vprnet story on maple creemees during quarantine. Are maple creemees essential items? How is the public accessing maple creemees during these difficult days? Are stores offering safe ways to order and receive maple creemees? How is this VT staple impacted by COVID-19?
— Mary Fafard (@mary_fafard) April 28, 2020
“Yes, indeed, they are essential,” says Barb Bragg with a laugh.
“All we’re serving is maple creemee right now,” says Hazel Greaves, co-owner of Tootsie’s Ice Cream and Butch’s Harvest’ore in Walden. She notes that other flavors, and hard ice cream, will be available beginning Friday.
FYI - Tootsie’s in Danville today! pic.twitter.com/5NhFfqZSAK
— Tim Patterson (@TCPatterson) April 29, 2020
Greaves says she and her husband Butch consulted with the Vermont Department of Health before opening up for creemee business, and now have a large plywood sign instructing customers to wait in or near their cars until the person ahead of them has been served.
Employees of Vermont's food establishments must wear "non-medical face cloth coverings" in the presence of others in order to comply with the state's "Work Smart & Stay Safe" guidelines. Customers are encouraged to wear masks as well.
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The Palmers say they came up with their curbside model through repeated conversations at the dinner table. Colleen Palmer explains it goes like this: Her husband, Paul, stands outside to direct traffic into numbered spots and to “prevent accidents, all that fun stuff.” Once parked, people read an enormous menu posted on the Palmers’ red barn, and then they call Colleen, who takes the order down inside. Helping her are “expediters” (i.e., high school kids and the Palmers’ two teenage daughters), who swirl and sprinkle the creemees before placing them in a special tray — a sheet of plexiglass with cone-size holes — for car window delivery.
“And we do that again, and again and again,” Palmer says.
The Palmers prefer cash payment, but if someone hands over a card, they’ll get it back only after it’s been dunked in a bucket of bleach water.
At The Village Scoop, drive-through service is not new, but according to co-owner Molly Terrien, this is the first time that operations have been exclusively car-centric. The parking lot now holds a snaking line of cars during business hours — which are currently reduced, Terrien says, since only three or four scoopers can serve customers in the current setup.
This has given way to lines of up to 40 cars, Terrien says, and pleas from customers who ask to walk up to the drive-through stations (they may not).
“With the volume of people that are looking to get ice cream, it’s challenging for us to ensure our own safety,” Terrien says. “I think if we didn’t limit hours, we’d be interacting with hundreds of people every afternoon.”
Palmer Lane Maple also cut down its hours and limited service to five days a week “to accommodate our family’s sanity,” Colleen Palmer says. She adds they’ve been “bombed” — they’re seeing mid-summer numbers of people in early May — and have people driving “from crazy places” an hour or more away, like Bristol, and the Champlain Islands.
Another problem? Their business has been and still appears to be a meeting spot for friends who want to hang out and catch up. And that just doesn’t work nowadays. “We have to kind of shoo them along so we don’t have massive crowds,” Paul Palmer says.
If the idea of a crowd — even a happy creemee crowd — makes you nervous, you’re not alone.
“So far during the COVID-19 response, our Food & Lodging Program has received six complaints from the public regarding concerns about creemee stands or seasonal snack bars,” Ben Truman, the Vermont Department of Health’s public health communication officer, said in an email to VPR.
The department has reviewed the complaints and offered recommendations for “physical distancing for employees and patrons, ways to discourage seating, and what shared resources are available, such as signs,” Truman said.
“If establishments are not able to implement requirements – or the crowds become too difficult to manage – they may decide to stop operating on their own,” Truman said, but noted that so far, the Food & Lodging Program hasn’t required any creemee stands to halt operations.
The harsh impacts of the pandemic may prevent some popular spots from opening in the first place, though. Whippi Dip in Fairlee, for example, has an uncertain future. “We are not sure when we will be able to open this year,” the snackbar reported via Facebook message.
Others still are making preparations to ensure a safe summer.
“It's difficult when people aren't set up with a drive-through or pick-up window,” said Shelburne Sugarworks' Steve Palmer.
Palmer, a cousin of Palmer Lane's Paul Palmer and a champion of hard ice cream, said renovations are currently underway to install windows for curbside cone ordering. (For now, pints to-go are available inside.)
The soothing swirl of a maple creemee is perhaps a little more life-giving than normal these days. But have creemees ever not been a big deal in Vermont? When the Palmer family opened their maple retail business in Jericho in late November of 2012, it only took about a month for someone to ask, in the middle of winter, when they’d have maple creemees for sale.
“Vermonters are usually pretty relaxed,” says The Village Scoop’s Molly Terrien. “They’re not about their creemees.”
Readers of Brave Little State's newsletter also recommend these creemee spots. Double-check the hours before venturing out. Stay safe, and enjoy!