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Just Ice? A cool business story for a very hot Chicago day

July 21,2016 20:10

... makes it for bars, restaurants, special events and walk-up customers at the expanded facility it moved into last year at The Plant, a Back of the Yards former pork-packing facility now aiming to be a net-zero-energy food-business incubator at 1400 ...

I was thinking about making ice, to be perfectly clear, because it's so hot out.Which got me thinking about making ice perfectly clear.
Which led me to Mike Ryan and Rosanna Lloyd's Just Ice, which, since 2013, has been in the business of making ice that's perfectly clear for high-end cocktails here in Chicago.Turns out there's a growing demand for artisanal ice.

Chuckle if you like at the term "artisanal ice," but it's gorgeous stuff. Looks like crystal. Melts slowly. Comes in perfect squares, spears or whatever shape a particular drink, glass or situation might demand.It's cool in every way, and Just Ice makes it for bars, restaurants, special events and walk-up customers at the expanded facility it moved into last year at The Plant, a Back of the Yards former pork-packing facility now aiming to be a net-zero-energy food-business incubator at 1400 W. 46th St."You have to bring your own cooler because we don't sell coolers, but if you take it home and put it in your freezer, it will keep for two months," said Lloyd, Just Ice's president and wife of Ryan, the former Sable mixologist who's director of bars for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.It's not cheap, to be sure. A single 2-inch cube, for example, will run you 50 cents. But it's a far cry from the hotel-ice-machine stuff — "cheater ice" in the parlance — you might be accustomed to seeing dissolve into your drink, whether you're working on a McDonald's Coke or something stronger at an ordinary bar.
"It preserves the integrity of the drink," Ryan explained.Aesthetics aside, the artisan ice dilutes the beverage only slightly while gently cooling it, plus the process that creates it with a special Clinebell machine naturally filters the water, all important factors to cocktail connoisseurs."It's a (bottom-up) unidirectional freeze," Lloyd explained. "We put in circulation pumps, and they circulate the water, which retards the freezing process, first of all. Second of all, it forces all the air bubbles out as it's freezing. Third, because it's freezing more slowly and circulating, that water is a solution of H2O, sediment and minerals and all that other stuff, and water is going to freeze first because solution freezes at a lower temperature than water does."That's going to wash all that sediment out," she said. "So what you get in two or three days is a perfectly clear, large block with about 2 or 3 inches of water on the top that's sediment-heavy and we siphon it off."The big blocks are cut with a band saw, sometimes to specific needs of a particular client. Ryan has dozens of different glassware samples in his office. Creating ice for each often is literally a matter of creating a square that fits a round opening."The cube that Lost Lake uses is slightly different than the cube RPM Steak uses, which is slightly different from the cube that Duck Inn uses," Ryan said."The Capital Grille, for example, uses robust big heavy classic stacking steakhouse glasses that were really designed to be used with cheater ice because they have a beveled interior," he said. "So we had to design another piece of ice that would fit specifically in that glass."Ryan and Lloyd started out with a single Clinebell machine that could produce two 300-pound blocks of ice every two or three days.Now, according to Lloyd, Just Ice has five full-time employees and one part-timer, harvests between 13,000 pounds and 15,000 pounds of ice a week and supplies roughly 100 Chicago-area bars, restaurants and catering companies. On request, the ice can be decorated, flavored or otherwise customized for clients.Ryan, a onetime Moto line cook and sous chef, got into bartending at The Violet Hour, an early adopter of artisan ice it made on the premises. Upon moving to Sable, he found himself buying large blocks of ice intended for ice carvers and prepping it himself."I was cutting in the basement there, which delighted the HR team to no end, coming downstairs and finding me in a hockey mask wielding a chain saw," Ryan said. "But after enough other bartenders coming into Sable and seeing the ice and asking if I could cut ice for them, we figured we'd give this a shot."Lloyd, who attended culinary school with Ryan but left the business to become a bicycle race mechanic, handles logistics while Ryan helps with marketing."We were confident enough to start the business, not confident enough for me to quit my full-time job," said Ryan, who added that figuring out how to run the business and keep growth within their ability to service clients proved the biggest challenge."We originally assumed it would be cocktail bars and speak-easy-type places," Lloyd said. "What happened is it turned out to be a lot of larger steakhouses and chains contacting us."Oddly enough, things could be hotter right now."Our business directly coincides with the restaurant and bar industries," Lloyd said. "July is traditionally a slow month."I don't know. I've never wanted ice more. Clearly.philrosenthal@chicagotribune.comTwitter @phil_rosenthal

Just Ice,artisan ice,hipster bars,Chicago steakhouses,Mike Ryan,Kimpton Hotels,Back of the Yards business,Chicago heatwave,Chicago summer

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