Like son, like mother

Barbara Kessler serves a young customer at the Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream shop in Cross River. Ms. Kessler, a Ridgefield resident of 21 years, opened the shop in July 2012. —Steve Coulter photo

Barbara Kessler serves a young customer at the Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream shop in Cross River. Ms. Kessler, a Ridgefield resident of 21 years, opened the shop in July 2012. —Steve Coulter photo

Barbara Kessler won’t be spending Mother’s Day with her son Josh, but in a way, she already gets to share every day with him.

“Would I like him home? Of course I would, but he’s in Seattle and he’s happy there,” she said. “It’s unfortunate for me that he lives so far away, but, looking on the bright side, I don’t have to buy ice cream anymore.”

Ms. Kessler, a Ridgefield resident of 21 years and Spanish teacher at John Jay Middle School, opened up Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream in Cross River on July 15, 2012 after learning how to make ice cream from her son.

Josh Kessler-Reynolds, a graduate of Ridgefield High School in 2002, has three Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream and Tea Room shops in the Seattle metro area, in addition to a newly opened micro-brewery, where he serves deserts, beer floats and sodas.

In addition, her son’s stores have captured recognition from MSN as being one of the top ten ice cream stores in the nation and has been named the best ice cream in Seattle for 2011 and 2012.

“He didn’t grow up with homemade ice cream, so I don’t know why he did that,” Ms. Kessler admits. “I never made it; I can cook and I can bake, but I never made ice cream. Something must have just told him to do it…

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be making ice cream.”

Josh majored in international affairs at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., while minoring in music and Spanish. Although these fields may seem distant  from the ice cream-making business he’s apart of today, Ms. Kessler said the origins of Bluebird ice cream can be explained through her son’s manifold interests.

“His first love is jazz music,” she admits. “If he had his way, he would make his way playing music.”

In addition to music, she says Josh enjoys mountain climbing, skiing and sailing — an adventurer and thrill seeker at heart.

“He backpacked throughout South America and then the southwestern United States before eventually ending up in Seattle, because he had a large group of friends already living there,” she said.

And when he finally settled in the Emerald City, Mr. Kessler-Reynolds realized the metropolis had a dearth in homemade ice cream.

What began as an innocent hobby of making ice cream with a store-bought Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker morphed into a business with an insatiable demand that continues to grow.

“His friends were his initial tasters and they told him after trying it that he had to sell it,” Ms. Kessler said. “They convinced him it was too good not to sell.”

Mr. Kessler-Reynolds took his friend’s advice and opened the first Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in July 2009. Two months later, his mother was out in Seattle and saw right away why her son hadn’t returned home.

“I’m a New Yorker at heart and I also thought ‘why would anyone want to go west of the Hudson?’ so when Josh said he was moving to Seattle my only reaction was ‘why it rains all the time?’” she said. “When I went out to visit him there, I understood why he never returned home. It’s a gorgeous and very welcoming place with such a diversity of things to do.”

A new-found appreciation for the Pacific Northwest wasn’t the only thing Ms. Kessler came away with from her visit — she swore off buying ice cream ever again after sampling what her son was making.

“I tasted his ice cream and that was the end — I couldn’t buy ice cream anymore, I was hooked,” she said. “It just blew me away.”

After three years of making ice cream across the country, Ms. Kessler, who runs the store in Cross River by herself, figured it was time for her son to return home to the Northeast.

When she suggested opening a store locally, he rejected the idea of leaving Seattle but encouraged his mother to follow her dream.

And that’s when she traveled across the country for a second time.

“I had no idea how to make ice cream and I told him I couldn’t do it alone, but I thought it was such a great idea to open a store here that I went to Seattle so he could teach me,” she said.

After a week-long tutorial in the summer of 2011, she returned home and brought the same machine her son did years before and learned the recipes behind Bluebird’s ice cream-making process.

With previous experience in the kitchen, Ms. Kessler was a quick enough learner to spawn her own, unique ice cream flavors — such as oatmeal cookies and cream, almond macaroon, and salted caramel — and that’s when she realized her dream of owning an ice cream store would soon be a reality.

What sets Bluebird’s ice cream apart from the rest?

She admits the machine she uses allows her to create the densest ice cream you can find, but Ms. Kessler believes her ingredients is what have given Bluebird an edge.

“I will only buy the best that I can find,” she said. “It’s all natural and I won’t put anything into a batch that I wouldn’t feed my own children.”

Similarly, Mr. Kessler-Reynolds only uses all-natural, sustainable, organic ingredients, which cause his flavors to rotate seasonally, depending on availability.

Ms. Kessler said making ice cream isn’t much different from cooking or baking other good such as her homemade brownies and pastries, which she sells at the store.

“You have to taste it as you make it,” she explains. “It’s just like anything you cook or bake.”

So how come Bluebird’s nest isn’t located in Ridgefield?

Too much competition, she says.

“There’s like eight frozen desert shops in Ridgefield, so it was a no brainer not to open up in town” she said. “Plus, I figured my students are here and they are helping spread the word, so there’s definitely a connection to Cross River.”

What’s her preferred flavor?

“The coffee is my favorite flavor and it’s our No. 1 seller both here and in Seattle,” she said. “The reason why it tastes so robust is because I put actual coffee beans in there.”

And not just any coffee beans: She uses some of the best in the United States — beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland.

“Stumptown is extremely selective in who can sell their product — they’re proud of their product and they really care about it,” she said. “They hand pick their clients. If you’re a coffee person, you know immediately after tasting it that this is a great product.”

The company demanded that Ms. Kessler install their espresso machine and a special coffee grinder and they trained her on it before she could use the beans at the store.

Now, she sells both the coffee and the ice cream, with the beans in it.

Salted caramel, a flavor she created, is the second best seller.

While the Bluebird in Cross River prepares for its second year of business and continues to grow, the Bluebird brand in Seattle is also thriving.

“If the people of Seattle would have their way, he would have 10 stores open,” she said. “People are begging him to open stores.”

For now, he has three  and that’s more than enough.

“He is one man delegating a lot of responsibility and that is draining on him,” she said. “It’s within him to lead others.”

Mr. Kessler-Reynolds has always been a leader though. His duties have ranged from program director at Camp Chingachgook on Lake George to captain of the RHS lacrosse team.

“He was never a starter on the team, but he stuck with it and worked incredibly hard and eventually was named captain by his coaches,” she added.

Josh isn’t the only family member making a name for himself though. His younger brother, Ben, is currently working on his Master’s Degree at the University of Cambridge, following his undergraduate studies at Stanford University.

Although both of her sons won’t be home this Sunday, she couldn’t be happier for them.

“I know they can’t come home to visit, because they’re busy,” Mrs. Kessler said. “I am just very proud of both of them.”

As for her store, now that the dream is a reality, she continues to envision what Bluebird can bring to the Ridgefield and Lewisboro communities.

“My dream is to have this be a community place, where parents drop off their kids at school and go over to Bluebird for coffee in the mornings,” she said. “And then have parents drop their kids here after school or sports or play practice to do their homework…

“If that’s going to happen though, I’m going to need some help.”

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