Ice cream customers flock to the chicken
When husband and wife team Matt Searles and Sarah McNees opened the doors of Rollup Ice Cream & Tea on Stadium Drive in 2020, it was a daring endeavor at the beginning of the pandemic.
Two years later, the Kalamazoo take on a Thai street food has led the entrepreneurs to open up two more locations and expand the menu beyond dessert.
The ice cream style is unique for Kalamazoo, but the chicken sandwich in particular has drawn people into their shops too. Its popularity – and recipe – has led to a licensing deal with a family of entrepreneurs who are preparing to replicate three Rollup Ice Cream & Tea stores in the St. Louis area.
“Our motto is ‘to spread love and inspire creativity one delicious treat at a time,’” Searles says. “We’re just always trying, you know?”
A seemingly bright future and Searles’ confident, happy demeanor outshine some darker times in the past. A decade ago, he was homeless, an addict, and “wanting not to live anymore,” he says. “I turned to (a 12-step program) and God and worked my tail off.”
Searles discovered rollup ice cream – also called stir-fried ice cream – while on a trip to Tennessee. He returned home to Kalamazoo, taught himself the technique that originated in Thailand, and now serves fresh, decadent desserts presented like works of art.
The Apple Cider Donut Rollup, for example, is a glazed donut half, glistening with caramel drizzle, perched on the expertly rolled frozen custard filled with donut bits and garnished with a dollop of whipped cream. A dusting of cinnamon and a touch of salt on the cakey bite of freshly glazed Pumpkin Iced donut layers in a comfortingly grounded, woodsy base. It’s finished with a jigger of fresh apple cider that gives a Granny Smith wash to the creamy rolls.
The key difference compared to other shops, says Searles, is the freshness of the rolled ice cream. “You don’t know how long it sat, whether it’s out of the machine or you’re buying a gallon from the store. So that whole time it’s been absorbing oxygen. It’s losing a little bit of the flavor, the richness. Making it on the ice grill, it’s made right in front of you.”
It quickly proved to be a popular and lucrative business, but Searles figured it might not span the gap of Michigan’s cold winters. Plus, customers said they wanted a fast food-paced restaurant for meals with flavorful cuisines. So, he turned his focus to adding a menu item that could complement the sweet treats. In 2021, Searles opened a full-service restaurant on Portage Road in Portage, and introduced their signature chicken sandwich. A third was established just five months later, on Gull Road. As the vision expanded, they outgrew the first location which was too small to add a kitchen. So, Searles decided to permanently close the shop on Stadium Drive.
Searles attention to detail shows in his food. Although fashioned after a fast-food concept, he has taken his time developing recipes, perfecting techniques, and sourcing ingredients locally so that everything comes together to create his chicken sandwiches, fries, and sweet treats.
The substantial yet thin-cut, fresh white meat chicken breast is well seasoned in a spicy coating (non-spicy is available too) and flash fried to create a crispy casing on a tender, moist, and flavorful cutlet. It’s served on a toothsome brioche-style bun with fresh veggies and their signature sauce. Additional house-made sauces include a Buffalo Sauce with a pungent vinegar and cayenne punch, and the Root Beer BBQ Sauce for the classic sassafras nose upfront and the smoky sweet tomato finish.
“We get fresh chicken, we tenderize and custom brine it for 24 hours. We make all our own sauces. We create our special breading. Everything’s made to order,” Searles says. “So, I think the key is, you know, we don’t have some big fancy menu. But what that gives us [is] an opportunity to be able to concentrate on a small item and make everything perfect.”
His creativity in the kitchen draws customers from around the Kalamazoo area – people seeking a new favorite meal from an ice cream shop. Searles likes to come up with creative options to add to the menu from time to time, like the Bistro Sandwich which is a chicken cutlet on a bed of house-made caramelized onion bacon jam topped with crisp lettuce, tomato, and mayo. There’s also the Chicken Bacon Donut featuring a glazed donut from Sweetwater’s Donut Mill with Applewood smoked bacon, recently served in recognition of National Donut Day, and the Fresh Cod Sandwich with house tartar sauce for “Fish Fridays.”
The key to the distinct chicken sandwich savoriness is still a secret, sort of. Searles is in the process of sharing it all with a group of four adventurous entrepreneurs from St. Louis. The group found Rollup Ice Cream & Tea through a mutual friend who raved about the place, which prompted a deep dive of the restaurant’s social media pages.
Then, they made the hours-long road trip not once, but three different times.
“We were looking for alternatives to our current business and we initially were going up there to talk just about the ice cream restaurant business,” says Shelli Tribble, one of the foursome. “But when we had his chicken sandwich, it was all we could think of — the chicken was absolutely delicious and we were sold on it.”
This led to a trademark license deal (the business is too young to form a franchise, Searles says). The group’s plan is to open three locations in Missouri that will replicate not only the name and menu, but also the attitude of service that Searles exemplifies.
“He’s changing up things to make sure that people are interested,” says Tribble. “He does twists on the food that he makes, he does something new all the time and you know he’s willing to roll with the changes and he has a magical way of reaching people.”
“You never know what tomorrow brings,” says Searles. “Our goal has always been to create a franchise. I can’t wait to see what Rollup can do in a place like St. Louis. [This] could very well be the start of something huge.”
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