charm city sweet: The Charmery

David Alima + his wife, Laura, are practicing a sweet science in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood by way of their ice cream shop, The Charmery. A year-round destination for ice cream + other treats, The Charmery offers unique, often crazy, flavor combinations to test your palate—all while sourcing ingredients as locally as possible. We chatted with David to learn more about the history of the shop, their fun flavors + what makes Baltimore such a great hub for those in the food service industry.

hg:  tell us a little bit about you + your background—why ice cream?

david:  I grew up in Baltimore + I just love the city. I moved away for a little while, passing through New York, DC + Northern California for about five years with my now wife, Laura. When Laura graduated from college, her sister had given her a little homemade ice cream machine, and she stored it away, as you sometimes do with certain gifts. One day, I pulled it out and started working with a buddy of mine, making ice cream. It was fun, easy and served as a kind of a "base palate" that you can add different flavors to. I just kept playing around, having fun and eventually it got to the point where every time I’d get invited to dinner people would ask if I had made any ice cream for them.

hg:  your ice cream vision took 10 years to come to life, including nationwide research. How did The Charmery ultimately come to life in 2013?

david:  Laura went to Cornell to study Hotel + Restaurant Management—her dream was always to own her own business. We tried to buy a diner, but that didn’t work out. We had gotten so far in the process, I was just like, "You know what? Let’s make ice cream." I’m hearing myself say that and all of my friends were like “Man, you’ve been talking about [ice cream] for ten years.” It’s been my dream for so long. We also traveled internationally, visiting Southeast Asia, where we had some incredible ice cream in Vietnam, sort of a sticky rice ice cream. That remains my "white whale" flavor that I keep trying to make.

Laura is really the influence—she’s so good at putting a business plan together. The hard thing about starting a business is that ultimately you don’t get to focus on the thing that you love. I love making ice cream, and it's because I have Laura that I’m able to focus on it. She’s really the reason why it happened.

hg:  why was Hampden chosen as the home for your scoops? What is it like for an independent business in this neighborhood + Baltimore as a whole?

david:  the first thing I love about Hampden is that it’s all independent business owners + there’s no pettiness, no competition—we're all trying to help one another. It’s really an unique + incredible neighborhood to find in a city where there are so many people working for a common goal.

And Baltimore—I love Baltimore. The thing about the city is…

"…Baltimore loves Baltimore—and Baltimore loves to support people who love Baltimore."

For example, we decided to pursue a guest chef sundae, and we were able to get the most amazing chefs in the city here to work on different flavors. We all support each other.

hg:  how do you support local farmers? What ingredients do you source locally?

david:  it all changes as the seasons change, but I’ve been really lucky to have formed relationships with some great farms. Purple Sol Farm + Two Boots Farm are at the Farmers Market here in Hampden, and they all have suggestions for me. I also visit other farmers' markets as well, always with the goal of sourcing locally. In fact, I just bought a bunch of beautiful watermelons on our way back from Ocean City that we are going to make a sundae with.

Sourcing is also another way the local community supports one another. For example "Opie" Crooks, the chef at Woodberry Kitchen, will send a forager my way if he feels he has something that we can use. We also have people stop by with these strange + unusual local products for me to try.

hg:  with so many flavors to choose from, what are some standout stars, popular customer choices + in-house go-tos?

david:  we have about six flavors that don’t rotate, such as Vanilla, Vanilla with Mud, Malty Vanilla Chip, Mint Mountain, Salty Caramel + Old Bay® Caramel. There’s a list of about maybe 10 to 15 more that we know are well loved + we try to rotate them in and out. Those include a flavor from New Zealand—Hokey Pokey, as well as Berger Cookies n’ Cream, Otterbein® Sugar Cookie + Pistachio Toffee. Every week we try to do at least one or two different flavors—a rotation of new ideas.

As far as favorites—it’s really hard because I love them all. I love our Baklava flavor. We also do a Cantaloupe Ginger that I really love. I enjoy a lot of the fresh fruit flavors. They take much longer to make + I just put so much love into them.

hg:  what is the strangest flavor or combination of flavors you’ve created? Any crazy ideas currently swirling around that you’d like to try out or a dream flavor if you could do anything?

david:  one that I thought was really delicious and fun is our Chicken + Waffles flavor. We got a bunch of chicken from Royal Farms, took off all of the skin + used that to make waffles. Then, we ground those up and added a maple syrup swirl. The beautiful thing is I can try these things, and if they’re good then they’ll sell. That’s what I love about Baltimore, people are always willing to try something new. If the flavor isn't good, it won't sell. For example, we did a cheesesteak flavor for our anniversary—it was "okay." I thought it was fun + really interesting to taste, but it didn’t sell.

We just had our anniversary + we made nine new flavors, which was challenging + fun. We did a fresh corn + parmesan cheese flavor that people really loved. Our Production Manager, Matt, is really great at coming up with ways of how to implement new ideas. We were talking about the Sticky Rice ice cream, and we came up with a saffron rice pudding that's really, really close to what I remember tasting in Vietnam. I’m going to keep working on it, maybe make it into a mango sticky rice flavor now that we have the right taste down.

hg:  do you accept flavor suggestions from your customers? Any wacky ideas which didn’t make the cut?

david:  customers come up to us all the time with suggestions. I love to hear them, especially flavors that they’ve tried + have been searching for in Baltimore. We had some really great customers that have been with us from the beginning ask us to do a Star Wars flavor when Episode VII came out. I thought it was a great idea, but wasn't sure how to do it. I asked them for some advice + they came up with a whole list of ideas. The one that we ended up doing was "Do or Do Nut... There Is No Chai"—a chai tea base with all sorts of nuts in it.

"I love getting inspiration from the customers."

hg:  The Charmery is partnered with a number of great Baltimore food + drink pioneers such as Old Bay®, Berger Cookies® + our friends, Union Craft Brewing. Could you share a bit more on this culinary alliance + their goals within the Baltimore food/drink scene?

david:  I think Union Craft is a great example. They're one year older than us, and I am always so inspired by their ideas. We actually try to sit down about once a month and talk with their founders about the business + ideas we each have. I love working with them because…

"…they kind of want to do the same thing as us—celebrate Baltimore, make delicious products + have a lot of fun."

We just made two flavors for their anniversary that we were giving out for free at their party, which we do every year. I think this type of relationship extends to the entirety of the Baltimore food cuisine. We get chefs that come to us and want to do specialty sundaes. We don’t really do too much wholesale, it’s a lot of in-house stuff or we will go and cater an event there. I just love the food, wine + beverage scene here—it’s so much fun and everyone is so passionate about what they do. We work a lot with Otterbein Bakery, who will call us if they have some specialty cookies we can make ice cream with. All of this is part of what I think makes Baltimore so special.

hg:  how do the colder months affect your business? Do you have reduced hours or adjust your offerings?

david:  when we first started people were telling us that we needed to do soups or sandwiches or something to survive the winter, but that was never the model that we had in mind. I want to be an ice cream shop. We don’t do winter hours; we don’t reduce the amount days. We offer housemade hot chocolate with different flavors of marshmallows that we make in house. It’s definitely a different energy + vibe, but I kind of like it because that’s when we do a lot of the research + development for the rest of the year.

December in Hampden is actually one of the busier months because of the 34th Street light show (all of the houses each year along 34th Street are fully decorated which brings a lot of people in). Sometimes we only get to see certain people once a year + they’re not necessarily coming in for hot chocolate, they’re really coming for ice cream.

Our flavors are so different in the winter too. We do Eggnog, Candy Cane—an entirely different flavor palate. I love being able to have the Pumpkin and Sweet Potato flavors in October + then transition into the Christmas flavors.

hg:  tell us a bit more about the “Ice Cream Socials” that you offer throughout the year. Any other events which you’re planning on hosting or perhaps would like to be a part of one day?

david:  we actually do quite a bit of catering that we call Ice Cream Socials. We use a combination of dry ice + cold press which keeps the ice cream cold pretty much all day. We did ArtScape this year and we do a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs + office parties. We love coming out to different places + making people happy with ice cream. We did an event with Union Craft once—a six course tasting menu where we did beer + ice cream pairings. We also did something on Valentine's Day last year called "Shake Charmery." It was a four course ice cream dinner by reservation only. It was really fun to stretch the imagination of what we do as well. One idea that I've been saying in my head is a movie night—not at the shop, but at a different location—with different snacks based on the ones that come out throughout the actual movie.

hg:  do you see The Charmery expanding beyond the current location?

david:  for right now we’re really happy right here + we want to make sure that this place doesn’t lose what makes it so special. That being said, we always are open to looking + expanding, it just has to be the right location. We don’t want to settle for something that doesn't fit just because we feel like we need to grow.

hg:  how can we keep up on new flavors, events + other Charmery updates?

david:  for flavors we actually have a live "Flavor Cam "on our website. Each day, once we are open, the camera turns on and provides live updates of what flavors are in. That was Laura’s idea—one of my favorites. We change our flavors so often, I couldn’t figure out how to keep people updated on what we offer.

get the latest scoop on The Charmery's flavors + events by following them on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat! Check out today's available flavors on their website via their Flavor Cam, then plan a visit to their Hampden location!

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