Churnin’ Love: Kevin Barnes says his 1,000-pound Emory Thompson ice cream machine is worth its weight in cold

When Lucia and Kevin Barnes bought 5-year-old Ultimate Ice Cream in November 2005, Kevin’s most pressing priority was to learn to make ice cream. The next was to learn how to run a business. They had no experience in either.

“We were social workers,” Kevin explains. “I cooked and I had a good palate, but I had never made ice cream or owned a business. I firmly believe everything is doable; just do it.”

Buying into the frozen treat business just as cold weather was setting in was a blessing in disguise, he says. “It was good to have that time for a learning curve, but we didn’t make any money until the next spring. By then we were as ready as we could be.”

During their first week of ownership, Barnes spent every night in the back of the original shop at 1070 Tunnel Road learning from founder Ron Levitan how to operate the 2½ -gallon Emery Thompson ice cream machine that churned out all the products.  At the time, most of what was made was sold on site, though The Market Place restaurant, then owned by chef Mark Rosenstein, was one of Ultimate’s existing wholesale accounts. “For me to be a newbie in the business and be able to talk with the pastry chef of that iconic Asheville restaurant about which of our ice creams paired best with their desserts was one of those career moments,” says Barnes. “I felt like I could make a go of it.”

The store also had a small walk-in freezer and walk-in cooler that Barnes packed to capacity with ice cream to supply that shop and the one he and Lucia opened on Charlotte Street the following year. “At that time, we said yes to everything – every festival, every event,” he remembers. “We wanted to get our name out there.”

Barnes knew that in order to grow the wholesale side of Ultimate he needed to expand production space, so 12 years ago he bought a 6,500-square-foot industrial building in East Asheville. With all that room to stretch out, he invested in what he calls “the Cadillac” of ice cream makers — a 5-gallon Emery Thompson. “It cost $38,000 and weighs 1,000 pounds, so it sits where we put it 12 years ago and hasn’t moved since,” he says. “It was an endeavor to get it into that space. We’re ice cream makers, not engineers!”

The machine itself, he purports, is fairly simple. “It’s the same technology as the hand-crank on your grandmother’s front porch,” he explains. “It just moves a lot faster.” About 14 minutes after he puts in 5 gallons of milk — sourced from local small dairy farms — and whatever else he needs for the flavor he is making, he has about 9 gallons of Ultimate Ice Cream.

In ice cream-ese, Barnes explains, “The faster you make ice cream, the smaller the ice crystals and the finer the mouthfeel. You put a little air into it because that improves the mouthfeel as well and makes it scoopable.”

Though their classic mainstays like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookie dough, coffee and mint chip — “the basics,” he calls them — sell the most, many fans find the goat cheese and Bing cherry flavor offers the Ultimate mouthfeel and flavor. “It’s not on the everyday shop menu,” Barnes says. “But when it rotates in, it gets scooped right up.”

He created the confection after reading an article about a goat cheese and Bing cherry dessert that he thought sounded like a great combination. “I went and bought stuff and fiddled with it until I got it to the point where I thought I could do something with it, and it really took off,” he says.

On a recent midsummer morning, Barnes watched 100 cases of half-pints of Ultimate Ice Cream take off on a truck bound for long-time wholesale account Mountain Valley Farm in Ellijay, Georgia. “There are 48 half-pints in each case, and of the nine flavors in that 100-case order, 30 cases were goat cheese and Bing cherry,” he says. “It’s done well for us.”

For more about Ultimate Ice Cream, visit

Written by Kay West
Photos: Ultimate Ice Cream and Lucia Barnes