Hop on the rug with us — and get to know how ice-creamery owner and mom of three Petrushka Bazin Larsen lives life well.
Ask Petrushka Bazin Larsen the secret to making good ice cream and she’ll tell you without skipping a beat. “Love!” she grins, sitting outside her ice cream shop in Harlem. “I’m just joking,” she follows up. “But if you don’t like making ice cream, you’re not going to be good at it.”
It’s the simple truth. Larsen and her husband, Nick, know how to make good ice cream because they like — no, love — making good ice cream. The kind that makes you want to eat it even on a freezing cold day in the middle of winter. The couple opened Sugar Hill Creamery in Harlem in 2017, and this year, started scooping at another store just a few blocks away, and also opened an outpost in Brooklyn.
“It’s about good ingredients,” says Larsen. “We make small batch ice cream, and we use milk from Hudson Valley Farms. Good ingredients, good, whole ingredients.” They also make sure the ice cream is not too sweet, so that you can actually taste the flavors they create — whether it’s the blueberry cheesecake of their most much-loved offering, ‘Chairperson of the Board,’ or the croissant and guava sauce of their ‘Don Cartegena.’ “It's intentionally designed, and we don't mask the flavor with sugar. So I think that's probably also a really important part,” says Larsen.
As an entrepreneur, Larsen has always been intentional in her hopes for the ice cream shop. While it may look like a mom-and-pop store, with its cute blue trimmings and hand-drawn portraits on the wall, Sugar Hill Creamery was always meant to be a big idea. Even though Larsen didn’t start out in the food industry. Nor did her husband, who originally moved to New York to become a comedian.
From art to artisan
Larsen, who was born in Harlem but moved to Long Island soon after and returned later for college, studied photography and curatorial studies. Drawn to using art to connect communities, she started working at the Laundromat Project, a non-profit that brings people together through art-making and culture, and became vice president for programs and education at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. It was while there that the idea for the ice creamery started to take shape.
“I say the business is like a 13-year-project of market study,” she chuckles. “Because I was a neighbor here first, and then I was somebody who worked in the neighborhood. And as a result of me working at Studio Museum, I was able to work in a lot of public schools in the community, and so I got to know how things work and I got to know a lot of people.” She and her husband wanted to add to the vibrancy of the area where they lived. Together, they’d made a home out of the apartment she moved into after graduating from college, on St Nicholas Ave and 148th Street, right in the heart of the historic Sugar Hill district. “For me, as a Black woman, Harlem was always a place that felt like home. It was a place I saw myself, on the street – people like me, people not like me — but still a very comfortable place.”
She and Nick found an old beauty salon in the Mount Morris Park District of Harlem and opened the first store 4 years ago. It became a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and the couple set about looking towards the Sugar Hill area, the place that was the store’s namesake. “It is a neighborhood that has always been a symbol of success, and during the Harlem Renaissance there are a lot of artists that were living in this area,” says Larsen. “We have sort of tapped into that symbolism within our business because for us, it represents us taking charge of our time, and building something for us, for our family, for our community. And but we wanted to connect that history, that significance of what Sugar Hill represented for Black communities.”
A museum of ice cream (but not that one)
“I think of the ice cream shop as a museum of ice cream, but not that Museum of Ice Cream,” she says, referring to the franchise tourist attraction. “The art is what we're making, and we make all of our ice cream from scratch here in Harlem. Nick creates all the flavors. One of our most popular flavors is salted caramel with brownie pieces and butterscotch pieces. It's called Harlem Sweeties, inspired by [the late former Harlem resident and poet] Langston Hughes’s poem, Harlem Sweeties.” Other flavors nod to Larsen’s Haitian roots, Nick’s Midwestern background, and the diverse Caribbean, West African and Puerto Rican populations of Harlem.
And while people may come for the ice cream flavors, they stay for the community. Because Larsen has always been interested in how art can be a catalyst for conversation and learning from each other, she wanted their shop to be a place people would linger. “You come for the art, which is the ice cream, and then what conversations, what public programs can we have, to learn about each other?” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they hosted a number of in-person programs. “Probably my favorite one was our ice cream social series, which was free, you didn’t have to buy ice cream, and you could sit at the table, and we invited people to have conversations about topics they were passionate about.”
Larsen has still continued these programs, albeit in different forms and to a lesser degree, during the pandemic. Sugar Hill Creamery itself grew, and the second store they’d been working on, opened on Halloween of 2020, in Hamilton Heights, just blocks from Sugar Hill. Soon after, they were offered a stall in Dumbo at the Time Out Market. Larsen’s not quite sure how they managed it, but they did. “I think like with anything, you just look right in front of you. You can't look too far ahead, or else you'll get really overwhelmed. And then you'll break down; your thoughts will break you down. But we just took every day, that day.”
It’s part of her greater philosophy on life and how to live it. “Take it day by day, set a goal, and work towards the goal, chip away a little bit everyday. Consistent, imperfect action always yields results. So, don't get down if the day didn't go exactly right. You’ve got tomorrow, keep going.”
There is, however, one thing she needs to keep the ice cream, and the love that is infused into it, going. "Sleep! I do try to get six to eight hours, ideally. I think sleep is the most important thing. This is when we restore, this is when we have time to recharge our ideas. If there's anything I learned from having babies, it’s that you're at your worst when you are under-rested. It's important to have that practice.”
Perhaps that's one more essential ingredient for making good ice cream.