If you’re a regular at Me & Ben’s Dairy Crème, the Thomases probably know your order before you step up to the counter. Hospitality runs deep in the Downeast family whose seasonal stand is nestled in the fishing village of Birch Harbor.
Nicole Thomas, who grew up in this neighborhood of Gouldsboro about 22 miles east of Ellsworth, began serving ice cream to go when she was 12. Her childhood venture since has been turned over to her 16-year-old son and daughter Ben and Elizabeth. Other family members occasionally help out too.
Nicole’s father, Albert Chipman, a retired lobster fisherman, attended the former one-room schoolhouse next door. He and his wife later purchased the red clapboard building and converted it into a gift shop, selling souvenirs and lobster to tourists. They set Nicole up with her own stand, too. At the time, she called it Nicole’s Dairy Crème.
In 2002, Nicole gave birth to triplets — Elizabeth, Ben and their brother Elijah, who has medical difficulties. The old schoolhouse became their home. Her hands full, Nicole had to step away from running the takeout. But the family didn’t stay away for too long. At age 9, Elizabeth and Ben began selling lemonade and brownies by the roadside. The enterprise evolved into a hot dog cart, and the pair eventually reopened their mother’s ice cream shop.
For Ben and Elizabeth, their shared enterprise is a nice way to meet both tourists and locals.
“We’re home-schooled, so for us we can meet other people and get to know them,” Elizabeth said.
While the triplets receive a more typical education the rest of the year — the ice cream stand is only open from May to September — running a business is a lesson of its own.
“You can’t learn all this in a book,” Nicole said. “It was the best schooling I could have ever had.”
Elizabeth typically fills the ice cream orders, while Ben handles the front window and the money. The trio concoct their own flavors of soft serve — such as espresso and blueberry — with Nicole juicing the fruit herself. Their hard ice cream is Gifford’s, a Maine classic.
“We’ve got to have that, the tourists love Gifford’s,” Ben said.
While the Thomases have lived in Birch Harbor for generations, their customers are largely tourists.
Over the last few decades, Nicole has seen tourism grow in the Downeast region. When she opened the ice cream stand in the 1980s, she and her father could manage the demand by themselves. These days, she summons her husband, Bill, who works from home, when orders pile up and three people aren’t enough.
“It takes all four of us,” Nicole said. “And I’ve done this my whole life, so to need that much help — it’s a lot busier than it used to be.”
The Thomases also have introduced new menu items to suit a changing clientele. Veggie dogs are a recent addition, and plans are afoot to roll out a line of fresh fruit smoothies. At the same time, they hold on to some parts of the past, still serving up chili dogs made with Albert’s original recipe.
In case any tourists lose track of which state they are in, red snappers — a red hot dog named for the quintessential snapping sound it makes when you bite into it — also are on the menu. They’re a Maine tradition served with baked beans and at basketball tournaments and other community events.
“This is the thing, all through the years I’ve never sold the brown ones, I’ve only sold the red ones,” Nicole said. “And people get a little frustrated and angry sometimes, but I’m like, ‘Just give it a try. Give it a try.’ And they do, and then they don’t want any brown ones, they want the red ones. I’m a stubborn Mainer. I keep the red ones.”
The stand’s unique name references a phrase that Nicole has heard often from two of her children.
“Out of the triplets, Elijah is always the sick one, Elizabeth is the girl, so Ben kind of took the older child role so it’s always ‘Me and Ben,’” she said.
When it comes to future plans, Ben hopes to expand the business, perhaps into a restaurant, although his mother is less sure. Either way, one thing can be counted on: the Thomases will keep scooping up ice cream with a smile.
Me & Ben’s Dairy Crème is located at 462 Main St. in Birch Harbor. Tel: 963-7752.