The Sweet Life Starts at Sugar Hill Creamery

Ice cream from Sugar Hill Creamery.

On Malcolm X Boulevard in the heart of Harlem, children hold their parents hand in one hand, and use the other to juggle a cone topped with dripping ice cream; lines form around buckets of ice cream; and New Yorkers walk — sunglasses on, smiles out —taking a lick of creamy, velvety scoops of goodness. At Sugar Hill Creamery, ice cream is just the beginning of a cool, sweet, and blissful dessert journey.

Owned by couple Petrushka Bazin Larsen and Nick Larsen, since 2017, Sugar Hill Creamery has delighted New Yorkers and tourists with it’s charming roots, irresistible flavors, and comedic flavor names. For Petrushka, it’s original location on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, a historically Black neighborhood in New York City, has served as a source of sweetness, sure, but also as an example of the culture and creativity that exists in the storied area.

Petrushka and Nick posing for a photo in front of Sugar Hill Creamery.
The interior of Sugar Hill Creamery.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

“We really wanted to bring something special to an area we really love,” said Petrushka. 

Petrushka and Nick may not have started in the ice cream business, but their love of the classic dessert dates back to both of their upbringings. For Petrushka, memories of her mom taking her across the Calvert Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., more formally known as the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, to enter the nearby Baskin Robbins, got the ball rolling. The bubblegum flavor, and the mother-daughter quality time, is what kept them coming back.

“It was like having a mommy-daughter date,” Petrushka recalls. “She would let me get two scoops — sometimes she really let live! And I would get a bubblegum flavor that had gum inside. So I would eat the ice cream. And then, you know, save the gum to the end. They also had a Daiquiri ice cream flavor that I loved so much. Those are my earliest memories of just being able to spend one-on-one time with my mom and then get this treat sometimes. Sometimes she would let me have it before dinner. Really. She was fun,” Petrushka recalls, laughing.

A person holding an ice cream cone.
Customers waiting outside of Sugar Hill Creamery.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

Nick, who grew up in a rural, farmland area in Iowa, has memories of a Schwan’s truck coming by weekly to bring groceries, as well as large tubs of sherbet to the area. The tubs of sherbet from Nick’s upbringing and the Baskin Robbin memories from Petrushka’s has laid the foundation for Sugar Hill’s ice cream flavors, which are rooted in life experiences, and a general respect for the craft.

“Ice cream is awesome, it’s something so many people love,” said Petrushka. “Why not celebrate that?” 

The duo’s varying professional backgrounds connected through their love and appreciation for the frozen treat. Petrushka came from a background in nonprofit work and arts management, with a career that includes roles at the vice president of programming and education at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and an educator at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Nick, on the other hand has a background in hospitality. The co-owner worked in restaurants in front-of-house roles, and as a general manager. He wanted to open his own restaurant, and with the support of Petrushka, enrolled at The International Culinary Center (ICC), formerly The French Culinary Institute (FCI) in SoHo. Though he went with the intention of opening a restaurant, after meeting friends and gaining more experience, the goal changed. The couple lived in Harlem already, and realized that there wasn’t a place with good, homemade ice cream.

“Sometimes in life, we are not pushed to vision, because we can get stuck in the monotony of life,” said Petrushka. “And we’re surviving and doing things that are interesting, but maybe not pushing ourselves. And so this was like one of those moments where we were forced to do that visioning.”

Sprinkles being sprinkled on top of ice cream.
A person pressing on an ice cream sandwich.
A person placing ice cream cake into a box.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

“And so this was like one of those moments where we were forced to do that visioning.”

Recognizing the need for an original ice cream shop in Harlem, there were cost benefits, too. Since they didn’t have to build out a full kitchen, an ice cream shop cost less to construct and operate. With the local need for the treat, and the professional possibilities, the shop felt like a no brainer.

“It seemed like it could be a good situation, and literally that is how the staff was conceived because there was a need,” said Petrushka.

Petrushka knew the local needs well. Though was born in D.C., she was raised in NYC, and spent most of her adulthood in Harlem and even lived in Sugar Hill, a historic neighborhood in Harlem for which the ice cream shop is named. Opening the shop in a neighborhood that’s meant so much in her life is a professional dream come true. She and Nick, parents of three kids, have raised their family in the neighborhood, and have come to have a deep connection with the community while navigating the ever-changing world of being business-owning parents.

“I always jokingly say that when you have your first child or your first store, you’re exerting as much energy as possible into their lives or into that shop,” said Nick. “And then when you have two or three children or two or three stores, you’re just dividing it. You don’t have more energy, essentially, they’re just getting less attention,” Nick continued jokingly. “Every day, I just try to get through the day.”

Ice cream from Sugar Hill Creamery.
Petrushka and Nick posing for a photo with their family.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

For Petrushka, juggling parenting and work is an ongoing journey, full of joy and expectations.

“We started this journey for some autonomy and for the ability to dictate how we want to how we want to spend our days,” Petrushka continued. “But now that we decided to do that, like there are demands upon us, obviously, to deliver at a certain frequency level every day, which is an honor, but at the same time, I think we’re still learning how to strike the right balance of both.”

The duo have managed to strike a great balance, resulting in well-made ice cream. Four staple flavors remain on the menu, starting with fan favorite blueberry cheesecake, which came about through early recipe testing during the first days of the creamery.

“I’m not a blueberry cheesecake person,” said Petrushka. “But apparently a lot of people were waiting for that flavor. They were very excited about it, and I did not realize that they were going to be so excited about it, and it has been on the menu ever since because it’s delicious.”

Salted caramel, which includes butterscotch pieces and brownie pieces, is another staple and favorite, along with vanilla, and chocolate sorbet. While these four flavors remain at the store all of the time, seasonal flavors like Tuma Buma—an icy meld of Ethiopian coffee, ginger, turmeric, and honey—and First Day Out—a creative and refreshing mix of roasted corn, jalapeño, and blackberry hibiscus, continue to also draw crowds. Much of the area-love for the ice cream boils down to their commitment to handmade dessert.

“There is a difference in quality between something that can be made at that scale versus something that’s being made in small batches,” said Petrushka.

A photo of Petrushka and Nick and their family.
Two scoops of ice cream on an ice cream cone.
Petrushka and Nick posing for a photo.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

“There is a difference in quality between something that can be made at that scale versus something that's being made in small batches.”

Since opening in 2017, Sugar Hill Creamery’s popularity has expanded so much, they’ve now opened multiple locations, including one in Upper Harlem and in Brooklyn’s Dumbo. In Harlem, they’ve become deeply integrated in the community, from hosting doggy socials with a nearby pet shop, and collaborating with local chef Rasheeda Purdie on global ice cream flavors. As their popularity has grown, so too has their outreach. They now ship nationwide via Goldbelly, and they turned their beloved blueberry cheesecake flavor into an ice cream cheesecake with a five-graham cracker crust. Experimentation and creativity is at an all time high. They offer non-dairy flavors that are crafted from coconut cream. Flavors like the roots, a sorbet of fruits and vegetables, and upcoming fall flavors like sweet potato pie and apple cider sorbet highlight the variety that exists within all locations.

“All of our flavor names have multiple layers of comedy, and a lot of our flavors are from this spontaneity,” said Petrushka.

The couple are indeed busy, but they’ve trained their staff at all locations, evident in what appears to be a well-oiled machine. For them, having a trusted staff is core to the business

“We’ve grown to where we don’t micromanage,” said Nick. “They [the staff] can manage because we feel like we trust them more now than we did early on when we were at the store all the time. And now they’re at a point where they don’t need us; we trust them all the time. These guys have really stepped up and it’s a really great thing to see.”

A sundae from Sugar Hill Creamery.
Chocolate syrup poured on top of ice cream.

Photos by Sugar Hill Creamery

The mutual respect between the owners and their staff has taken time to develop, and can also likely be traced to the importance of Sugar Hill Creamery in modern Harlem.

The neighborhood continues to maintain deep ties to its glorious past, and is eager to welcome people and businesses eager to continue that legacy. Thomforde’s ice cream parlor, open from 1903 to 1983 on Harlem’s historic 125th street, dug into the significant cultural, homegrown roots that helped make Harlem such a cherished neighborhood. Petrushka, who is Haitian-American, contributes to the family- and Black-owned roots that have been deeply important to the local community.

“You just love Harlem,” Petrushka said of the neighborhood. “And the love of Blackness, it shows up in businesses like this.”

For the duo, having a business that started close to home was plenty, but the joy of bringing ice cream to other parts of the city and nature is still fresh and exciting. If and where a new location might appear and what’s new for the business varies, but for Petrushka, the hope is that, much like the joy of ice cream, it will last forever.

“I hope that we are a mainstay in our community for decades to come.”