Locally made Mr. E’s Freeze makes big strides in 2 years

Drew Esnard

Mr. E’s Freeze, a locally made frozen dessert, is the product of a partnership between a “big idea” man eager to carry out a nearly 40-year-old ambition and the right “top banana” to bring it all to life.

The dessert is a non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free and soy-free “sort-of ice cream” made primarily with frozen bananas and coconut milk.

Pints of Mr. E’s Freeze have found their way into nearly every freezer aisle in the Santa Ynez Valley and most specialty grocers in Santa Barbara.

After less than two years in business, the non-dairy “ice cream” company was recognized last month by Food Business News as one of the “six standout start-ups” at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco show.

Long-time Santa Ynez Valley resident Eldon Shiffman is the Mr. E behind the frozen treat’s mysterious name.

While attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the late ’70s, Shiffman and his college friends regularly used a juice machine to make small batches of soft banana ice cream.

“Wanted to make a big batch so we’d be able to store it,” Shiffman said. “We tried a few times but were unsuccessful. I’ve always wanted to find a way to make it work.”

Enter Nicole Kiel. Kiel met Shiffman when she began working with his wife, Karen, at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust right out of college.

“She was my boss, then became my mentor and friend. The both of them, they’re like family,” Kiel said.

A resilient optimist with a buoyant personality and a knack for coming up with fun banana puns, Kiel was aptly suited to help Shiffman develop and launch the business.

Not much impressed by other dairy-free ice creams on the market — she considers many of them “too icy” — Kiel was initially a bit skeptical of Shiffman’s notion that together they could create and market a better alternative. However, a single taste of Shiffman’s original college recipe caused Kiel to have a change of heart:

“Once I tried it, I was like, ‘You’re right, this is really creamy!’”

Kiel then went to work perfecting Shiffman’s recipe through the age-old process of trial and error, adjusting one ingredient at a time. Within about three months, she and Shiffman had developed three flavors — chocolate, strawberry, and original. In November, the added a fourth flavor, Goodland Chai Spice.

“Nicole was able to perfect the process,” Shiffman said.

Kiel, now designated Top Banana, made the first batches of Mr. E’s Freeze in a kitchen on Industrial Way in Buellton, and the two co-founders officially debuted their frozen treat in 2015 at Buellton’s Earth Day Celebration.

Sampling their product to the public in grocery stores and at public events has enabled Kiel to convert banana haters — they exist; Google it if you must — into fans of the banana-based dessert.

“The banana can be polarizing because a lot of people don’t like bananas, so we try to get out there and have people taste it.”

While the two co-founders considered finding a manufacturer to make their product, they ultimately decided otherwise,

“Most of the manufacturers want you to have bags of chemicals, flavored powders, and liquid that they can just throw in and push a button,” Kiel said. “I just couldn’t make it like that.”

Instead, they moved the production operation to a kitchen in downtown Santa Barbara, closer to home for Kiel.

“This whole process has been about learning by doing and doing things organically. I took a lot of meetings with people that told me I was crazy,” Kiel said, “but the enthusiasm people have when they first try it keeps me going. My motivating factor for pretty much everything in life has been: If other people can do it, why not me?” she said.

To contact Mr. E’s Freeze, email Sales@MrEsFreeze.com or call 805-364-2367. For a list of stores carrying their products, visit www.mresfreeze.com.