Interview with Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream owner Cheryl Robdau
Picture the scene. You are in Mystic on a beautiful summer’s day. After a few hours perusing the charming independent shops and admiring the stunning views of the Mystic River, you decide you need a refreshing treat to cool down. That’s where Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream steps in. This award-winning ice cream store has been selling delicious homemade ice cream on the same premises since the 1800s. In 1992, Mystic Drawbridge came under the ownership of Cheryl Robdau and since Cheryl took over the store has gone from strength to strength. Mystic Drawbridge has since developed a reputation which transcends the town: visitors flock from far and wide to sample the delicious frozen treats. Nowadays, barely a day goes by in the summer months when Mystic Drawbridge’s entrance isn’t surrounded by a crowd enjoying ice cream and watching the boats go by.
Cheryl Robdau has been at the helm of Mystic Drawbridge for twenty-two years and she explains that in that time the store has undergone several changes and expansions, whilst always upholding its reputation for selling delicious fresh ice cream, frozen yogurt and sorbet. In a coastal community, there are always going to be competitors, but Mystic Drawbridge has withstood the test of time. “When we first opened Mystic Drawbridge, there were two other ice cream stores on West Main Street at the time, Bebee Dairy and Kane’s Fudge Dock,” Cheryl tells me “Another ice cream shop was also opening that season, The Mystic Sweets and Ice Cream Shoppe, who are across the street and have been our friendly competition for over twenty years.”
Over the years, Mystic Drawbridge has expanded, changed and grown into the wildly successful and much loved store it is today. Mystic Drawbridge’s legendary ice cream is homemade and Cheryl explains that, following the store’s first year of operation, it soon became apparent the store needed to expand to accommodate making the ice cream. “After our first year we needed more space, so we opened a shop in Ledyard that gave us a lot of room to make the ice cream. A year later we expanded again, buying two shops: one in Stonington at the Carrousel Fun Center and on the other in Groton in front of the Groton Cinemas. We also opened a shop for one summer on Bridge Street in Groton. All in all we were running five shops.” These stores were all successful, but Cheryl explains she soon realized Mystic Drawbridge’s true home was its original one. She began to see the benefit on simply concentrating on making the Mystic store the best it could be. “We scaled back and operated just two stores for a number of years,” she says, “Now we only operate the Downtown Store, which is great. Five years ago we doubled our size at our current location. This enabled us to offer thirty signature sandwiches, paninis and wraps, five salads, two soups and an assortment of homemade pastries. Everything served in our Cafe is made from scratch from our own recipes right in our own kitchen.”
The cornerstone of Mystic Drawbridge’s success is the quality and the flavor of its ice cream. The store sells all the old favorites, but is also renowned for exciting and original flavors. One of the store’s first original flavors was Mystic Mud, which remains a bestseller today. “The original idea behind Mystic Mud was to make a rich chocolate base and then add what ever cookies or brownies we had left at the end of the day,” Cheryl says of the flavor, “Sometimes we would add cake, candy, caramel sauce, fudge sauce, you name it! Rarely were two batches exactly alike. Today it is still one of best sellers. Over the years there have been other flavors that have risen to prominence. Currently our Seaport Salty Swirl is number one and has been for two seasons now.”
I am keen to hear from Cheryl how she goes about choosing which ice cream flavors to showcase in her store. Cheryl has a chef background which she says is always influential, but she tells me she is also influenced by fellow ice cream sellers, cocktail mixologists and suggestions by customers. “As a trained chef with a love for food and travel, I always am on the lookout for new flavor combinations,” Cheryl explains to me, “I visit every homemade ice cream shop I stumble upon and exchange ideas with the owners.” Cheryl also gets ideas from other food preparations and has found herself inspired by cocktail drinks by master mixologists. Mystic Drawbridge’s flavors are also consistently influenced by what is in season. “Seasonal produce often sparks a new flavor idea,” says Cheryl, “Equally I am always influenced by loyal visitors and new visitors to the store alike. They all offer great suggestions on what we should try.” There is an inherent sense of creativity in all food production, but equally there is an element of chance. “I must admit sometimes we just make a mistake and a new concoction is discovered accidentally!” Cheryl laughs. “Our Island Coconut Coffee Flavor is a good example of that.”
Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream has one of the best locations in Mystic. The store is situated right next to the famous 1920s drawbridge, which from May to October opens at forty minutes past the hour to let boats, big and small, pass through. When the drawbridge rises, pedestrian visitors to Mystic must wait on either side and have the opportunity to admire this impressive feat of engineering and have a great view of the ships that pass through. “I’m an avid sailor,” Cheryl says, “I sailed across the Pacific and I have a love of the water and all boats, especially classic sail boats. I love the fact our store is located right on the river: watching everything from tall ships to paddle boards cruising up and down the river makes the long hours tolerable. I dream and await the day when my life slows a bit and I can again enjoy time on the water.”
Mystic Drawbridge gained international attention in the press and tabloids last year when Grammy award-winning singer Taylor Swift and her actress-singer friend Selena Gomez ate ice cream at the store and celebrated the start of summer 2013. Cheryl explains that due to Mystic Drawbridge’s prime location and the reputation it has established, the store attracts high profile guests, as well asvisitors from far and wide.
“We get a good number of celebrities that visit the store. We are close to NYC and of course this region has the two casinos that book national acts. We offer these visitors a private seating area at the back of the store so they can enjoy the ice cream without too much attention, however perhaps our most interesting visitors are visitors from other countries. We often get visitors from Europe or Asia who were told by friends that when they visit the US they have to pay us a visit. We used to have a signing book where foreign visitors could find entries from someone from their home town and they would respond back and forth over the years.”
Mystic Drawbridge is a Mystic institution. Its historic building, delicious ice cream and amazing riverside setting make it one of downtown Mystic’s must-visit attractions. I am keen to ask Cheryl what her favourite part of the town is and her answer is telling. Once again we are talking about the famous Mystic Drawbridge. “My favorite part of Mystic is the drawbridge outside our store,” she smiles, “The iconic bascule bridge excites all our visitors when she blows her whistle and the huge concrete ballasts start to descend. Then we all witness the glory of numerous ships of all sizes squeezing thru the opening. Another loud blast of the whistle to startle everyone and elicit a nervous laugh. I never tire of that. I love our location.” Here’s hoping that Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream will remain in its amazing location for many years to come.
Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream is located at 2 West Main Street in Mystic, Connecticut
Summer Hours 10:00am-11:00pm (Daily)
Winter Hours 10:00am-9:00pm (Sunday-Thursday) 10:00am-10:00pm (Friday and Saturday)