Michael “Mikey” Cole
Courtesy of Mikey Likes It

The East Village neighborhood in New York City is chock-full of small bars and nightclubs that are destinations for people from far and wide, so it’s never a surprise to see a crowd spilling onto the sidewalk.

Yet, the crowd at Mikey Likes It isn’t there for alcoholic beverages or the scene. They’re there for ice cream. Michael Cole, aka Mikey, is making some of the most-in-demand ice cream, even in an era when independent, artisanal ice cream parlors are all the rage.

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Cole has won over the skeptics—it’s New York City, so everyone is a skeptic—with flavors like Pretty in Pink, a strawberry ice cream with fresh strawberries, balsamic vinegar and just a hint of pepper. His Mint Condition is mint ice cream with chunks of triple-chocolate brownies and his Cool Running is coconut ice cream with shavings of dark chocolate and roasted almonds. One of Cole’s biggest innovations is his waffle ice cream sandwiches, which pack a big helping of ice cream between two waffles made from scratch. 

His ice cream is sold well beyond his cozy little shop; for instance, his D’Usse de Leche—a spin on dolce de leche and made with the Jay Z-endorsed D’Usse cognac—is sold at Jay Z’s 40/40 sports bar in Manhattan.

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“If Ben and Jerry grew up in the Lower East Side when I did, this is what they’d be doing,” Cole says, reclining in his chair at a biscuit-sandwich place across the street from his parlor.

Yes, Cole, who is 36, really is from around the way. And his shop reflects that he came of age during hip-hop’s golden era—the store is filled with clocks festooned with faces of old-school R&B and hip-hop stars and his ice cream flavors have names that will take you back.

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He grew up just down the street from his current business, and he has had both legal and illegal businesses before becoming one of New York’s fastest up-and-coming ice cream makers, putting his shop in the same company as Big Gay Ice Cream and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.

He was a partner in a sneaker store called Sole Food. Before that, he was one of the neighborhood weed dealers, but an arrest and six months’ incarceration for possession of marijuana with intent to sell, changed his mind about that pursuit. Also a few years ago, when his mother was gravely ill, she asked him to promise not to get locked up again. Cole took her dying wish to heart.

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Cole is a charming man with a youthful enthusiasm and a passion for telling stories. His love of ice cream began when he was in high school and he worked at a pizza parlor that sold pints of Ben & Jerry’s, but his notion of becoming a producer has family roots.

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His aunt Lucy, who lived nearby, played a big role in his life. For instance, they baked together and even produced a pineapple upside-down cake that won Cole an award in high school. After she passed away, Cole was cleaning out her apartment; he found her cookbooks and stopped to peruse them. When he came upon a box with a collection of her recipes, one for vanilla ice cream fell out.

He rushed home and made it immediately.

“I didn’t have an ice cream maker or anything. I just felt I had to do it,” he says. He liked the flavor, though he felt the texture was off. He bought some ice-cream-making equipment and began experimenting. “It was my way of staying close to her,” he says of his aunt.

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Her recipe for vanilla ice cream ultimately became the template for his Ice Ice Baby. He found his aesthetic via the Notorious B.I.G. tune “Sky’s the Limit.” Biggie makes reference to milk chocolate, cookies and butter crunch in the lyrics, all of which became part of Cole’s ice cream of the same name.

Eager to start a business, Cole entered a contest sponsored by Defy Ventures, an organization that helps ex-cons develop entrepreneurial skills.

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“If you can run an illegal business,” Cole says, “you might have the skills to run a legal one too.” Through contacts he made at Defy, he was able to meet with Jay Z, and Cole was able to raise money to get his cozy space on Avenue A and get his business going.

He also credits Landmark Forums with giving him the psychological means to overcome doubt and negativity as he nurtured his plans. “They teach you to just get in the game and play,” he says.

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Cole opened Mikey’s in May 2014, and since then it’s become a magnet for those both in and out of the community. People have spotted NBA player Wilson Chandler and R&B singer Estelle in the shop, Cole says. Executives from Google, Reebok, Adidas and many other prominent companies have visited both for ice cream and to pursue networking possibilities.

As Cole talks, he’s frequently interrupted by cellphone calls from employees seeking guidance on the logistics on a backstage concession he’s setting up for acts at the Governors Ball, a three-day concert on Randall’s Island.

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Finally, he pushes his phone over to an associate to field the calls and begins musing about future flavors, perhaps involving Ciroc vodka or Moët & Chandon champagne.

Then he says, as a big smile spreads across his face, “I’m just taking what I was given, the music and the culture, and I’m turning it into ice cream.”

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter