Walter Giera: Ice Cream Connoiseur
When Walter Giera and his wife, Nancy, of the Annapolis area, traveled, they didn't take pictures of themselves in front of beautiful mountaintops or historic statues - they took pictures of themselves in front of ice cream stores.
"We've been doing it ever since we got together and even before," Walter says. "We just love ice cream."
So when Walter got tired of traveling for his job, he and his wife decided to take a leap of faith and do what they really wanted to do - open their own ice cream shop. They wanted a place where a family of four could sit down together in a clean environment and eat for less than $10. They also wanted to be part of a community where they got to know the people and the people got to know them.
In just over half a year, they have done just that with the Annapolis Ice Cream Company, which they opened on May 22 at 196 Main Street. Walter and Nancy have not only become part of the historic district's business community, they have also become part of the community as a whole providing free ice cream at citywide events as well as at school ice cream socials.
"We love this community and we want to see it become more and more vibrant," Walter says.
The Gieras became ice cream connoisseurs growing up in Springfield, Mass. "Ice cream is like religion up there - there's no fooling up there," Walter says.
In 1991, he and his wife decided to move where they wanted, not where Walter's job took them. They started at the top of Maine and drove down the coast. When they pulled into Church Circle, they stopped.
"We hadn't even seen the water yet but we said, 'That's it. We're home,'" he says. "I don't know what it was, but we just loved it. Immediately, though, we saw that Annapolis needed an ice cream shop with fresh ice cream made right there."
Walter continued working for other companies fixing business operation disasters or serving as a vice president of technology. Nancy worked for Mastercraft Interiors as an interior designer, a job she still enjoys to this day.
"I spent most of my time on the road," Walter says.
In 1991, he was finally fed up. "We decided to bite the bullet and do what we wanted to do," he says. "I was tired of being told that what I was doing was never good enough. In ice cream shops, everyone is always happy."
The business, which is located near the top of Main Street and hard to miss with penguins dressed like midshipmen in the window, started off like a shot.This was almost too good for Walter's taste.
"We opened the door and we were slammed until the last week of August," he says. "I could not do a lot of the stuff I wanted to do beforehand - I had to learn it right then and there."
Still, Walter says he couldn't be happier. "I didn't expect the great response that we had," he says. "I thought for a while we'd get mostly people who happened to walk by. But we're getting people who make this a destination. A lot of the restaurants are recommending us to their customers and even serving our ice cream on their menus."
Duncan Pickett, a resident of downtown, and his wife, Janet, visit the store at least once a week. "The ice cream is literally the best ice cream I've ever had," he says. "We used to go to another place but decided to try Walter's place to support a new business. Now, we can't go anywhere else. One time, we went to our old place because we wanted our favorite flavor there and we had to throw it out. I never throw out ice cream."
Walter's ice cream is "creamier, fresher, richer and all around tastier," Duncan says.
What makes the ice cream so special, according to Walter, is that it is all natural and made right there at the store so the flavors are never more than seven to eight days old. The more popular flavors are usually made just the night before.
"The ice cream machine costs more than my car, but it was worth it," he says. "It's completely automatic and very smart. It knows exactly the right temperature so no ice crystals form and the ice cream stays creamy."
Because Walter makes the ice cream in the store, he can make specialty ice creams - such as blackberry cobbler, apple pie, pecan pie and pumpkin pie -- that should be eaten within a few days to achieve their maximum taste potential."You don't want the crust to get soggy," he says. Whatever he does, it works.
"The Apple Pie is absolutely unbelievable - it's brilliant," Duncan says.
Walter's favorite flavor is Oreo, which he makes with three packages of the actual cookies he purchases from the store."Because it's so fresh, the bits of cookie still have their crunch," he says with the excitement of a child.
All fun aside, the ice cream shop is still a business and Walter uses his expertise to make sure he can run it the way he wants - fair price, clean environment and, most of all, good product.
"Because I make the ice cream right there in the shop, there are no additional costs and I can control the inventory, which means there is no waste," he says. "All of this means that we can cut corners behind the scenes in order to offer lower prices to our customers."
Prices at the Annapolis Ice Cream Company are posted at their "out-the-door" cost, which means what is on the board is what the customer will pay - toppings and tax and all.
"We get a lot of kids who come in with just the right amount of money but many of them don't understand the tax system," Walter says. "We try to make it as easy as possible for them."How's a buck and a quarter for easy? That's the cost of a child size portion."It's about eight scoops and that's really all you need," he says.
When not running the shop - well, Walter says he is actually always running the shop."This is my free time," he says. "I plan to work on this place until it can essentially run itself without me. Then I plan to open another shop somewhere else. We've had requests to open shops in Old Town Alexandria, the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and even downtown Manhattan. But each place will remain company-owned and each one will have its own personality."
Even though the winter is not usually the best time for sales in the ice cream business, Walter has maintained a steady flow of customers by offering seasonal flavors such as Candy Cane and Egg Nog, hot chocolate and Gevalia coffee, and ice cream and cakes to go.
"I expect it might slow down for two weeks after Jan. 2, but then the session will begin," he says. "It's going to be a hot session this year. I expect it to be busy around here."