Tamara Keefe will never forget the buzz in the room when she first presented a portion of Clementine’s Creamery ice cream to a panel of judges for a blind tasting at the annual National Ice Cream Retailers Association meeting. It was 2019, and she was five years in to her turn as Clementine’s founder and ice cream-maker, enjoying her brand’s success and building her business. She knew she had a great product, but when she handed over her gooey butter cake ice cream to the judges she got more confirmation of that than she ever could have imagined.
“At the meeting every year they do an ice cream clinic blind taste test,” Keefe says. “There are six or seven hundred entries, and it’s judged by every top ice cream chef in the country. All of a sudden, the room started going crazy because Clementine’s took first, second and third place. It was the first time in the organization’s one hundred-year history that happened. It was insane; no one could believe it. What was amazing is that you have the country’s top ice cream people in this room, and it proved that we really do have the best ice cream in the country. We’ve been able to put Clementine’s on the national map, and everyone now knows who we are.”
Clementine’s dominance at that event – as well as the organization’s subsequent gatherings – is a world away from the humble beginnings that propelled Keefe into the world of ice cream. Growing up in a large, poor Irish-Italian family, Keefe and her siblings often did without, including the post-church trips to the ice cream parlor that her peers would take every Sunday.
Her luck would change, however, when her mom picked up a two-dollar, hand-cranked ice cream maker at a garage sale. The family began making the frozen treat together, then shared their wares with friends and family, establishing a Sunday ice cream ritual that made her feel the sense of connection she longed for with the community. Keefe never lost that sense of ice cream’s power to bring people together, and she continued making the treat for her family and friends, even as she got older and went on to start her career in marketing.
That career was a successful one. To the outside observer, Keefe was living the good life with a high-profile career in corporate America filled with travel and an impressive salary. However, the trappings of that life disguised an inner discontent that would catch up with her.
“I was 38 with no husband, never saw my family and rarely saw my friends,” Keefe says. “I was making a ton of money, but I felt that this wasn’t life; this just wasn’t living. I wanted something that would be happy and free, so I asked myself, ‘Why not just open a cute little ice cream shop in my neighborhood?’”
Seven years later, that cute little shop has turned into one of the country’s most significant ice cream brands, as well as a multi-outlet enterprise with stores in Lafayette Square, Clayton, Southampton, Town & Country and Lake St. Louis. Keefe laughs at how her romanticized ice cream parlor idea has morphed into a powerhouse.
“In true fashion, I created the beast,” Keefe laughs. “I just couldn’t help it. When you come from nothing, you are super motivated to get to the top. For me, initially, I just wanted to go make ice cream and follow my bliss. I never thought it would take off the way it did, but people loved it, and it became a thing – and once it did, it just started growing.”
In retrospect, Keefe should have known that Clementine’s would be so well-received. From the moment she conceived of leaving behind her corporate career for the ice cream business, she knew she would only take the leap if she was going to do it right. That meant insisting on a high-quality, ultra-premium product that would be the foundation of her brand. Setting up Clementine’s as a microcreamery, Keefe bound the company to such requirements as churning her ice cream in small batches, making it by hand, using all natural ingredients, and making it with less than thirty percent air and a minimum of sixteen percent butterfat. She knows that she could have taken shortcuts, but that’s just not who she is.
“I think the people of St. Louis deserve to have the very best ice cream that they can have, and I think that is why we are doing so well,” Keefe says. “We have a super-premium, amazing product that you can’t get anywhere else. So few people in the country make it like this anymore, and that’s the beauty of owning your own company. You could make a really cheap product, but you can’t do that when you have passion and purpose. I don’t have to make as much money as I could because I feel like I am making the best product, and I want people to be proud that the best ice cream in the country comes from St. Louis.”
Consumers and ice cream judges are not the only ones who have taken notice of Clementine’s. Last year, Keefe was invited to participate in the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program, an initiative of the organization meant as a counter to the historical dominance of White men in the culinary field. The only person chosen to participate from St. Louis, Keefe has spent the past year connecting with fellow women culinarians, developing a network that she and the other members of her cohort from across the country can draw upon for support, information, assistance and general camaraderie as they move their careers and businesses forward. As Keefe explains, she sees her participation in the program as not simply benefitting Clementine’s, but also benefiting the St. Louis food scene as a whole.
“I think having representation from here is huge,” says Keefe, “because it shows that St. Louis is stepping up on the national food scene and that we have really cool concepts and women doing great things across the region.”
Keefe and Clementine’s are certainly part of the region’s culinary growth. Just in the past year – in the midst of a global pandemic and economic downturn – Keefe has expanded to include stores in Lake St. Louis and a forthcoming one in Town and Country, bringing the total number of parlors to five. Never wavering from her commitment to being rooted in neighborhoods, she sees her venture into areas away from the immediate city center as an important way to recast how we think of the region.
“St. Louis City is all about its neighborhoods, but the metro area has other neighborhoods, too, that may just be a little further out,” Keefe says. “They may look a little different and be further out in the county and suburbs, but they are just as supportive of independent businesses. They want them. We’re a St. Louis-proud brand, so we should be in every St. Louis-proud neighborhood, no matter where they are.”
Still, Keefe can’t help but look outward when she thinks of the future of Clementine’s. Her wins at the National Ice Cream Retailers Association events not only gave her bragging rights; they also started a movement to put a St. Louis staple on the national map. Her winning flavor, gooey butter cake, has slowly but surely started to take off, catching the eye of some larger ice cream brands and even Oprah Winfrey, who placed the flavor on the “O List” of her November 2019 issue of Oprah Magazine – an exciting development for both Clementine’s and the St. Louis area as a whole.
“Everyone is copying it and going in on it, and because of that, gooey butter cake ice cream will be the next cookie dough ice cream in the next few years,” Keefe says. “The region should be proud that our St. Louis dessert that we put into ice cream is becoming a national favorite and everyone is going crazy about it. We’re definitely a trend-setter.”