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Frozen locally: Panhandle Cone and Coffee preaches quality, love through ice cream

By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – Orange Dark Chocolate Freckles, blood orange ice cream with Askinosie Chocolate freckles, is a staple. So is Honey Rose.

But Salted Caramel Brown Butter Cookie is “by far the most popular,” said Panhandle Cone and Coffee owner and ice cream-maker Jason Dillon.

Known for its sophisticated flavors and use of local ingredients, Panhandle Cone and Coffee now has two scoop shops in North Idaho. Husband-and-wife proprietors Jason and Stephanie Dillon opened their second location – on Main Street in downtown Moscow – mid-March, just in time for the warm-weather busy season. It joins their downtown Sandpoint location, which has been churning out premium ice cream since early 2015.

The Dillons like their new spot for the same reason they like their old one: the charming downtown vibe.

“It’s this mom-and-pop, Norman Rockwell-type of a place with a quality food scene,” Jason Dillon said, describing Moscow as “a little bit Mayberry” and “a little bit hipster. People seem to appreciate quality without being pretentious.”

18 flavors and then some

Each Panhandle shop features 10 regular flavors, such as Mill Town Vanilla, Just Plain Chocolate, Buttermilk Huckleberry, Peppermint Fudge and Coffee. They also have four seasonal varieties and four non-dairy offerings. That’s 18 flavors, and most feature at least one local or regional ingredient.

That’s something that sets Panhandle apart from most other North Idaho ice creameries, Dillon said.

“We’re using quality local ingredients,” he said. “Our philosophy is: how close to home can we stay and still have quality ingredients. Evans Brothers is a no-brainer.”

Panhandle uses the Good Food Award-winning Evans Brothers coffee in its ice cream as well as espresso drinks, including one of Dillon’s favorite offerings – the affogato, or hot espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream. It’s a specialty at each location.

Panhandle uses Inland Grey tea from the Colbert-based Winterwoods Tea Co. as well as honey from Queen Been in Clark Fork, Idaho, for its Earl Grey Honey ice cream.

The Askinosie Chocolate in the Just Plain Chocolate and other chocolate-y flavors is from Missouri. But, Dillon said, “it’s such amazing stuff.”

He also uses lentils from the Palouse and rose petals from a nearby florist. And the vanilla beans for Panhandle’s anything-but-boring vanilla ice cream are soaked in rum from Sandpoint’s Mill Town Distillery.

“We make our own extract,” Dillon said. It takes six to eight weeks, and “we take a lot of pride in that.”

In fact, Panhandle’s vanilla ice cream is one of his go-to flavors.

But right now his favorite is Porter Palouse-A, which features porter from Paradise Creek Brewery in Pullman in both the ice cream and the brownie chunks sprinkled throughout. It can only be found at the Moscow store. Same thing goes for the seasonal Moscow Mule – get it? – which combines ginger and lime.

Honey Rose can be found at both shops, but it’s particularly popular in Moscow.

Each location has its own signature flavors. In Sandpoint, it’s Sasquatch — featuring fir tree oil, two kinds of local honey, huckleberry jam and granola bits.

Waffle cones are made from scratch on site at each shop.

Moscow, which opens earlier in the day than the Sandpoint store, has a special offering that its sister shop in the north doesn’t: mini bacon-maple waffles that stretch about 3 inches in diameter.

It’s not on the menu, but – pro tip – you can get a waffle sundae in Moscow while supplies last. “When they’re gone,” Dillon said, “they’re gone” — at least for that day.

Sundae school

Dillon got into making ice cream after receiving an ice cream recipe book from his sister for Christmas about 12 years ago. He loved experimenting with flavor combinations, growing more and more creative. He and his wife would invite friends over to try their homemade ice cream and sip espresso in their backyard in southern Oregon.

The Dillon family – Jason, Stephanie and their four children – moved from Grants Pass, Oregon, to Sagle, Idaho, just over four years ago. They’d been vacationing in the area for years and were already in love with the region.

When they decided they wanted to move, the couple looked in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana, narrowing their top choices to four: Salmon and Sandpoint, Idaho, and Hamilton and Dillon, Montana.

They liked the idea of the Dillons living in Dillon, where there’s also a Dillon Street.

Because they’d been there multiple times before, Sandpoint was the last stop on their tour. “We rolled into town and (Stephanie) said, ‘This is where I want to live,’ and I felt the same way,” Jason Dillon said.

After 17 years as a pastor, he said he “was emotionally burnt out and needed a change.” He’d been in his last role for 11 years, coming from other stints in California, Wyoming, South Dakota and Missouri. “We circled the western United States,” he said.

Stephanie Dillon moved first, commuting to Coeur d’Alene for a nursing job. Now, she’s a clinical nursing supervisor at Bonner General Health and Hospital and also does the books for the couple’s ice cream business. They recently hired managers to oversee each location while Jason Dillon focuses on ice cream making.

He grew up in Sandy, Oregon, and has fond memories of enjoying ice cream after dinner nearly every night as a kid. It wasn’t always from the local Senn’s Drive-In Dairy. But, when it was, “that was the big special treat when we had Senn’s ice cream.”

During their Sandpoint visit, the Dillons learned a downtown storefront that held an ice cream shop was available. And it seemed like it could be the change Jason Dillon was searching for.

They bought the equipment and took over the space for a new start for the veteran pastor who wanted to try something different but still wanted to provide people with a place to slow down and connect.

In pastoring, “it’s really hard to control anything.” But, in baking, and ice cream making “you can control everything. It was,” Jason Dillon said, “my stress relief.”

Different scoops

He started with 10 flavors in the Sandpoint shop. With the signature flavors at each location, there’s now double that amount at any time. “We’re always looking for different flavors,” Dillon said.

In summer, look for Lemongrass Blueberry Swirl with roasted local blueberries. He also uses roasted strawberries in summer ice cream flavors. He roasts the berries because “anytime you’re making ice cream, water is your enemy.” Roasting rids fruits of their water and intensifies their flavor.

Honey Lavender is another popular summer flavor. Other creative combos are Roasted Strawberry and Rhubarb Crisp, Cardamom Praline Swirl, Amaretto Alder, Cranberry Goat Cheese Cake, Ginger and Figgy Pudding, Peppermint and White Chocolate Flecks, Toasted Coconut and Marionberry Swirl, Sweet Basil and Pine Nut Praline, and CB and J, or Cookie Butter and Jam.

The ice cream base is made of cream, sugar, guar gum and nonfat milk. Jason Dillon gets the blend from a Pacific Northwest dairy. “It’s real ingredients,” he said, noting he tried a “bunch of different blends” until he found the one he liked best. (At home, of course, he makes his own ice cream base.)

He used to make Panhandle’s ice cream in the Sandpoint shop, but the business has since outgrown that kitchen. In summer 2017, Panhandle moved its ice-cream-making operations to a commercial kitchen. That’s where Dillon spends most of his time – well, there and on the road.

It’s 127 miles from the front door of the Sandpoint shop to the front door of the Moscow shop. He usually makes the trip twice a week.

There are 22 employees – “ice cream sherpas” as Dillon calls them – between the two locations. And three of them are the owners’ kids. (The oldest lives in Oregon.)

“We want to be a place where people can come and hang out, take a deep breath and enjoy some ice cream,” Dillon said.

“We want to be quality without being pretentious. We want to be simple without being lazy. We want to be a sanctuary without an agenda – which isn’t true. We have an agenda: we want people to feel loved through ice cream.”

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