Charm School Social Club

Interview by Ashley Carpenter
Issue 47 • January 2017 • Richmond

When a NOVA punk and a West Coast hippie team up over their love of ice cream and good music, you know that something tasty is in store.

On the edge of Jackson Ward in Richmond’s Broad Street Arts District, a fresh coat of mint paint adorns the door of the newest social club in town. The sign outside states “Ice Cream, Sweet Treats” and in the bay window, a ‘60s style school desk is prominently displayed, piquing the curiosities of passersby. Charm School Social Club is now in session—the perfect place to hang with friends and brush up on some punk etiquette.

Refreshingly, Charm School lacks the cows, clowns, and goofy scoops you’d find cluttering the walls of most ice cream shops. The design throughout the 3,000 square-foot space (formerly home to Quirk Gallery) is clean and minimalistic, every detail intentional even down to the elusive sugar shaker. Once a massive, hollow white-walled gallery, the interior has been transformed into a delightfully bright place to create and consume supreme quality ice cream and the pastries that complement it. Charm School founders, Alex Zavaleta and Meryl Hillerson, have designed the ideal atmosphere to relax with friends, enjoy a carefully curated vinyl playlist, and indulge in some of the finest sweets around. With a mission so pure and tasty, who wouldn’t want to enroll indefinitely?

Alex Zavaleta and Meryl Hillerson

It all looks cool and I dig the music, but what is this place and what does it have to do with ice cream?

Meryl Hillerson: We noticed that there aren’t many places to go out and hang with friends for the evening without spending $15 or more to drink or eat at a bar or restaurant. We imagined it to be kind of like the first day of “charm school,” a well-polished place to hang out, relax, listen to some good music, and maybe scoop some ice cream for our friends. Alex grew up with a lot of music and most of our friends work in music shops, so there’s always something good playing!

Alex carefully selects each vinyl that bumps through the house speakers. The shop boasts quite an impressive record collection that I’m sure will only grow with time.

Alex Zavaleta: I’ll admit, I was never really a great student or full of etiquette, so the “charm” part is a bit of a cheeky play on that. When I think back to when I was a punk in school, I think of the timeless ‘50s and ‘60s design that was in my school, even decades later. To keep with that theme, we went with the classic school desk chairs, long cafeteria-style tables, and of course, the Book It!-inspired wallpaper—the first thing the two of us agreed on.

Why ice cream and why Richmond?

AZ: Ice cream wasn’t on my radar at all. Originally from Springfield, I moved to Fredericksburg for work, then to Richmond for a couple of years, and then was offered a position in my field of design out in San Francisco. I was out there for about nine years and picked up making ice cream as a pastime after a trip to Italy with some friends. I met Meryl through some mutual friends and she was working at a very popular bakery at the time. She is the best baker I know, so I started asking her for help. That eventually led her to get me a management job at the bakery. With no prior food knowledge, this was a way to get some background information on how to run a kitchen and get my foot into the culinary world.

MH: I’m a Santa Cruz native with hippie-ish parents and wasn’t allowed sugar growing up. After I moved out, the floodgates opened and let me say, I love ice cream. I eat it every day, it practically sustains me. As for Richmond, I had only visited once before, where I met Alex’s friends. They were pushing for us to open here rather than San Fran (which was the plan all along). I immediately fell in love with Richmond. It’s all so wonderful and I’ve adjusted well to everything—except the weather. So, after some coast-to-coast late night FaceTimes and phone calls, we were on the hunt for a space in Richmond.

AZ: I came back out to Richmond to visit for a friend’s wedding. We have a few friends in commercial real estate and they prodded me to take a look at some spots. We still had every intention on opening in San Fran, but after crunching some numbers and discussing with Meryl, it was clear that Richmond would be the spot for Charm School. We certainly didn’t have a space this large in mind, but we made it work.

How’s the curriculum at Charm School?

AZ: We’ll always have sixteen flavors in the case, at least four of those being dairy-free. We’ll carry our signature, Toast & Jam, and seven classics year round, rotating the other flavors seasonally. With hardly any food background, I’d like to say that most of what we create is unconventional and everyday flavors that we think would go together. [I can vouch that their seasonal Cardamom Orange is to-die-for.] Not everything works, it’s a little trial and error, but it’s fun to play. We are also very vegan friendly (or many of our friends would be upset!). Each Sunday is “Sundae School” where we feature a new flavor and new pastry each week, usually with a vegan option.

MH: We make everything but the sprinkles in house. My goal is to make pastries that complement the ice cream and stand by themselves. It always blows my mind when places put so much effort into their product, making it with the best ingredients, by hand, and then pull a cone out of the box. It almost negates the whole process! Even if it’s easier and cheaper to go the corporate route, it’s worth going the extra step to create a quality product. Although you can’t make everyone happy, I don’t think what we’re doing will be lost. It’s worth it and people deserve better.

MH: We took Penn State’s ice cream course to get a better understanding of the world of ice cream. It was great because all we want to do is talk about ice cream and it was the best place to do just that! It taught us so much and helped us choose where our ingredients come from (mostly Trickling Springs in Pennsylvania), the best techniques, and put us in contact with some great shop owners all over the country, including some helpful ones in the D.C. area. My favorite “fun” fact was about vanilla ice cream: those specks are just pod scrapings, not more vanilla bean! Don’t be fooled, because I was!

AZ: To add to the list of what we’ll be offering to pair with our ice cream—coffee. Since we knew nothing about coffee but want to offer only the best, we were hesitant at first. We sought out places with similar standards and landed on Lamplighter Coffee. They’ve been great in teaching us how to brew coffee properly and locate hard-to-find ingredients. There’s definitely a coffee ice cream in the works, so keep an eye out!

AZ: At Charm School, we're very selective about what we play over our sound system to the point that we fight over what plays next. Not only are we trying to bring everybody the very best ice cream, but we're also playing great music to go along with it.

Below are a few examples of their seasonal offerings paired with Alex’s pick of the perfect complimentary tune.

Charm School Social Club is located at 311 W Broad Street in Richmond and open Thursday through Sunday. Visit charmschoolrva.com to learn more.

Photography by Mike Lesnick

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