Big Dipper: Missoula’s favorite homemade ice cream
Big Dipper Ice Cream has served up handcrafted ice cream since 1995, earning national recognition for its high quality ice cream, unique flavors, and hip-cool vibe.
Charlie Beaton, owner of Big Dipper, discovered his career while working at Goldsmith’s Ice Cream as a college student. Goldsmith’s was located across the Clark Fork River just north of the University of Montana.
“I really liked making and serving ice cream,” he said. “It just made people happy.”
Upon graduating from UM in 1991 with a business degree, Beaton decided to pursue the ice cream business and found his niche as a wholesaler. Xanterra, which operates lodges in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, is one of his clients.
“It worked for two reasons,” said Beaton. “First, I didn’t have a whole lot of money after graduating from college, and running a wholesale operation didn’t require overhead or employees. Second, there wasn’t much competition for specialty ice cream.”
Big Dipper Ice Cream became a retail operation in 1996. His business partner, Dale Bickell, now the CAO of the city of Missoula, was the inspiration for starting a store front on South Higgins.
Barbie Beaton, Charlie’s wife, also became a business partner at that time. The Beatons bought Bickell out in 2000.
“The business really took off in ways we never could have imagined,” Beaton said. “Things evolved and expanded organically – we never had a five or 10-year plan.”
A Big Dipper store opened in Helena 2010, as a franchise operation, and is owned by Lindsay Lechman. Then long-time store manager Bryan Hickey became a partner in the Big Dipper Ice Cream truck business and in the Billings operation in 2015.
During this time, Big Dipper also was featured on Good Morning America, and was chosen as one of America’s Best by Food and Wine Magazine, USA Today, Yahoo News and Budget Travel.
One part of the business Beaton enjoys is partnering with his friends and local businesses to create a fun brand and experience for Big Dipper, such as the Coneboy, theater advertising, creating specialty ice cream flavors and event sponsorship.
“It’s fun working with friends I’ve had for years to enhance the customer and community experience,” added Beaton.
Big Dipper partners with Posh Chocolat, which makes its caramel sauce and specialty mix-ins. Bob Marshall from Biga Pizza has created a wide range of fun flavors, such as maple chipotle ice cream with bacon and hazelnuts and mascarpone ice cream with a balsamic fig swirl and toasted walnuts.
Drum Coffee and Black Coffee have also contributed to developing new local flavors.
Big Dipper also makes specialty ice creams unique to Downtown restaurants. Scotty’s Table has its own “Almond Joy” flavored ice cream, while Sa Wad Dee serves up its own “Coconut” ice cream.
“We can make any flavor our customers want, and our employees have a great time coming up with fun new flavors daily,” said Beaton, who credits his staff for much of the creativity. “I love hiring and working with young people. They have a lot of great ideas, and I listen.”
Beaton also holds two-day listening sessions with other ice cream specialty shops in Washington and Canada.
“We all sell locally-inspired specialty ice creams. We find it really helpful to get together once a year to compare notes and marketing strategies,” explained Beaton, who includes his management in the sessions.
Beaton credits Big Dipper’s success to the cool-hip “experience” associated with the brand. “We’re selling an experience – our job is to make a high quality product that people love and to make it fun – even standing in line with friends and neighbors is big part of the Big Dipper vibe”.
Coneboy, the Big Dipper ice cream truck, can be found at almost every Missoula event. The Beatons also donate ice cream to all Runners Edge races and Camp Make-A-Dream events.
The best experience for Beaton occurred recently when he worked alongside his two daughters scooping ice cream in the Coneboy.
“It’s really special to build a business I can share with my wife, kids, and my community,” said Beaton.