The innovators, hidden gems and old-school icons behind our maple, cows and creemees

In late March 2021, 79-year-old Bob Saffi -- more commonly known in Burlington as “Ice Cream Bob” -- stood beside a flatbed train in the Burlington rail yard, pondering his nineteenth summer selling ice cream. Saffi’s green and butter-yellow clapboard kiosk, Ice Cream Bob’s, had recently been uprooted and transferred -- intact, but with shutters closed -- from its eighteen-year fixed location on Burlington’s waterfront bike path to a nondescript spot in the rail yard, marked by wiry brambles and the detritus of construction projects past. The bare maple trees still signaled “stick season.”

“Ice Cream Bob” Saffi before his retirement in 2022. Photo by Bear Cieri.

“Months before, Saffi was handing maple creemees (more on those later) through the kiosk window to customers. The high-butterfat soft serve was spun with Vermont maple syrup and twisted into tight, evenly tiered swirls, complete with the drooping peak of a cartoon ice cream cone. In fall 2020, Ice Cream Bob’s was displaced without notice to make way for renovating the railroad and bike path in preparation for the upcoming extension of Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express train to Burlington. I thought I was over,” said Saffi. “I didn’t think I’d ever be back in business. But the people advocated for me. They came to my rescue. And this season was as good as any other.”

Photo by Jeff Lawson

By “the people advocated for me,” Saffi alludes to a little hubbub that ensued. After Saffi’s ice cream stand was removed from the waterfront, Burlington locals and Ice Cream Bob regulars reached out to city government. The owner of The Spirit of Ethan Allen, Burlington’s largest cruise ship and floating restaurant, advocated for his return.

The Burlington Business Association rallied behind him. The president of Vermont Rail backed Saffi. So did the mayor.  An administrator at Burlington Electric made a three-and-a-half-minute video in support. In the end, Ice Cream Bob’s was reinstated in a stretch of greenspace across from College Street on the Burlington waterfront, a few yards from its old location on the bike path. 

Saffi has since retired, but few stories better symbolize the appreciation Vermonters have for ice cream -- both for the obvious pleasure of a cone, and as the ideal lens for showcasing a few things the state does best: community, dairy, and a unique combination of traditional and offbeat artisanship.


Shy Guy Gelato in the South End. Photo by Bear Cieri

This is a state that has its own vernacular for soft serve: The creemee, a word with unknown origins beyond its singularly creamy texture, is often marked by the addition of Vermont maple syrup and the frequent use of local dairy with a higher butterfat content. Here, dairy covers around 70% of annual agricultural sales, and around 1,500 sugarhouses make Vermont the top maple producer in the United States. Roadside ice cream stands and creemee shacks dot scenic byways that cut through mountain passes, canopied woodlands, and fields of grazing Holsteins.

In and around Burlington, a local maker churns perfect gelato from Vermont ingredients (Shy Guy Gelato), or crowns a twist of soft serve with a giant wisp of spun candy floss (Canteen Creemee Company), or is heralded for continuously crafting pints for almost 100 years (Wilcox Dairy).

Maple farmers at Palmer Lane Maple spin their amber syrup with dairy from fourth-generation farmers at Kingdom Creamery. At a community pool in Winooski, Offbeat Creemee creates plant-based ice creams for a dedicated following, in flavors like soft-serve coffee cardamom and bright lemon meringue pie. An Instagram account called @idreamofcreemees searches for the best Vermont ice cream statewide. Stuck In Vermont, a popular YouTube channel from Burlington’s alt weekly, Seven Days, features a multi-part creemee tour. We haven’t yet mentioned Ben & Jerry’s. (Stay tuned: Jerry will make a cameo.) 

Menu board at Offbeat Creemee

There are layers to what makes Burlington an under-the-radar point of origin for the best ice cream in the country.

From ice cream traditionalists to area innovators, from hard vanilla to soft serve cherry-cheesecake, from small dairy farmers making value-added pints to a family of berry farmers with a bent for ice cream anarchy, consider this your jumping off point for exploring Vermont ice cream its