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Cruze Family Farm of Eastern Tennessee. Photo by Beth Kirby
At Cruze Farm in Eastern Tennessee, Ice Cream is all about Simple, Pure Ingredients

Ice cream might be the only food socially acceptable to lap up like a dog. It’s a treat of reckless abandon and tail-wagging happiness. And when it comes in a cone, we don’t even have to stop with the cold stuff, chomping straight on through the vessel that carried it to us.

Ice cream’s attributes embody ritual—standing in line and choosing a flavor to match a mood—and nostalgia connecting us to memories. But for the Cruze family of Cruze Farm outside of Knoxville, the best parts of this dessert come down simply to a tradition of good ingredients.

“We get eggs from farmers and separate them, using only the yolk. Then our cream, milk, sugar, and salt,” says Colleen Cruze Bhatti of the dairy’s ice cream. “Five ingredients. It’s our base. Creamy. Simple.”

A trip to the Cruze Farm in East Knox County involves a winding, two-lane drive through green pastures punctuated with steeples and silos. Behind the farmhouse in a structure that Colleen’s father, Earl, built with his own hands, you’ll find a operation that seems small for the 2,000 gallons of milk—and nationally recognized buttermilk—it turns out each week.

Cruze Farm of Eastern Tennessee
Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

Wearing a scarf over her dark curls, gingham, pink rubber boots, and a denim apron over her pregnant belly, Colleen is the optimistic face of the farm at age twenty-six—and she’s also pretty much the boss. While she still gets advice from her parents who built the business, she runs it for the most part now, bottling milk (whole, light, and buttermilk), making ice cream, delivering products, sampling at shops, and selling from a trailer at farmers markets where she offers buttermilk shots, homemade biscuits, and scoops of ice cream in flavors like purple sweet potato, coffee, and even kale.

“We like to work with other farms and artisans,” she says, “so we get inspiration from them and what they are producing.”

And Colleen Cruze Bhatti herself comes from a long line of dairy farmers and ice cream eaters. Her father still raves about his mother’s ice cream.

“She milked cows and was a school teacher,” Colleen says. “I’m not sure I’ve ever made ice cream as good as she did. They would eat whole plates of ice cream.”

Cruze Farm of Eastern Tennessee
Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

Earl Cruze, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, grew up on land just down the road. He’d always wanted to bottle milk. He joined the air force, went to college, and kept milking cows to save money, thinking he would start his bottling operation someday. But he wasn’t sure how. He met Colleen’s mother when she was twenty-nine and he was thirty-eight. They married three months later, and she encouraged him to follow through on his dream.

“Together, they did it,” Colleen says, even though they faced skepticism at first for producing non-homogenized milk with cream that rose to the top.

After Colleen turned five (she has an older brother and sister as well who don’t work directly with the farm), the family opened a shop to sell ice cream at a farmers market in East Knoxville.

“I ate, like, two or three cones of ice cream a day. In that way I was spoiled,” she says. “I might have had to work as a child, but I had all the ice cream I ever wanted.”

The shop closed when she was fifteen, and a Target store later took its place. The land where Earl spent his childhood become an industrial park, and Cruze Farm found itself the only small dairy bottling milk in Knoxville where once there had been dozens. So, the Cruzes worked to preserve what was left. They conserved their farmland with a trust, and, unbeknownst to Colleen at the time, they hoped she would carry on the family business.

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Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

“I think my mom was scheming the whole time to see how she could get me to stay at the farm and keep it going even though I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says. “Now I can see that.”

Colleen studied agriculture at the University of Tennessee, and before she graduated she attended a short course at Penn State on ice cream much like her parents once had.

“They taught me how to make ice cream, really,” she says of her family.

Five years ago, she brought ice cream back to the Cruze dairy repertoire, and one year later she started selling it in pints at retail locations.

These days Colleen makes ice cream about twice a week, churning 175 gallons a month with just two small machines.

“We churn it. We don’t put too much air into it,” she says. “We try to make it as rich as possible.”

They’re maxed out on supply due to availability of cream, and they’re maxed out on milk, too, distributing that product just in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville with no plans to expand.

“We produce all the ice cream we can, but we are kind of limited in how much we can produce because it depends on how much cream we have,” she says.

Though the ice cream remains profitable, it still offers the lowest return financially of all their products. “It’s kind of a complicated process,” she says. “So I spend a lot of time working on it even though we don’t make as much.”

And the Cruzes are okay with that.

“My parents really believe in high-quality products. They’re not trying to make the most money off our products, which is kind of crazy for businesspeople. I spoke to a UT business class and they’re like, ‘What do you mean you don’t want to grow?’” she recalls. “We’re not trying to maximize or add water to the milk…We just really want to have a high-quality product. I just really love to eat our ice cream and drink our milk. We want to make it delicious because we want to enjoy it.”

Cruze Farm of Eastern Tennessee
Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

The farm has some intern help on occasion as well as two full-time employees—a woman named McCall and a man called Cowboy—who help Colleen and her husband, Manjit Bhatti, with bottling and milking their sixty jersey cows.

Colleen met Manjit when he worked as a chef at The Bistro restaurant in downtown Knoxville.

“They had just started buying our milk,” she recalled. “I actually went back to the kitchen that night when I met him.”

She asked when she could start delivering milk—and then she asked the server for Manjit’s phone number. The relationship took off; they married last year, and they’re expecting a baby in July.

“He has jumped in it,” she says of his work on the farm. “I was hoping he would. But I didn’t know how great it would all work out.”

Colleen honors the family tradition in her ice cream recipes, serving some of the most popular flavors from her parent’s former shop like Blackberry. But she also adds her own twists with flavors like her favorite, Buttermilk Lime Cardamom.

She writes the flavor names on pint labels by hand so that she can change the flavors often, following the seasons and influence of farmer friends. And, of course, several flavors include the Cruzes’ famous buttermilk, a subject that can make Colleen even more animated than she is about ice cream.

“We have all sorts of crazy theories about who likes buttermilk and who doesn’t. I really love to drink it,” she says while downing a cup of buttermilk turned pink and flecked with seeds from a whirl of strawberries.

“I put it in my bathwater too when we have extra—like, a gallon.”

On a recent Friday morning at Old City Java in Knoxville, customers filed in for lattes with Cruze milk and sausage biscuits made with Cruze buttermilk. Within thirty minutes, the plate of biscuits that had been heaping sat empty. Meg Parrish, the baker and co-owner of the shop with her husband, Shaun, says they also serve affogatos in the summer—two shots of espresso over Cruze vanilla ice cream.

Cruze Family Farm of Eastern Tennessee
Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

“I just have so much respect and love for her,” Parrish says of Colleen. “Her charisma is amazing.”

Farther up Central Avenue at Magpies, you’ll find the jewel-toned bakery where the Cruzes get their buttermilk-baked wedding cake toppers that they put into birthday-themed ice cream.

Then along that same road, customers shop for cartons of Cruze milk and pints of ice cream at Three Rivers Market. The food co-op sits on the edge of an up-and-coming area called Happy Hollow.

Three Rivers became the first retail customers of Colleen’s parents back when the market was called Knoxville Community Food Co-Op, and the market has carried the ice cream, its top seller in the category, since 2011.

“Our customers really appreciate and seek out local products. Cruze Farm is a really well-known farm in town. At the farmers market customers have the opportunity to meet the people who are making their ice cream and see them on a weekly basis during the farmers market season,” says Loralyn Howard, the market’s merchandising director for the past three years. “They are always friendly and interested in meeting their customers….It helps that they’re a friendly happy bunch.”

But one more bit of old-fashioned tradition that adds to the Cruze ice cream appeal comes in its availability. Unlike many other products accessible with the click of a button on the Internet, you’ll have to come to Knoxville to get it.

Cruze Farm of Eastern Tennessee
Cruze Farm of East Knox County, Tennessee. Photos by Beth Kirby

Cruze Farm Recipe

Spring Sweet Cream Ice Cream

Featured in June.July 2014

Mentioned in this post:
Beth Kirby