Here’s The Scoop

Matt Sanders poured the remaining mixture of cotton-candy flavored ice cream into three-gallon tubs June 10 at Libby's Gourmet Ice Cream in downtown Jasper.

Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Alisha Jucevic

First the eggs then the cream then the milk then the sugar scooped from a hamper-sized tub that holds up to 100 gallons.

Matt Sanders pours and dumps without thinking.

On the path from teenager in his parents’ kitchen to what he hopes one day becomes a national brand, the guy behind Libby’s Gourmet Ice Cream needs no recipe. Oh, he has one. Several, actually. And they’re regarded as trade secrets, so those who are privy to exactly how many scoops of sugar are bound by law from divulging the measurements. But Matt and his wife, Libby, the one the store is named after, aren’t the kind to get twisted in the details.

Ice cream is where the hungry go to unwind.

In the concrete terms of running their own business, the Sanders family is bound by the restrictions of red tape. But that’s the letter of the law. With ice cream, the spirit is where it’s at, and Matt and Libby and their five children have plenty of that. Their homemade ice cream, sold mostly from the family shop on Courthouse Square in downtown Jasper, has been a hit from the first scoop.

Libby's opened on the square in the summer of 2013 but moved to a larger location just a few doors over earlier this year. The new space, which used to house Sternberg's Furniture, has a larger kitchen and more seating room and space for children to run around. Rick Roll of Loogootee and his son Jayden, 4, exited Libby's with ice cream in hand Tuesday evening.

Those who like Libby’s can thank the curriculum of high school science.

Matt grew up in Lawrence County and graduated from Bedford-North Lawrence High School in 1997. It was back then that he discovered the glory of ice cream.

“We made it in science class and I was blown away,” the 37-year-old recalls. “I was like, ‘You can make this stuff?’ It stuck with me.”

He made up his own recipe but limited the kitchen creativity to a hobby while he spent his 20s working as a manager for a rental company in and around southwest Indiana, including Dubois County. He mulled opening another business and figured since he knew the rental business best, he’d try that. Libby, also 37, posed something else: “You always talk about ice cream,” she told him. “What about that?”

Using money from a bonus check through her job as a nurse, Libby purchased Matt a commercial-grade ice cream machine. He began creating. First it was the basics — vanilla, banana, peach, strawberry. Then he began adding — mint, rocky road. Libby took the ice cream to work and asked her peers which they liked best. When fans became customers, Matt reproduced the winning flavors four pints at a time. He maxed out at 1,000 pints a month.

Dubois Elementary School third-graders visited Libby's on May 10 during their spring field trip. Charlie Drew of Jasper, left, and owner Matt gave them a tour of the production area and showed them the mixing and initial freezing process. Multiple school groups and organizations from around the area visit the shop throughout the year.

“It was a hobby that took up a lot of time. Libby encouraged me to quit and do this,” scanning his store on the west side of the Square. “I said, ‘OK, but if I’m going to do this, I’m going to Jasper.’”

He was already familiar with Dubois County. He’d lived here. The kids had been raised here and even when he moved back to Bedford for about a year, he drove the children to school in Jasper each morning; they woke up at 4:30 a.m., and he hit the Starbucks while the kids slept on the commute.

He likes the vibe here. Reminds him of Bloomington (only smaller and less liberal). He supports the arts and welcomes the city’s plans to redevelop the downtown area and property near the Patoka River and likes the idea of local businesses helping local businesses.

He planned to start slowly. Brought a book to the store on the first day, actually. It was late July, almost three years ago. The plan was to close at 11. By 9:30, they were out of ice cream. Matt, Libby and their oldest son, 18-year-old Cameron, were swamped. Too busy to eat, all they consumed was water.

Matt and Libby Sanders took a flamenco dance lesson from Graciela Perrone of Jasper in the space above the Libby's shop on Tuesday night. Matt claims to have two left feet when it comes to dancing, and Libby loves to dance, so when an employee's mother asked to schedule a lesson in their building, the couple jumped at the chance to join them.

“It was a panic attack,” Libby gauges. “How can we do this? We’d run out but we were open the next day, so for the first couple months, he stayed up all night. Sell it. Make it. Sell it. Make it.”

They’ve since moved two doors south into the building that formerly housed Sternberg’s Furniture. There’s more room for patrons and more room for equipment — the back room has two large ice cream machines now and Matt and his crew produce ice cream nearly every weekday — and room for expansion; Matt has ideas about turning a portion of the second floor into an outdoor seating area and using the rest for living quarters for himself, Libby, Cameron, 14-year-old Calvin, 12-year-old Madeline, 8-year-old Evan and 4-year-old Oliver (Libby will soon finish her schooling to become a nurse practitioner and return to work. Cameron graduated from JHS in May).

Supply and demand support lofty goals. Sav-A-Lot came to Matt with a proposal to sell Libby’s in the chain’s area grocery stores and it’s also sold in French Lick. Matt would like to one day open a store in Bloomington or maybe Carmel, places that promote a laid-back atmosphere where folks will exit their vehicles and mill about the area as they relax with spoon (or cone or cup) in hand.

The vision is to one day be nationally known. He wants the roots staying here, like Hershey, Pa., remains the town from which blossomed the iconic chocolate producer.

For a place that’s been open only three years, it’s a big dream.

“Libby reminds me we’re only a baby in terms of being a business,” Matt concedes.

In the world of experimentation, they’re beyond novices.

Libby calls him the Willy Wonka of ice cream. Here’s her example. She suggests cherry chocolate chip “and he just starts pouring in ingredients and freezes it.”

A while later, he asks, “Like this?”

“I try it and it’s spot on 98 percent of the time. How does a rental company person do this? He’s just badass.”

Drew, left, and Matt worked together to make a batch of s'mores ice cream May 19. Drew has worked at the shop for two and a half years and started helping with production this year. Since he hadn't made s'mores yet, Matt worked with him on the first batch to show him the process and proper measurements.

Matt still has his first recipe. It’s hand-written and in safekeeping at their Jasper home. Only Matt, Libby, Cameron and Charlie Drew, an 18-year-old employee from Jasper who the family recently entrusted with making ice cream, know the specifics. The main ingredients are milk, sugar and cream. There are a few others, but nobody is telling. They’re bound by law to zip their lips. There’s a contract. It’s notarized. It’s a trade secret, like the recipe to KFC chicken or Coca-Cola.

“It took us awhile to decide to let other people make it, because it’s Matt’s baby,” Libby says before adding her interpretation of the fine print. “We’ll kill you and sue you if you take this anywhere else.”

The Sanders are heavy on both sarcasm and mushy romance.

Libby wanted the store to be called Madeline’s, after their daughter. They almost called it Einhorn, the German word for unicorn, but that got nixed (by Matt’s mom). Matt suggested Libby’s; she protested but he won.

After taking a tour of the shop and watching a batch of ice cream being made, Dubois Elementary School third-graders got to enjoy a scoop of ice cream. Matt and his wife, Libby, said their new location is designed with young customers in mind. When moving two doors south a few months ago, they wanted to create a comfortable and open feeling.

They say their ice cream is heavy on love. Another key, they joke, is nicotine. That, Matt teases, is how despite eating ice cream every day — shakes are his favorite — he stays so fit; truth is he plays tennis regularly and can casually knock out a six-mile run.

The actual ingredients are as natural as you can get. There are items such as hand-buttered pecans (for butter pecan, a fan favorite) and hand-chopped bits for any flavor involving chocolate chunks. There’s real maple syrup in the pancake flavor, 20 or so bananas in each three-gallon tub of banana and three pounds of strawberries in each tub of strawberry. The bacon has real bacon (72 slices in every batch). Sweet corn has real corn. Dill pickle has real pickles. Chocolate jalapeño has real peppers pureed before they’re tossed in. The German chocolate cake, a special around Strassenfest time, is so thick with ingredients that it’s the most difficult to create.

Matt isn’t as thrilled by artificial flavors like cotton candy, but the stripes in those tubs are hand-stirred. To make bubble gum flavor more authentic, he adds pieces of actual gum.

Libby’s is heavier, less air. That’s why it takes longer to melt.

“Truly homemade,” Matt says. “We don’t use preservatives. Just real stuff.”

With the flavors, there are no limits.

He’s made somewhere north of 110 and is always messing around. Pixie Dust? He wanted ice cream that sparkles. Java Chip? An idea from folks at Stens Corp., a Jasper company that often orders dessert. Nutter Butter? Somebody at Walmart who approached Matt with an idea. Blue Ribbon Blondie? That was supposed to be just Blondie, with vanilla Oreos in vanilla ice cream, but Matt added the blue ribbon as a nod to child abuse awareness.

Taking a break from the hot sun and Jasper Community Arts Commission Chalk Walk last Saturday, Bailey Hagan of Jasper, 4, tasted a fresh scoop of Cookie Monster ice cream at Libby's. Matt said there is often a group waiting for the store to open during busy events on Courthouse Square like the Chalk Walk and Strassenfest.

“I make flavors I like,” Matt admits.

His favorite is vanilla, believe it or not, sometimes with caramel blended in. Red velvet and strawberry-banana are good, too.

He has failed. Tomato basil was so terrible he vowed never to make it again; still, one customer has asked multiple times for a rerun. Black licorice, a seasonal flavor during Strassenfest and Christmas, is his least favorite.

“The devil’s version of candy,” he says.

Still, it sells in a hurry.

The store has 17 employees and Matt, the man with constant smile who’s forever been in love with going overboard with customer service, has done and continues to do everything. Last week, the day before the annual Jasper Community Arts Commission Chalk Walk, he cranked out four containers of cotton candy. Kids like that. And if cotton candy runs out, they find something else. There’s plenty to choose from. Wait long enough, and the ice cream man will think of something else.

No recipe necessary.

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