Eats: Fielder’s Choice ice cream covers all the bases

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SABATTUS — Come on. You know you want it. You’re always in the mood. One of the great oral experiences in life is the shivering, sugary explosion of ice cream on the tongue. Tinged with mint, fraught with fudge or streaked with strawberries from the season’s sunny bounty, the American ice cream adventure is a comestible soundtrack for summer, and Fielder’s Choice in Sabattus aims to keep it that way.

Known for low prices and monster portions (a medium cone has three baseball-sized scoops), and flavors like baked Indian pudding from owner Mike Jillson’s grandmother’s recipe, Fielder’s Choice hits it out of the park according to loyal fans who come from as far north as Vassalboro and even from Massachusetts.

The story of this family-business-that-almost-wasn’t — with ice cream flavors infused with real Maine maple syrup (a family tradition Mike acquired from an aunt and uncle who own Jillson Farms) as well as  blueberries and strawberries from Roaring Brook Nurseries just down the road in Wales — is a tale for the ice cream annals.

Now in its sixth season, card-carrying ice cream and baseball addict Mike, a state trooper, and insurance agent wife Sue, both Sabattus natives who met when they were 10, opened their thriving ice cream shop in what was to be an insurance office for Sue.

“The horror story is that we bought this two-acre parcel in 2005 because it was the perfect spot for an office,” Sue said. “There was an existing structure – like a two-car garage built into a hill — with grass right over it for a roof.”

Though the town approved it, Sue’s employer, Horace Mann Insurance, didn’t think it was an ideal location, and the couple was stuck with it. Brainstorming with friends, the concept of an ice cream shop — a natural extension of Mike’s predilection — was born.

The Jillsons actually chose “The Dugout” as a suitable name for the small structure dug into a hill, as it was, until an inspection found it to be unsafe. With input from Lewiston excavation contractor Roger Beaulieu, what was wrong was made right by way of an improved lot and brand new building.

“We were absolutely terrified, but we never looked back,” Sue said of their decision not to sell the property in light of its troubles, which had occurred to them early on.

Forgiving fans

Knowing nothing of the food business, the Jillsons admitted they had no plan, and reached out to people like the man who repairs their ice cream machinery. “It was kind of trial and error,” Mike said. “Nobody showed us how to do it.”

“The repairman gave us a one-hour class on how things work,” Sue recalled, and from there they set a course that includes using fresh Oakhurst milk for an ice cream base, though a mix is easier and has a longer shelf life. “It just doesn’t taste as good,” Sue said, noting machines are dismantled and cleaned every two weeks to ensure optimal sanitation and taste.

Creating an ice cream menu rife with baseball vernacular, like the word “bunt” for a baby portion and “minor” and “major” for the size of frappes, didn’t escape the Jillsons’ creativity and attention to detail, nor did the inclusion of rich, sugar-free flavors made with Splenda and a drive-through in part to accommodate elderly and disabled customers. A second parking lot was also eventually added to cut down on hazardous street parking along Route 126.

On opening day in 2006, which was delayed from the previous year when an inadequate septic system was discovered at a final inspection, the Jillsons said the event was “hilarious and terrifying.”

Staffed with family friend Debbie Daggett, their then-high school-aged sons Josh and Nate, and “no idea how to make a cone,” they were greeted by legions of people when the windows opened. When their first customer ordered a “Dugout Floor” sundae from their huge menu outside, they had to ask him what it was.

“We didn’t have food service experience, so we didn’t have a copy of our menu inside,” Mike conceded. “We screwed everything up that first day, but people were so good to us. We are really fortunate to be in this community.”

On another occasion in the first season, before they could afford air conditioning, Mike described a heat wave during which all three service windows and the drive-through were going non-stop from opening to closing bell. “Our soft serve machine was working so hard, as soon as we stopped pulling the handle for a 10-second break, it froze up,” Mike said.

Discovering two frozen cylinders, a hair dryer was used to dislodge the ice, but as soon as they thawed just a little, their entire contents slid out onto the floor, followed by the equivalent of several buckets of liquid.

“It covered the shop, and I wanted to go in the back and cry,” Mike said, who described with Sue how customers — which they estimated numbered about 60 and were frying outside at that point — told them to take their time cleaning it up.

Home team teens

Staffed with high school students, the Jillsons said employees are hand-picked from their close-knit community, many of whom return each season and some of whom have made plans to work at Fielder’s Choice through college. Sons Josh, 22, at college in Kentucky on a baseball scholarship and currently being scouted by the majors, and Nate, 19, a college student in Orono, have been critical to the success of the business in their own ways. “It’s a family affair, even if they didn’t want it to be,” Sue said of their strenuous efforts and sacrifice to build a business as both parents worked full-time jobs in addition.

When faced with an attractive offer to sell at the end of their third season, the Jillsons said the prospective owners had expressed an intention to decrease the shop’s legendary portion sizes and increase prices to maximize profits. “It did something to me. They were going to destroy it all, and I said we couldn’t let this happen,” said Sue.

For Monmouth residents Shawn and Jennifer Sherwin, and their daughters Allison, 5, and Madelyn, 11 months, Fielder’s Choice is at least a tri-weekly event. “We were here the day after I came home from my Caesarean,” Jennifer recalled, noting that baby Madelyn gets a yen for the baked Indian pudding, something owner Mike actually identified as an “acquired taste” due to uncommon ingredients like ginger, tapioca and molasses.

Baking their own giant cookies for the shop’s legendary “Raider Biscuits,” which are stuffed with about four inches of ice cream, Mike noted they had one fan who special ordered 60 to 70 to see her through the long winter, when they are closed.

“We can’t get away from it,” he quipped, noting a rare and cherished day off to Reid State Park one summer when a swimmer recognized them in the water, asking for some Fielder’s Choice ice cream.

Fielder’s Choice

637 Sabattus Road, Sabattus

375-4400

Hours: Open seven days a week, noon-9 p.m.

Make you own ‘Dugout Floor’

Take your favorite ice cream flavor and add hot fudge, peanut butter sauce, peanut butter cups and whipped cream.

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