Foodstuffs: From Shark Tank to New Hampshire, Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream is Good, Cold Fun

Jun 1, 2017

It started one June night a few years back. Rita and Mark McCabe were sitting at home after a long day of work. Mark turned to Rita and said: "Hey, is anybody at work talking about some show called 'Shark Tank'?"

"Shark Tank" is the TV show where entrepreneurs try to sell shares of their business to investors.

"I said no, I'd never heard of it," Rita McCabe says. "He said, 'Well, let's put it on.' And Jerry and Naomi Hancock came on."

The Hancocks introduce themselves to the investors on the show. "Our family business is Sub Zero Ice Cream. And today we're going to blow you away. And we're asking for $300,000 dollars," Jerry Hancock says. Then he twists a knob on a tank and blows a cloud of liquid nitrogen at the investors. Nobody turns into a block of ice. Liquid nitrogen evaporates almost instantly. Then the Hancocks explain how they use liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze cream into ice cream.

"Within seconds, your ice cream goes from liquid to frozen," Naomi Hancock explains. "We never get tired of seeing people's reaction as they see their ice cream freeze right in front of their eyes. Kids love it!"

"So they make the pitch," Mark McCabe says. "I basically jump out of my chair. So did Rita. We go: Look at this! This is gonna be awesome!"

Rita and Mark McCabe had never started a business before. At the time, they were working for BAE Systems. Rita worked in export compliance, which is about as sexy as it sounds. But here was an opportunity to escape the cubicle.

"Mark and I were like, well we could stay here for the next fifteen years and hope we don't get laid off," Rita says, "or take the risk of this opportunity and run with it and see what happens."

Rita and Mark McCabe at their Sub Zero Ice Cream & Yogurt shop in Nashua, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

So they did some research, made some phone calls, visited the Hancocks in Utah, and then they opened a Sub Zero Ice Cream and Yogurt shop in Nashua, the first and only one in New England.

Brendan Terrazzi is a repeat customer here at Sub Zero. He got mint. He says he likes what Subzero offers.

"It's different," he says. "I mean, no other ice cream place freezes your ice cream. And liquid nitrogen is kinda cool. Because it's like, really cold, you know?"

Very cold. The liquid nitrogen freezes the cream so quickly, air and ice crystals can't get in. Mark McCabe says this makes it creamier.

"Unless you use something that is colder than liquid nitrogen, you can’t make a more dense, creamy ice cream," he says.

Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen also plays well as a science lesson. Mark and Rita use it as a teaching tool everywhere from classrooms to assisted living facilities. Little kids love the visual experiments, like: what happens when a blown-up balloon is dipped in liquid nitrogen? Spoiler: it shrinks.

Rita McCabe behind the counter at Sub Zero Ice Cream & Yogurt in Nashua, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

"But when we get into middle school, high school, we get into formulas, the Ideal gas law, condensation and evaporation," Rita McCabe says.

Rita and Mark McCabe say Nashua's Sub Zero is profitable at least in part because of events at schools and private parties. Clean-up is easy. There are no big freezers, just cream, flavor shots, toppings, and a tank of liquid nitrogen. Mark McCabe says the growth possibilities are exciting.

"Because this is like a whole new generation, a whole new century, this is like the future of ice cream," Mark McCabe says. "And it is."

As for their future, the McCabes say they're hoping to work with other would-be entrepreneurs to spread Sub Zero across New England.