The ice cream show

(First published in the August 29, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Biggby Coffee’s new nitrogen-created ice cream is a delight watch as it’s created before your eyes


Tom Belongia, owner of Biggby’s, makes nitrogen ice cream, under the brand Milkster, at his Bridge Street store.

It’s no accident that when you get one of the new Milkster nitrogen ice creams at Biggby Coffee on Bridge Street in Wausau, it is prepared as you watch. You will. Want. To watch.

That’s because there is no inventory of pre-made ice cream. The process of custom-making individual servings is part of the show. Behind glass and facing the customer, the employee measures out the ice milk, adds the flavorings needed for the mini-batch, and turns to the liquid nitrogen tank for the substance the process is built around. A white fog forms in the air above the liquid nitrogen as it boils off when it gets warmer than minus 321° F.

The Milkster experience is part culinary and part science lesson. Companies that make grocery-store ice cream, which is up to 50% air by volume, obsess over the mixing process. Mixed quickly enough, the air bubbles break down into smaller ones, giving the consumer a feeling of creaminess in the product. But if you mix ice cream too fast, ice crystals get so big the ice cream takes on a coarse texture.

By adding the super-cold liquid nitrogen to the mix, ice cream freezes so quickly there’s no worry about air bubbles or ice crystals.

The developer of Milkster is a Biggby franchisee in Michigan, who learned about nitrogen ice cream while visiting Europe, and upon returning home, set to work to duplicate the process here. Tom Belongia of Wausau, who owns the Bridge Street Biggby and others in Rib Mountain and Marshfield with his father, William Belongia, was interested right away.

What goes in the dish or cone is creamy ice cream and nothing else. By the time it’s handed to the customer, all the nitrogen has boiled off. Even if there were still nitrogen left in the product, Belongia points out that it’s harmless: ““The air you breathe is 78% nitrogen.”

Not all Biggby locations have the Milkster ice cream option. Soon after Belongia heard about it, he decided to check out the location where it was debuting. He says, “My first reaction was ‘Wow’ and most people’s reaction is ‘Wow.’ It’s a neat visual show.”

Belongia is unabashed when describing the product, saying, “It is the best, creamiest, smoothest ice cream you’ve ever had.” The list of around 10 flavors up on the board is a starting point, he says, with the only limit being the ingredients they have on hand.

Affogato, ice cream topped with hot espresso, is one of Belongia’s favorite flavors, but there’s also mint chocolate chip (flavored with fresh mint that is broken into bits after being frozen rock-hard in liquid nitrogen), salted caramel, Ferrero rocher with crisp rice and chocolate and Biscoff voyage made with cookie butter, coffee and espresso. They are also stocking a mix for vegan or lactose-intolerant customers.

As an added touch, customers who order their nitrogen ice cream in a dish notice right away that the portion of the spoon touching the ice cream changes colors, changing back when pulled away. “When ordering spoons, the eighth-grader came out in me,” Belongia says.

Belongia owns the shop on Bridge Street, as well as those on 3140 Rib Mountain Drive and another at 1710 N. Central St. in Marshfield. He is now in charge of assisting and guiding all new Biggby franchisees in Wisconsin, currently helping with shops opening in Sheboygan and Milwaukee.