When you walk into Pugnuts Ice Cream Shop in Surry, you immediately feel like you’re in a happy place. Michael Jackson blasts on the stereo. Mardi Gras beads and garlands of colorful paper ice cream cones hang from the ceiling. The shop’s namesake, pugs — ceramic, plush, robotic, emblazoned onto objects — are displayed on nearly every available surface in the spacious, brightly-lit storefront. Outside, flowers tumble out of huge planters, and a big, comfortable bench beckons those eager to sit down on a warm day, and get into eating their cone or cup.
But it’s the gelato, ice cream, sorbet, ice cream bars and custom ice cream cakes, all made in house, that are the stars of this shop. Served out of two huge, custom glass cases, the frozen treats are available in every color of the rainbow, and in more than 50 flavors including Sweet Cream and Rosewater, Caramel Kettle Corn and Nutella.
From pans packed full of freshly made gelato — a frozen treat similar to ice cream, but made with more milk than cream, more boldly flavored and served at a warmer temperature — to ice cream bars in shapes like lobster claws and hearts, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
“Gelato is just so much fun. You can decorate it in a million ways, with feathers and boas and beads. It can be over the top. It’s like a Carmen Miranda headdress,” said Karl Holmes, 54, who with his husband, Eric Treworgy, opened Pugnuts in Spring 2016. “It’s the drag queen of the ice cream world.”
Pugnuts — so named because the couple are “nuts” for pugs, and because it’s a silly, memorable name — came about after Treworgy and Holmes decided they wanted to try to find a way to work together, now that they were newly married and living in Surry.
Treworgy, who grew up in Milo, had worked for years as a software engineer in New York and in Texas; Holmes, who grew up in Bangor, is a master gardener, and maintained gardens at homes and estates in Mount Desert Island.
They wanted to do something creative. They wanted to do something fun. They wanted to do something that made people happy. What better way to do that than make ice cream?
“It came about as a result of a joke, initially. We originally wanted to buy an old church that was for sale in Surry, and we were going to call it ‘Holy Cow’ and sell ice cream,” said Treworgy, 60. “The church didn’t end up working out, but the ice cream parlor idea stuck.”
The pair attended a week-long ice cream intensive course in late 2015 at Penn State University, learning all the ins and outs of making great ice cream. In early 2016, they attended Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, to do the same with gelato. After shopping around for a location, they bought 1276 Surry Road, in a historic 19th century building that formerly housed the Surry General Store. In June 2016, Pugnuts opened its doors.
Though they are equal partners in the business, Treworgy generally handles the marketing and money matters, while Holmes, with his extensive experience in gardening and floral design, is the creative mind behind much of the ice cream and gelato they produce.
“For me, it’s got to look as nice as it tastes,” said Holmes. “I draw inspiration from a lot of places. My background in horticulture means that I like to be inspired by trees, by flowers, by things you’d find in nature… we didn’t want to be edgy, though. We want it all to be accessible.”
While standard issue flavors like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and pistachio are available as both ice cream and gelato, most of what’s at Pugnuts is anything but standard issue. Holmes offers up a series of flavors that he calls collections — three or four varieties grouped together as a themed assortment of flavors.
The current collections include Northwoods, which includes the flavors Oak with Whiskey Sauce, Birch Bark (made with the birch syrup used in birch beer) and Maple Walnut. The East Meets West collection includes Almond, Rosewater and Cardamom, Ginger and Geranium, and Lavender Honey, and the Come To The Fair collection features Caramel Kettle Corn and Cotton Candy — the latter a popular flavor among the shop’s youngest customers.
Other specialties include Pug Passion (almond, cherry, pistachio and chocolate), the Munchies (pretzels, potato chips, Ritz crackers and M&M’s in vanilla ice cream), Panna Cotta with Butterscotch and Caramel, and one-off flavors, like Candy Corn Crunch for Halloween, Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving, and Eggnog for Christmas. A rotating selection of dairy-free sorbets are available as well, including flavors like blueberry, honeydew melon, blood orange and an outrageously tasty pink grapefruit. They make it all fresh, so there’s lots of room for experimentation.
There are also some Maine classics, like Grapenut, Rum Raisin, Fruit Pudding and Allen’s Coffee Brandy — some as ice cream, some as gelato.
“We’re in Down East Maine, and people want to have that kind of old-fashioned Maine experience,” said Treworgy. “Grapenuts is such a Maine thing. We love having the old-timey stuff.”
Beyond scoops, cones and sundaes, Pugnuts also offers an array of ice cream bars and sandwiches and ice cream cakes — formed in silicon molds and finished with a cocoa butter coating to give them either a suede or glossy sheen. They’ve also done some seasonal specialties.
“We had the idea to do ice cream Easter eggs this year, and they were really popular,” said Treworgy. “We did a good business for Valentine’s Day too.”
Ever the people pleasers, Treworgy and Holmes try to cultivate community beyond simply serving ice cream. They sponsor events like a visit from Santa at Christmas, and an antique auto drive-in, and host impromptu parties, like one held during a blizzard last winter. And, of course, they welcome dogs — a vanilla and bacon “Puppy Bowl” is on the menu just for them.
“We just want to have fun. That’s what ice cream is really all about, isn’t it?” said Treworgy.
Pugnuts Ice Cream Shop is open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and noon to 6 p.m. Mondays. For more information, call 412-0086.