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New SugarBear ice cream parlor coming to Rivanna riverfront

As the warm summer months draw closer, Charlottesville residents may already have plans for a day kayaking down the Rivanna courtesy of the Rivanna River Company, strolling along the public river trail or grabbing a burger and a beer at Hogwaller Brewing

A sweet treat at a new ice cream parlor on the riverfront could be the cherry on top of a day out.

SugarBear, the Charlottesville-based, homemade ice cream company, is preparing to open its first brick-and-mortar location at 1522 E. High St. next to Hogwaller in the real estate once occupied by the Double Horseshoe Saloon.

SugarBear owner Emily Harpster’s vision is to create a “fun, comfortable, inviting space” where patrons can enjoy locally made ice cream from local ingredients: latte flavors from Lone Light Coffee on the Downtown Mall, strawberry jam from City Market regular Jam According to Daniel and blueberry chocolate from Starr Hill’s Gearharts Fine Chocolate.

Construction is ongoing to transform the Double Horseshoe, which shuttered in August of last year, into the SugarBear ice cream factory and parlor. The SugarBear patio is nearly complete — several power washes later — but not all of the Double Horseshoe is being washed away: Harpster managed to salvage some horseshoes from the building’s saloon days that she plans to find a home for in the new ice cream parlor.

“I really decided that I wanted to make a place where people could come make memories and have a good time,” Harpster told The Daily Progress.

Though this will be SugarBear’s first physical location, SugarBear ice cream has been available in several Charlottesville-area stores and wineries since 2022, including Foods of All Nations on Ivy Road, Feast! in Main Street Market, Blenheim Vineyard in Albemarle County south of Charlottesville, MarieBette café and bakery locations in the city and the Market shops at Tiger Fuel gas stations.

Harpster sees the SugarBear parlor as an experience, not just a means to sell more ice cream already available at other locations. Customers can pick up a scoop of “Wild Woman Whiskey” at the window and find a picnic table on the patio or play a game of cornhole, go on a safari searching for animal figurines Harpster has hidden in the landscaping or play some child-friendly ax-throwing.

Harpster is also dreaming up ways to collaborate with her High Street and Rivanna River neighbors in order to build out “Charlottesville’s riverfront.”

The city has been supportive of preserving this area for primarily recreational and retail purposes. In November, Charlottesville City Council unanimously voted down a proposed 245-unit, affordable housing complex on almost 24 acres of the river’s floodplain near Hogwaller and the Rivanna River Company. Councilors decided to instead purchase the property for nearly $6 million with the intention of making it a public space to “give us even more of a connection to the river,” said city councilor Brian Pinkston at a November meeting.

The property Harpster is now leasing for the SugarBear ice cream parlor was purchased during the negotiations by developer Edward Carrington, who saw the site as the place for a new access road for the apartment project. Carrington also envisioned wider roads and a parking lot to increase pedestrian access to the river. Though developer plans to build along the Rivanna River failed, Charlottesville’s riverfront seems to be developing more organically, starting with the Rivanna River Company, then Hogwaller and now SugarBear.

“All the businesses are so complementary. You can plug into it however you want,” said Harpster. “Maybe the grown-ups want to get a cheeseburger and a beer and bribe the kids so that they can get ice cream after.”

“Between the three of us we could build out a pretty fun destination for people to come hang out,” she continued. “I mean, you can spend a day out here because there’s so much going on all around.”

SugarBear will have a presence at the planned Riverside Jamboree next Saturday at the Rivanna River Company, and Harpster said she plans to create an ice cream float for her menu in honor of the water recreation business. Harpster has even been in touch with Mark Fulton, the brewer and co-owner of Hogwaller, about finding a way to mix their two loves of ice cream and beer.

“We haven’t landed on the flavor yet,” said Harpster. “But we’re in the process of figuring it out. We both have lots of ideas. There will definitely be a collaboration with Mark.”

Having to temporarily restrain her creativity does not come easily for Harpster, who said “making up flavors is my favorite thing.” But her focus right now is getting the store up and running by summer. She has not set a hard date for a grand opening, given the unpredictability of construction and the permitting process, but she said she is “getting it open as quickly as I can.”

Once renovations on the building’s facade, where customers will be able to order from a window, are complete, Harpster said she may begin opening in phases by selling only a limited menu of prepackaged treats such as ice cream sandwiches and small containers — to give people a little taste of what’s to come.

“I am really focused on starting with the flavors that people seem to have loved the most, that have been the best sellers,” Harpster said. “I think that’s kind of a fun and good way to introduce people to the brand.”

For the past two years, Harpster said she has been operating as a one-woman business out of MarieBette’s old kitchen, mostly because the space was too small to add another employee. She said with more elbow room on High Street — 7,321 square feet to be exact — she is as excited to grow her menu as she is to grow her workforce, in both the production and retail parts of her “passion project.”

A longtime foodie, Harpster said her ice cream obsession started as a hobby that grew to the point she could no longer cram another piece of equipment into her house. So, she decided to go to ice cream school, a literal course Pennsylvania State University has offered for more than 120 years, where she learned all the ins and outs of the business.

“I went to that with the thinking that it would be really nice if Charlottesville had the kind of ice cream that I want to eat, that just felt like a local brand,” said Harpster. “I always wanted to have a small business, and it finally got to the point in my life where it was time to make that leap.”

SugarBear ice cream will still be available at other retail locations once the flagship store is open, Harpster said. Locals have long enjoyed the Kilwins and Chaps parlors on the Downtown Mall, she said, and she just wants her own “happy place” to sell her sweet treats.

“It’s a happy, magic, little ice cream joint,” she said.


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