Jackie Zheng says there’s nothing colder — or more fun — than his Thai rolled ice cream 

  • Jackie Zheng of Absolute Zero Thai rolled ice cream works to fill an order at the new downtown Northampton business. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jackie Zheng fills an order for customer Briana Collazo, 10, of Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Colby Cruz, 2, of Northampton enjoys his “treat.”Monkey Business” ice cream. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Each serving is made to order with flavors and toppings of the customer’s choosing. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zheng pour cream onto a cold plate as he begins to fill an order. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Four ice cream rolls and whatever toppings you choose make a single serving. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Courtney Cruz of Northampton, right, hands her 2-year-old son, Colby, his order of “The Monkey Business” ice cream topped in rainbow sprinkles. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zheng rolls the frozen cream. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zheng keeps his customers entertained as he fills their orders. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Customers can choose from 30 toppings. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Absolute Zero Thai rolled ice cream shop opened on Main Street, Northampton in June. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Courtney Cruz of Northampton, right, hands her 2-year-old son, Colby, his order of “Thai rolled ice cream July 25, 2017 at Absolute Zero in Northampton.”Monkey Business” ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Friday, August 04, 2017

Entertainment is probably not the first thing on your mind when you head for the ice cream parlor, but at Absolute Zero in Northampton, watching the staff make rolled Thai ice cream is as much fun as eating it.

The business, owned by husband and wife Michael Zheng and Jin-Chun Chen of Wilbraham, uses a recipe straight from Chinatown in New York City. The store has been packed with customers since it opened in June.

“It is sort of a performance,” says their son and head ice cream maker Jackie Zheng. “…I put my own little personality into it.”

The shop, a long narrow storefront on Main Street, has a giant painted image of a cartoon penguin eating ice cream on the wall behind the line of customers. There are a few tables scattered in the back. 

Zheng, 22, who asks customers their names and introduces himself, dances behind the counter to a soundtrack of pop tunes as he prepares orders. He pours a cream base onto a large cold plate and it begins to freeze in a matter of moments. With a metal scrapper he dices up whatever you choose for filling, say blueberries or Oreo cookies, and mixes it into the cream before it freezes completely. Then he scraps up thin strips of ice cream, rolling them into tubes about the size of rolls of quarters. About four of these, with whatever toppings you pick, make up one $7 serving.

Customers can choose from 10 flavors, like “Don’t Thai Me Down,” made with Thai ice tea powder and lychee berries or “The Monkey Business,” a mix of banana and Nutella. The most popular flavor so far is the Oreo ice cream, made with a crushed cookie, says Zheng. For those who are vegan or lactose intolerant, many of the flavors can be made dairy-free with soymilk.

There is a list of 30 toppings, including some unusual ones like Japanese pocky sticks, which are pretzels dipped in chocolate and mochi, which are Japanese rice cakes, and more usual ones, cereals such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs, crushed cookies and gummy bears. There is also a wide selection of sauces including the standard hot fudge.

People seem to be enjoying the offerings; Zheng says word is spreading over social media with friends sharing pictures of the ice cream over SnapChat.

“It is kind of a novelty,” says Kim Cotton of Northampton, who came to the shop on a recent afternoon to try a cup of the key lime flavor. She says that the $7 pricetag might keep her from coming back, but maybe not if her grandson, Colby Cruz, 2, has a say in the matter. He was gobbling up a serving of “The Monkey Business” covered in rainbow sprinkles, refusing even a taste to his mom, Courtney Cruz.

The ice cream itself is colder and not as sweet as other ice creams, says Zheng, who is a recent chemical engineering graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“The way it is rolled up, it stays colder, longer,” he says, which inspired the shop’s name. Absolute Zero, he explains, is the lowest temperature possible. “It is a lot colder than you would expect,” he says of his product. “It is almost too cold.” Zheng suggests waiting a few seconds before digging in. 

Zheng’s parents, who came to the United States, separately, from China a number of years ago, both worked their way up in the restaurant business, he says. His father, according to Zheng, slept in the back of the restaurant where he worked, until he finally saved up enough money to open his own, a Chinese take-out place in Springfield called the Red Apple.  

“It is a classic story,” Zheng says, “coming here with nothing, meeting each other and working hard together.”  

Since then, the family has owned two hibachi restaurants in the Springfield area, Tokyo Asian Cuisine and Tokyo Asian Fusion, while they continue to run the Red Apple. Zheng grew up running around their kitchens with his brother, James Zheng, working as a dishwasher, a busboy, a waiter and then a sushi chef.

“I also had to work my way up and I appreciate everything that I have,” he says.

Thai rolled ice cream shops have been cropping up in big cities around the country, Zheng says, and when his family saw one during a trip to New York City a few years ago, they decided to give it a try here.  

“This is up and coming. It is a really neat idea and we decided, “why not?’ ” he says. 

His brother, James Zheng, 21, a chemical engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, went to Chinatown to learn to make it and then taught the rest of the family.  

Now, Jackie Zheng and his mother, Jin-Chun Chen, work at the ice cream shop on most days while James continues his college studies. Michael Zheng concentrates on running the other restaurants and drops off ingredients that they buy in bulk from Restaurant Depot in Chicopee and supplies that are sourced from Chinatown.

Zheng says he’s enjoying the new business, but will be headed back to school at UMass Amherst in the fall to study engineering management and hopes eventually to work in the aerospace industry. While in school, he will continue to work at the shop part-time. But until then, he will continue putting in 11-hour days, seven days a week at Absolute Zero.

“To see it come together and be a part of that is really unique,” he says. “We just want to say thank you to everyone who has come in, so far, and to everyone who will come in.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.