Sort-of Secret: Smilk Bars, an ice cream bar business from a graduate of Italy’s Gelato University
Part of our series spotlighting the city’s edible hidden gems
The sort-of secret: Smilk Bars, a one-man ice cream bar business
You may have heard of it if: You caught him at a pop-up this summer
But you probably haven’t tried it because: Smilk bars aren’t sold in stores (yet)
When Miles Caswell was a kid, his friends called him Smilk. “The nickname started as Milk. I’m pretty pale; I liked to drink milk—it just kinda stuck. In high school, for whatever reason, my friends added the S,” he says. “Now that I have an ice cream business, I like to think they sealed my fate.” Smilk specializes in decidedly grown-up ice cream bars with flavours like crème de cassis and spiced black treacle. Like many of the city’s up-and-coming sole proprietorships, Smilk was born in the haze of pandemic lockdowns.
Caswell works in costume department logistics for the film industry, which of course came to a grinding halt when Covid hit. His father has an ice cream machine, and Caswell started playing around with classic flavours like chocolate and vanilla. He’s still not sure what hooked him about making ice cream—he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. “It may have been that it was a blank canvas,” he says. “There’s so much room to experiment.” Before he knew it, Caswell found himself brainstorming ways to turn his hobby into a business. Inspired by Ed Francis, who took artisan gelato courses at Bologna’s Carpigiani Gelato University before starting Ed’s Real Scoop, Caswell enrolled in the spring of 2022.
Gelato university is exactly what it sounds like. The courses are short and intensive—a week each for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Students spend their mornings getting into the theory that underpins ice cream science (read: lots of math and chemistry), like the freezing power of different sugars or how they affect perceived sweetness. In the second half of each day, students pair up and run through recipes (with a little creative licence), followed by round-table discussions about what everyone learned. “I got so much out of it,” he says. “I have my ratios down to a formula now.”
When Caswell got home, he spent a few months catching up on film work while posting his ice cream experiments on social media. Then, last fall, he made his first ice cream bar. “That was the light bulb moment,” he says. “I knew immediately that bars are the way I want to approach this.” Part of the appeal was the slick, streamlined aesthetic of a bar versus a scoopable product—as well as the freedom to experiment with different coatings. “It was another route for creative expression,” he says. “This has been an amazing way to combine all the different things I find interesting.”
He isn’t just referring to branding, web design and photography, all of which played a part in setting up the business; his inspiration for flavours spans music, history and film. La Lupe, an ode to the late Cuban singer, has a dulce de leche base with a dark chocolate and roasted black sesame shell. Berliner Eisbar—yerba-maté with a caramel shell—was inspired by his younger days clubbing in Berlin, fuelled by Club-Mate, a highly caffeinated soda popular with the party crowd.
Caswell’s ice cream is custard-based and leans fatty and flavourful over cloyingly sweet. Suleiman’s Crunch, made with a warm Turkish spice paste called Mesir Macunu, is inspired by a chapter from history: Suleiman the Magnificent, a 15th-century sultan of the Ottoman emperor, purportedly commissioned the spice mix from a physician to heal his ailing mother. The paste-infused ice cream, coated in a crunchy crushed-almond and pistachio shell, tastes almost like warm chai to start, but finishes with a citrusy, minty coolness. Strawberry Letter 23, a dark chocolate shell around a strawberry base—one of the few sorbets on the menu (yes, they cover sorbet in gelato school)—tastes just like a chocolate-covered strawberry.
Caswell spent this summer selling Smilk bars at pop-ups and private events, from the garden party at Paris Paris (which, naturally, was called Garden Garden) to art shows, weddings and even bat mitzvahs. He also offers the option to commission a custom flavour for special events. And he recently purchased a vintage Dickie Dee cart to keep his bars cool while he motorbikes around the city (it makes for an adorable sidecar).
Heading into the winter months, Caswell hopes to keep the special-events side of Smilk going while nailing down a more comprehensive business plan—and laying the groundwork for the spring, including getting a street-vending permit. For now, you can order bars online or keep an eye on Smilk’s Instagram account to see where he might pop up next. And when the weather warms up again next year, hopefully he’ll be spotted pulling his branded cart around city parks. “I want to build something long-lasting,” he says. If Caswell’s strong start is any indication, the business should have as much staying power as his childhood nickname.