by Brian Kaiser

Sugar on Top

There’s a line forming at Cream & Sugar, in Columbus’s Hilltop neighborhood, but the owner and her crew are working fast, elbow-to-elbow, to serve Coney dogs, paired with slushies and $1 soft serve.

Kids seated under umbrellas at outdoor tables are caught up in the fun. They shout the punchline of their silly, made-up jokes, laughing joyfully. Here on the top of the hill, you won’t find nightly fire pits or upscale food trucks. No one is struggling with which IPAs to order in their flight. There are no fast food chains surrounding Cream & Sugar, and a noticeable lack of coffee shops, vegan bakeries,, or “farm-to-table” cafés.

Instead, families struggling to get by have their spirits lifted by sharing a $1 kid’s cone.

Property values are down in the Hilltop, where foreclosed houses sit empty and boarded up. The area is in need of attention, investment, and improvement, but the size of the depressed neighborhood makes it less conducive to targeted improvement efforts. This cute little ice cream stand, with its bubblegum pink and green branding, is making an impact. Owner Rachel Upton has a vision for the neighborhood and wants to give back.

This is her home, where her friends and family come together.

This is her Hilltop.

What does Cream & Sugar bring to the neighborhood?

One: a quality food establishment.

“We offer high quality ingredients and as many locally-sourced products as possible,” she said. “The people in the community deserve that.”

Two: a community partner.

“We support the locals schools, summer events like the Hilltop Bean Dinner, Summer Jam West –Arts in the Park, and the Westgate Farmer’s Market, to name a few,” she said.

And three: neighborhood revitalization.

“The building was boarded up for 3 years. We completely rebuilt it and take pride in our space by keeping it clean and planting flowers,” she said.

A gentleman wearing the clothes he slept in can visit Cream & Sugar to take advantage of a “suspended coffee,” prepaid by a stranger. He can order anything from the menu in the dollar amount that was donated. We’ve all felt isolated one time or another and this program combats that.

Many have suggested she uproot and move to a more affluent neighborhood. Upton refuses—even in the face of a recent vandalism that cost her as much as some days’ total sales to fix.

“It’s important to me not only because I live here, but also because this area deserves a quality place and I believe that the Hilltop and the entire West Side can turn around into the once-vibrant area it used to be,” she said. “I want to be part of that change!” 

Upton also carries out her mission by pairing with other like-minded Ohio businesses. Serving a high quality local product is more expensive—and comes with smaller profit margins. Upton says it’s worth it to serve coffees roasted by hand by central Ohio’s Stauf’s. She serves Falter’s hot dogs, from the Southside of Columbus, working with the fifth generation to run the business. Shredded chicken comes from Roots Poultry in Fremont, where Upton grew up.

“It’s important to support each other to stay in business,” Upton said. “Also, they are just better products in most cases.”

Upton and her team dedicate themselves to neighborhood beyond just slinging cones and coneys.

The first Sunday of every month, from noon to two, volunteers gather to clean up Sullivant Ave., one bag of trash at a time. They are rewarded with a sense of community, the sense of a place worth taking care of.

“Trash lying around makes it appear that nobody cares and invites things like crime,” Upton said. “It also costs nothing to pick up trash and my hope is that it will encourage others to not throw their trash on the ground. . . The community supports this; I have met new, wonderful people each time.”

There are regulars at Cream & Sugar, and the staff knows many by name. A cone and coffee loyalty program, along with a weekly raffle for any item on the menu, encourages patrons to visit often. One of these loyal customers, Paige Ferriot, describes Upton’s impact.

“Her ice cream is divine and her business ethic is admirable,” she said. “Her shop isn’t in the best part of town, and many have suggested that she move. She is committed to being a positive force in the area. This woman is making a difference on a local level. I admire that so much.”

Cream & Sugar opened in 2014 and is located at 2185 Sullivant Ave. It is accessible on COTA bus line #6, and open from 2–9 p.m. daily. For more, visit creamnsugarshop.com.

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