Balloons were everywhere, along with a live ragtime piano, dollar-kiddie scoops and genuine home-made root beers, not to mention pie à la mode. Forest Park’s Brown Cow ice cream parlor and soda fountain celebrated its 10th birthday March 1 and 2.
Owner Connie Brown recalls, “My husband and I were nomads. Matt is a retired U.S. Army captain – his expertise was in de-mining minefields – and when we were first married, he was stationed in Texas and I had a marketing job in downtown Chicago,” she said.
“I took the train from the western suburbs to work, and when I passed Forest Park I used to think how nice it would be to live there.”
The Browns now live in Forest Park with their three children: Keagan, nearly 12, Peyton, 9, and Cassidy, 7.
Strangely, Brown says, popular as the Cow has been since it opened ten years ago, only about 10-12 percent of customers are actually from Forest Park. “It’s a destination for sure,” says Brown. Brown Cow has been hailed by U.S. News as one of America’s best ice cream parlors, and WGN named it Best Ice Cream in Chicago.
Brown has been as faithful as possible to the atmosphere of the early-20th-century ice cream parlor. She’s been inspired by the building itself: originally (in 1886) a house of burlesque, the building at 7347 Madison St. was used as a movie theatre from 1912 until around 1940. After that, it was storage for Famous Liquors and briefly as Krenek’s Antiques.
Adapting Brown Cow to its current use, Brown upcycled materials from unlikely sources. The high ceilings and moldings inside are original. The shelves of the soda fountain were a reclaimed wooden baker’s rack. Large light fixtures over the soda fountain “came from the Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago.” And the handsome woodwork and doors “were going to be thrown out of a mansion that was being torn down on Lake Shore Drive,” Brown said.
Brown Cow makes its own root beer, and does sodas the old-school drugstore way, with flavored syrups stirred into soda water in a frosty mug. The pies and pastries are in-house, too, and Brown says if it seems pricy, it’s really not when compared to chain ice cream shops. A large selection of ice cream cakes is available, and the coffee is locally roasted, supplied by Blue Max in Forest Park. Blue Max in turn offers Brown Cow ice cream to its customers.
Brown got into the business at the right time. When her company downsized, it was time to reassess her career. Despite her college background in international politics and Romance languages, a new idea emerged. The then-28-year-old Brown ran with it, saying to herself, “If I build it, they will come.”
“I had worked at ice cream places, including Colonial out in Geneva, since high school so I knew the business,” said Brown. “I was a manager at age 15!
“Matt and I wanted to create a place where families could celebrate together,” she added.
“I also wanted to spend time with my kids, and having this business enables me to take them to and from school and see them at bedtime, unlike the marketing job, which required travel,” she said.
“My favorite thing is the people, getting to know them, watching a baby taste his first ice cream. We’ve had engagements here, followed by the baby shower, followed by that baby’s birthday party!”
The soundtrack of the restaurant is a collection of music, put together at Brown’s request by Peter Gianakopoulos of The Old School Records: all early twentieth-century ragtime and jazz, as befits the building. Brown’s iPod, she says, has been playing those tunes, “for eight years straight.”
Work/life balance is important to Brown, who insists that her staff – “which includes a lot of workaholics!” – also take time for themselves. Ten years ago, there were only four workers; today, the Cow employs 18 full- and part-time people. But the whole Brown family has been involved from the start.
“Ten years ago,” marvels Brown, pointing to a large sink, “Keegan was sitting in that sink to keep him in sight and out of the way when we were working. Today, he’s making waffle cones!” Keegan expertly crafted the Brown Cow’s signature waffle cones ahead of the celebration.
“Someone said there are two important days in your life: the day you born and the day you find out why,” Brown said. “This is why. This is what I was meant to do.”