DENVER • You know when you’re in love with someone and they surprise you in one of those really thoughtful they-know-you-so-well ways?
That’s the kind of emotion Paul Tamburello wants to inspire at his ice cream shops.
“That’s as close as I can get to describing it,” he says. “When something like that happens, it just blows you away. It’s like, ‘Wow, this person loves me so much that they did this.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”
He’s talking about the stuff of first-date butterflies or opening the perfect birthday present or happy tears while watching a wedding dance. He thinks an ice cream shop, built the right way, can serve up that level of joy.
It’s why he built his first Little Man Ice Cream store in the form of a 28-foot-tall milk can made of steel. At his newest location, called The Factory, visitors enter through what looks like an old-school refrigerator. Buckets of ice cream are delivered to the front counter via an overhead conveyor belt built by Tamburello. There’s also a slide in the back, and you can imagine the excitement on a person’ face when, going up the steps to take a ride, they notice a plastic upside-down ice cream cone atop one stair.
Tamburello loves details like that, which he says “add senses of wonder to your life.”
“I love the idea of surprise and delight,” he says. “I love when something is just over the top.”
And, that’s what you’ll find at his ice cream places.
The beginning of Little Man the ice cream business is a side item for Tamburello. His main game is real estate development; he is behind restaurants such as Root Down and Linger as well as LoHi Market Place and Highland Lofts. When the vacant space next to Linger came up, Tamburello’s imagination started to swirl.
“I thought, ‘What if we could build a fun, old-time ice cream location and make it a really fun community hub,” he says.
He was inspired by “California Crazy,” a book that details old roadside stores around the state, like a drive-thru doughnut shop that looked like a giant doughnut and a lemonade stand that looked like a giant lemon.
He thought, “Oh my god, we gotta do our version of that.”
Since Tamburello opened Little Man Ice Cream in 2008, it has become a must-stop place for Denver residents and visitors. The store has grabbed national attention for its look and it often has an hourlong wait on the weekends. It’s usually a cheerful place, but people do get mad if Little Man runs out of Salted Oreo, its most popular flavor.
Within the last two years, Tamburello and his team have opened four sister stores that are dramatically different from the Can, as the original is nicknamed, and each is equally eye-catching. A fifth sister store, an ‘80s-themed store called Dang will offer soft-serve ice cream and french fries. It is expected to open this fall at Oneida Park in Denver.
When asked about the secret to Little Man’s success, Tamburello doesn’t have a clear answer. “First off, it’s good ice cream,” he says before correcting himself. “No, it’s more than that.” After all, there are dozens of places to get ice cream within a few miles of Little Man. But a lot of people choose Little Man.
Inside The Factory
After the Can came Sweet Cooie’s, a small shop paying homage to Chicago’s old-fashioned soda shops. The inside looks like a Tiffany’s jewelry box. Paul named it after his mother, who died right before it opened on Valentine’s Day in 2017.
There’s also one called Old Town Churn in Fort Collins that takes the form of a 26-foot-tall antique wooden ice cream churn bucket. Another location — called The Constellation — was inspired by the Denver neighborhood’s ties to aviation as the original home of Stapleton International Airport. There, patrons can find a flambeed baked Alaska ice cream cake pop and other airfare-themed treats. Oh, and the shop is a replica of a 75-foot aircraft wing.
Tamburello refuses to open boring places.
“Familiarity destroys wonder,” he says. “For me, I want when a kid to walk up into a location and have that sense of wonder that’s beyond ice cream. We want to create this magical experience for people.”
This year, Tamburello stepped up the magic with The Factory, which opened in July on West Colfax Avenue in Denver. It’s a 6,000-square-foot ice cream factory and tasting room, where all of Little Man’s ice cream is produced, including for 70 wholesale clients. The spacious room is packed with whimsical surprises and offers a window — literally — into the process of how the crew makes ice cream, ice cream sandwiches and cookies.
On a recent visit, head chef Claire Fields was making a lemon lavender ice cream and testing out a soft serve recipe for the new location.
“This is the hub of everything we do now,” Fields says. “There’s always something happening here.”
It’s a relief for her that it’s open. Before The Factory, Little Man’s ice cream was made out of a 400-square-feet kitchen in a Victorian house near the Can.
“We were just exploding at the seams,” she says. “It was not possible to stay there with how we were growing.”
In the summer, they make about 3,500 gallons of ice cream per week. Fields says she is “constantly in awe of the scale.”
“We still think of ourselves as this small operation,” Fields said. “It’s kind of mind boggling to think about the rapid growth.”
And there’s no sign of stalling, says Basha Cohen, the brand’s director of marketing.
“Requests come in all of the time,” she says.
The team is, currently, very busy and very choosy. They’ll probably open more locations, but not any that look anything like the others.
“With each one, we’re thinking about that neighborhood and developing community,” Cohen says.
Cohen organizes weekly events, from swing dancing to live music, at each location. The Can has repeatedly been voted the city’s best date spot by local publications. Couples get engaged there.
“Frankly, you can go buy Ben & Jerry’s at the grocery store and it’s delicious,” she says. “But sometimes you want more than that. It’s all about the experience.”
Before Tamburello got into real estate, he was a youth pastor. He’s still in the business of helping people through Little Man.
He started Scoop for Scoop, a point of pride for Tamburello. For every scoop of ice cream purchased, the company donates a scoop of rice, beans or other essential goods to needy communities around the world.
Cohen describes her boss as the most caring person she’s ever met. “His heart is as big as the Can,” she says.
And always close to Tamburello’s heart has been ice cream. His family didn’t have a lot of money, so ice cream trips were special. As a kid, some of his favorite birthday parties were at The Soda Straw in Denver.
“It was like ice cream on steroids,” he says. “It was the best experience. And I don’t feel like we have a lot of those things anymore... things to do that are approachable for a family, but still really fun and special.”
Ice cream was around for some of Tamburello’s fondest memories with his family, including his father, who Tamburello describes as “small in stature, big in heart.”
Because of his size, people called his father Little Man. When you think about what the name means now, there’s nothing small about it.