The sticky, sweet, topped with sprinkles, nuts, maraschino cherries and whipped cream type of memories.
Steinberger has owned and operated Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in the Village of Arroyo Grande since 2003, expanding during the last six years to include parlors in downtown San Luis Obispo and old town Orcutt.
“We are really in the memories business,” Steinberger said about his trio of shops that all feature some Willy Wonka-like whimsy as well as a bevy of unique, rotating ice cream flavors such as Straight to the Dentist, Elvis Special, Rootbeer Marble, German Chocolate Cake and the trademarked Motor Oil.
When Steinberger took over the iconic Burnard’Oz ice cream shop in the Village, he asked retiring owner Chuck Burns how many flavors he needed to make to ensure all his customers would be happy. Burns’ reply wasn’t what Steinberger expected.
“He said, ‘You really need to have one,’” Steinberger recalled. “Everyone cares about one flavor. You either have it or you don’t. If you have 100 flavors but you don’t have the one, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the one. People have a passion for a flavor and when you can provide that, that is great.”
To that end, customers at Doc Burnstein’s are treated to 32 flavors to chose from to top a cone, have scooped into a cup or turned into a sundae or shake, with 24 of those always in stock. Seven flavors also rotate at the beginning of the month and each site has its own unique flavor available exclusively to that parlor, such as Arroyo Grande’s “Rooster Tracks” and Orcutt’s “Orcutt Crunch.”
“We try to bring out everyone’s favorite at some point but it doesn’t always happen,” Steinberger said.
Just say ice cream and people want to share with others what the sweet treat evokes in their minds, which has been a highlight of making hand-crafted ice cream for more than a decade now, Steinberger said.
“It’s so delightful to hear people talk about what they did when they were kids or what they did with their grandchildren. It’s really what we tell our staff on day one. We aren’t in the ice cream business. We are in the memories business, and we want to make sure the experience is memorable.”
Also helping make a trip to Doc Burnstein’s memorable, Steinberger led a weekly ice cream lab show for 11 1/2 years at his flagship parlor in Arroyo Grande.
Donning a white lab coat, he transformed into Doc Burnstein for the show, where he would tell jokes, sing and interact with youthful participants that got to see how ice cream was made, while also offering ideas for flavors and names.
Straight to the Dentist, a sugary mix of cotton candy ice cream, miniature marshmallows and rainbow sprinkles that Steinberger said “can make your teeth hurt,” is one such flavor. The tongue-in-cheek ice cream name originated from the now-retired lab show, which generated 500 unique ice cream flavors and names from audience members.
“Straight to the Dentist was just one of those names that was too good,” Steinberger explained about the process of choosing new flavors and monikers. “Sometimes it’s the name and you have to make something fit. Straight to the Dentist; we love that name. It’s like sugar, sugar, sugar.”
Steinberger recently retired the popular ice cream lab show and plans to replace it with what he’s dubbing “The Ice Cream Lab Experience” that mixes the whimsy of Willy Wonka with the madness of Frankenstein. Inside his parlors, starting in Arroyo Grande, youth will be able to throw levers, switches and dials as they “electrify” a four-foot ice cream cone that’s laid out on a Franskenstein-like table and comes to life with lighted sprinkles, all under a fog of dry ice.
“So that’s when it’s alive; IT’S ALIVE,” Steinberger said in his best Dr. Frankenstein voice, a big smile on his face. “We want to actually allow kids to go in there and bring the ice cream to life. We want to … create a memory, a place unique like no other place.”
The Wisconsin native has also worked to create a business that gives back to the community and hopes to become a nationwide brand in the future, which is why he opted to replace the lab show with the soon-to-debut lab experience. He said it’s much easier to incorporate the lab experience into new stores than the show.
“How do you train for that?,” he asked rhetorically.
Steinberger credits his success, in part, to having the 27-year history of Burnard’Oz behind him when he opened the doors to Doc Burnstein’s, but he also believes it’s his model of providing great customer service and consistent, high-quality, hand-crafted ice cream with an experience to customers that has got him to where he is today.
“Customers appreciate that we care about the community,” he said. “Our real goal is that everybody feels good when they come into our store and that isn’t just great ice cream and customer service but feeling good about the business.”
Steinberger also believes in the old cliche of leaving things better than he found them and prides himself on creating a company that’s environmentally conscious — all the spoons and cups used at his parlors are biodegradable — as well as community owned.
“This community-based business model of mine would not have taken off in a big city,” he explained, adding Doc Burnstein’s supports charities such as LifeWater through donations at its parlors and has garnered enough money to see two wells drilled in Africa. “This was the place to launch and I hope we can spread it to other communities.”
Doc Burnstein’s also hosts a monthly blood drive at one of the three locations, has an employee scholarship day/fund, supports Make-A-Wish — helping to grant six wishes — and has held other fundraisers, such as Baby Austyn Day, over the years. He believes it’s his obligation to give back to the community, he said.
Steinberger, who was named 2017 Arroyo Grande Citizen of the Year, also said it was important creating a community-based business because he never wants to see a corporation take over Doc Burnstein’s simply for profit, which is why he began selling public stock in the business several years ago. The company now has 500 shareholders and clauses to prevent corporate takeover.
“People have asked, what’s your exit strategy,” Steinberger said. “My exit strategy is that I want this business to continue on with the same values after I die. A lot of what we have done with community ownership is to set that up.”
Steinberger made his way to California after high school and a stint with the United States Navy ROTC. He laughs that he chose the Navy over the Air Force when picking a branch of the military to enlist in because sailors went to warm locations.
“The Air Force flies to cold places and the Navy goes to warm,” he said. “I literally thought of that. OK, the Air Force goes to North Dakota. The Navy doesn’t. The Navy goes to California, Florida and Hawaii. So I went into the Navy to get out of Wisconsin and help pay for college.”
Following his four-year enlistment, Steinberger earned a master’s of business administration from Berkeley and worked the corporate America scene in the Bay Area before relocating to the Central Coast.
“I loved the Bay Area in many ways, but I thought there has to be a better pace of life somewhere,” Steinberger said. “I just went traveling and discovered the Central Coast or maybe sometimes I feel like Arroyo Grande discovered me. But it was a good match. There is something amazing about this place; it’s the community.”
Steinberger has a 12-year-old son, Gabe. When not making ice cream, his world revolves around his son.
For more information about Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, visit www.docburnsteins.com.