Aspen Food & Wine
, which took place September 10-12 after a hiatus in 2020, has a reputation for being all about celebrities, champagne and caviar. But as an exhibitor at the famed food fest, Pints Peak Ice Cream
owner Caitlin Howington found it a whirlwind.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in pastry arts from Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Howington spent eight years in kitchens on the East Coast and several more years working in a variety of hospitality roles, including events, sales and marketing. After taking a trip to Denver, she decided to make a big move. "I pretty much sold all my stuff, packed my little car with my dog and moved out," she says.
Howington arrived in the Mile High in August 2019, and found a job doing sales for a catering and decor company by that November. But just four months later, she was laid off because of the pandemic. Howington didn't panic, though. Instead, she quickly moved to make a long-time dream into a reality. "Over the years, I'd always thought of starting an ice cream business," she explains. So after her former employer agreed to let her use its ice cream maker, Howington launched Pints Peak just two weeks after losing her job.
"The universe was kind of like, 'Well, now you have all this time on your hands, just go for it,'" she explains. And go for it she did, making home deliveries twice a week of the elevated ice cream flavors that reflect her years of fine-dining pastry experience. Eventually, she moved to doing deliveries once a week and pick-ups once a week in Cheesman Park. "I would just hang out with my coolers and people would come get their pints," she recalls.
In just over a year, Howington grew Pints Peak into a solid business, moving away from deliveries, farmers' markets and pop-ups to concentrate on wholesale. She now has six wholesale clients
— including the first to take her on, Ruby's Market at 1569 South Pearl Street — although she still plans to do pop-ups once every quarter or so "as an homage to where it started," she says. Pints Peak also offers catering and events services, creating custom menus with its ingredient-driven ice cream flavors and building elevated sundae bars. Howington plans to add options like hot chocolate floats, boozy floats and mini ice cream cones this year.
As she grew her business, Howington also took advice of all kinds from mentors and advisors, including one who recommended that she apply to exhibit at Aspen Food & Wine. "I had zero expectation of actually getting accepted," she says. But in early summer, she got word that she would indeed be going to Aspen, a town she only visited once before the festival, "just to get the lay of the land."
Howington had three months to prepare, but ran into one last-minute snafu. "I had a van booked and it was literally two inches too short for what I needed for my freezer," she says. "So I switched that out and ended up driving this huge, basically cargo van down there."
But there were no hiccups with the ice cream itself. Howington brought along four flavors: Rocky Ford watermelon sherbet with fennel, coconut lemongrass with peanut caramel, burnt sugar sage with a butterscotch swirl made with bourbon from Colorado Springs's 291 Distillery
, and dark chocolate tahini with sesame blondie. The ice cream was served on tiny cones — around 4,000 of them over the entire weekend — scooped by Howington's "very supportive" boyfriend who went along as her "assistant for the weekend," she explains. "He probably never wants to see a tiny ice cream cone again."
As he served up scoops, Howington concentrated on her main mission. "My goal was really to talk to as many people as I could," she says. "It's a privilege to be there, and it's an investment ... and it was really rewarding just to get the feedback."
Exhibitors are traditionally set up in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, which is separate from the seminars where most of the big-name chefs and food personalities can be found. So no, she didn't hobnob with Martha Stewart, but she did get to talk to countless people who offered words of support. "I had some people telling me some of the flavors were their favorite flavor of all time; I had people telling me it was the best ice cream they've ever had; I had people pretending to faint because of how good it was," she remembers.
Aspen Food & Wine is also well known for its parties, and Howington did get in on some of that action. Her days started around 8 a.m. and events went late, with her nights typically ending around 1 a.m. "I slept for like two days after," she admits.
But the long hours were worth it. "There's a lot of connections to be made," she says. "I've already gotten benefit from it and the networking I was able to do and the companies that I met."
So would she do it again? "I think I would," she replies. "It was so much fun and I had a great time. There's definitely a sense of community there, whether it's the veteran brands or us being a new brand. Everyone is very supportive."