Nearly 10 years ago, the NYPD popped Michael Cole for dealing cannabis, and he spent six months locked up on Rikers Island. Being a victim of the Drug War can limit future opportunities, but the East Village resident did not let it hold him back. Cole now peddles pop culture-themed ice cream scoops from his very own NYC shop called Mikey Likes It Ice Cream on Avenue A. Early flavors included a cognac-caramel flavor made with the Jay Z-endorsed D’Ussé cognac, while more recent faves include Foxy Brown (mocha with chocolate wafer cookies and a sea salt-caramel swirl), Parliament Funkadelic (fresh mint with Oreo cookies), Black Street (chocolate with malt ball pieces and chocolate chips) and a 2 Live Crew milkshake. Jay Z is among the people who helped Cole open the ice cream shop, which counts Hillary Clinton among its fans.
You found your aunt's ice cream recipe and used it to create your first flavor, the Notorious B.I.G.-inspired Sky's the Limit. How did you get from this point to opening your first shop?
I found my aunt's vanilla ice cream recipe, and I tweaked it to become the base for all the ice creams. After that, I literally made ice cream out my house, and then I got a cart and stood outside in the streets for hours. Slowly people started hiring me to do other jobs, including for [the Broadway musical] Kinky Boots. They had Harvey Weinstein there, and he was the centerpiece with Cyndi Lauper performing. After that, I made a D'Usse de Leche ice cream, and a [former] classmate got me in touch with Jay Z. They hired us a couple times to do events at their offices and to do assorted ice creams at his 40/40 Club. I then signed up with Defy Ventures, who have a competition that gives [former felons] seed money. I won the competition, but they never gave me the seed money so I just moved forward on my own. Two people who approached me [during the competition program] became my mentors, and one of them loaned me $7,000 to use with other money I saved to get the retail space. Now I'm about to open up my second store.
Where will the second store be?
Harlem at 134th Street and Frederick Douglas. I'm trying to open up next month, and I'll be releasing a pair of my own custom sneakers at the opening.
When you first opened on Avenue A, did a particular flavor become an immediate hit?
Every loved Southern Hospitality, which is our pecan pie ice cream, and my vanilla flavor, Ice Ice Baby. My original chocolate, Chocolate Thunder, was a bit too expensive so I run a Truffle Shuffle, which was Hillary Clinton's favorite flavor when she came here. Everyone also loves our mint ice cream because we use fresh mint. To each their own, you know?
When Hillary Clinton visited the shop, did you know she was coming?
What's cool is I didn't know. I met Hillary Clinton before at an event, and she understood that she had been part of mass incarceration, and she wanted to make a change and help reverse that. She wanted to show that people should be given a fair chance once they paid their debt to society and moved on. I had gotten in touch with her through Instagram. We made an ice cream sandwich, and she loved it, so they asked if we were able to bring some ice cream to her. I didn't have a chance to get the ice cream through the clearance, but she said she would love to visit the store. I said, "Hey, I know your schedule is hectic so I know coming to the store is gonna be tough," but she said, "No, I'm coming through."
The only time she was able to do it was right before the primaries in New York, so here we are in the shop and boom, she walks right in. I was like, "Wow, you're actually here." It was great to have her come down, and she was here for a couple hours. Anyone that walked in, she said, "Hey, this is on me." It was great to see the community come and witness her here. I was very, very happy. She was a great person, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
A major part of your story involves a six-month stint at Rikers for possession of cannabis with the intent to sell. How do you process the idea of going to jail for something that so many states have now legalized?
It does hurt, oh yes, but I look at it as the past. Times are changing—it's a booming industry now— and it puts me in another category where I can show my talents. I am an example that says, "Hey, you've paid your debt to society, you can move forward and make lemonade from lemons." At the same time, I can make anything, and with the industry changing, this could be a foot-in where I can make ice cream that's medicated to help people who have cancer. God willing, maybe this is a new thing, but until then I try everyday to live a positive life and use this ice cream as a positive-reinforcement tool for everyone.
Say cannabis became fully legal and you made a medicated flavor, do you know what song you would want to reference?
There are many, many options.
Maybe "Pass the Dutch" or "How to Roll a Blunt"?
Bootsy Collins would be the perfect reference because you want to go as early to the culture as possible. Even a Willie Nelson song might be one. The joy of being creative is that you can sit and think about something and then bring it to fruition. That's really the pace of where the world's going, as the example of marijuana now being legalized in many places and soon in New York, right? I look at it and say, "Hey, we're in the land of opportunity, and I hope that we take advantage of it." In a nutshell, that's what we're trying to do.
Would you consider doing a Knicks-inspired ice cream after Patrick Ewing or Latrell Sprewell?
Oh, of course. I worked with Patrick Ewing already before, and Pat's a great guy. I did a shoe release for him last year. If I could ever do a Knicks flavor, I would love it for myself because doing custom stuff keeps the mind going.
You originally connected the flavors to hip-hop songs and artists, but I see a Pink Floyd flavor on the menu. Was that your first rock-inspired flavor?
Pink Floyd was the first, but we're coining it to pop culture, not just hip-hop. I've had Cyndi Lauper and Mick Jagger flavors. I look at pop culture as a whole—how it shapes us and whatever fun we can have—and we utilize every piece. I broadened the horizon to all of pop culture, so when you walk in, we're playing all that get down, good-feeling music. We play Kool and the Gang, The Doors, all kinds of '80s and '90s hits, and we try to keep the flavors in the same sort of path.
Do you go out of your way to provide job opportunities for people who may have a criminal record?
Yes, I do. I always have at least one person on the payroll who has been on vacation, as I call it. I have one now, but the last person didn't turn out too well. He actually stole from me, and I had to figure that out. I let him go without pressing charges, and I told him, "Look, you shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you."
Has the shop name ever brought any static from Quaker Oats of Life Cereal?
No. I own the trademark. Life Cereal has a different trademark that's from the commercial so when I ran Mikey Likes It Ice cream, I got it kicked back and cleared by the government. I look at it as inspiration because that's exactly what I wanted, a place where people can see similar things that revitalize our thought process and give us a nostalgic moment or memory.
What role did hip-hop play in your life growing up in Stuy Town?
Hip-hop is what teaches you to be the baddest, to be number one. Like when LL Cool J stood up and said, "I'm bad," that's what fuels me to be the best ice cream maker that I can be. Hands down, you put me up against anybody—let's say "make ice cream versus these guys" on Chopped—I can hold my own or beat anybody in front of me. That's what hip-hop does. You listen to the music, and it energizes you to be the best that you can be. Like the boxer who listens to music [to train or before a fight], music really inspires me when I create ice cream. I'm just glad people are receptive to the product, and hopefully more and more people will experience it. That's what I hope for.