by Spencer Griffith | Photography by Caitlin Penna
Even without a GPS, it’s hard to miss Sunni Sky’s Homemade Ice Cream, perhaps the best-known ice cream shop in the Piedmont. Sure, you can keep your eyes open for the modest sign out front or the smiling ice cream cone across Highway 55, or you can just head north from Angier and look for the small Harnett County town’s closest thing to a traffic jam, thanks to a steady stream of vehicles turning in and out of the gravel parking lot.
From the first of March, when Sunni Sky’s opens for the season, to the last of November, when the store shuts down for the year after selling hundreds of pie shells filled with pumpkin pie ice cream, you’ll find what was a relatively barren stretch fifteen years ago teeming with activity. Multiple generations can be found rocking an afternoon away on the front porch chairs while the adjacent field fills with folks relaxing in rings of plastic chairs until late in the evening.
Canine companions join in too, lapping up doggie mix while keeping a careful eye on the brave little ones that imagine the fallen trees lining one edge of the property as a makeshift playground. It’s become a popular gathering spot for area families, thanks in part to reasonable pricing that allows Sunni Sky’s to be an affordable treat for even large clans—milkshake prices have increased by just three cents over sixteen years, while a kiddie cone rings up at just $1.50.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s made this place special for people,” offers owner Scott Wilson, 52. “They’re still able to go out someplace and do something together [affordably].” In fact, when Wilson and his wife Stacy, 54, started Sunni Sky’s in July 2003, they did so with hopes of spending more time with their own family after Scott’s previous careers in the construction and restaurant industries.
“That was the goal, but it was one of the hardest parts in the early stages,” Scott admits. “I was so married to the business, but I realized right away that I could make sure everything is perfect here or I could see my family, so I had to let go of some things and not be here 100 percent of the time.” Of course, it helped that his two children, Sunni and Skylar were also among the first employees at the business that bears their names.
Between naps and Nintendo in the back room, Sunni helped serve customers while Skylar rang them up—at age 7, he could only reach in far enough to scoop when a bucket was full. “I was homeschooled [the first year], so that was my math practice for the day,” Skylar, now 23, offers, while his father boasts that he would’ve put his son’s skills up against of his customers. “He wasn’t allowed to use the register unless there was a line out the door, so he had to do all the math in his head.”
That mental math would rarely be necessary these days, since there’s seemingly always a steady queue spilling outside, just a few steps away from Sunni and Skylar’s childhood handprints embedded in the concrete. Though customers are encouraged to sample freely, the wait is rarely long, as a dozen or more workers dodge one another while serving up cups, cones and milkshakes from a list of more than 120 flavors of ice cream (including fat-free and sugar-free varieties), sherbet and sorbet.
Though the spicy Cold Sweat and even spicier Exit Wound have gained national publicity from the likes of the Food Network and the Travel Channel—brave visitors are required to sign a waiver just to taste the slew of pequin, habanero and Thai chili peppers marinated in multiple hot sauces and mixed into a vanilla base—less daring options run the gamut from classic to creative: butter pecan, cherry vanilla and brownie batter line up alongside bacon, Cheerwine and whiskey.
Scott admits one longtime fan favorite, cake batter, was a total accident. “We were trying to make a wedding cake or birthday cake, but it tasted like cake batter,” he confesses. More often, new flavors—the most recent are scrawled on a whiteboard that sits outside the entrance—are the result of suggestions from customers and employees. Some, like raspberry sherbet, are nailed on the first attempt, but most go through several iterations, being tweaked based on the input of tasters. Salt was added to the popcorn recipe thanks to feedback from visitors.
The results are stunningly accurate, even for black licorice, a recommendation from a former scooper that still gets produced despite the Wilson family’s shared distaste. “It’s horrible, I don’t even like to smell it,” Scott says with disgust. “If you told me to give you the nastiest thing ever, I’d hand you black licorice. There you go, I win. That’s awful.” For the record, crumb cake, mocha chip and caramel praline are among the family’s favorites.
Growing up around ice cream hasn’t diminished their love for it, although Skylar admits he doesn’t indulge quite as often these days. “When I was 7, I had a permanent chocolate ring around my mouth,” he remembers. “One time, he came in from the back and had ice cream all over his head because he’d put his head in a bucket and just started licking,” Scott adds, laughing.
Though her childhood summers often meant long nights spent at the shop, Sunni, now 25, never felt like she was missing out on more typical experiences. “I loved hanging out with my dad and spending time with him,” she says, sometimes staying up until 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning helping him make ice cream once she was older. She’s rarely at the store now as she forges her own career in real estate, a passion she shares with her dad.
Along with flexible hours that allow her to still handle Sunni Sky’s social media and communications duties, Sunni appreciates that, as a realtor, she’s once again able to witness how hard work pays off, as she did from an early age. “You can see from how busy we are and the reviews we get, you’re not going to get that if you just put in half the work half the time,” she says. ‘You have to actually put in the effort and it pays off.”
“Looking back, it was good to have some responsibility and start building whatever work ethic you can,” Skylar agrees. He’s now called into Sunni Sky’s only as emergency back-up, but the recent NC State engineering graduate credits his daily approach at his job as a tower engineer to his early days spent running the register. “It didn’t affect why I chose the job I have, but it has definitely defined how I do things.”
As Sunni and Skylar strike out on their own and explore, at least for now, careers away from the family business, the Wilsons aren’t sure quite yet what the future holds for Sunni Sky’s—not that Scott seems ready to retire any time soon. “We didn’t start it with the intention that they carry this on, so there’s no pressure at all,” Scott says. “They’re both doing their own thing and we’re happy about that, because independence is great.”
Though Stacy has been phasing out of the business after a 2014 head injury, Scott points out that she’s long had a key role in the success of Sunni Sky’s. “She’s been really good at doing bookkeeping and payroll, all the meticulous behind-the-scenes stuff,” he enthuses. Franchising was part of the original business plan and is still a possibility. If franchising does occur, Scott knows how important it is to maintain their high standard of customer satisfaction, another key company value that his wife has helped impart. “She’s bubbly and wants to make customers happy.”
After all, despite Sunni Sky’s low prices and huge variety, Scott ultimately credits their success to customer service. “Realistically, we can do anything we want with good prices and good ice cream, but if our employees give bad service, that’s what can make or break our business,” he claims, pointing to his constantly ringing phone and mentioning a dissatisfied voicemail that he plans to use for employee training.
For his current crew of mostly teenage staff—many working their first jobs—Scott hopes to model the same work ethic that he instilled in his own kids, finding that those who have passed through Sunni Sky’s ranks often value the experience in a similar manner once they get older. “They may think I’m just a loudmouth and pushing them, but I’m trying to develop them to have what they need to succeed,” he says. “One of our biggest successes is getting phone calls five or ten years down the road from former employees just saying thanks.”
Like the hard work ethic that he hopes to pass on to his staff as he did his children, Scott also treasures that Sunni Sky’s provides families with a place to bond, even if its on the other side of the counter from where his own family’s memories were forged. “Some of the best moments are just seeing the families that come out here,” he says, telling stories about particularly memorable experiences he’s witnessed.
“There’s this huge dad—he’s like 6’4”, a very solid guy—and he’ll sit down at that kiddie table with his little 3-year-old girl, right in the kiddie chair with her, and they’ll eat their ice cream together. Seeing that, it just warms my heart.”