Minnesotans will do almost anything to make winter seem like summer, even line up for ice cream when it's freezing outside.
Zach Vraa makes them work harder than that.
For months, Kayla Morrissey of Ramsey and her sister have taken turns trying to be one of the lucky customers at Vraa's A to Z Creamery, which dishes out one custom flavor a week from a small storefront in Hopkins. They've succeeded four times.
"You can't get ice cream like this anywhere and it's the thrill of the hunt," Morrissey said.
Two years after his mother gave him an ice cream maker, Vraa, 30, runs a business where customers will pay a premium — $13 — and wait outside in subzero temperatures for a mere pint. And they're happy to do it.
"I'm making something I like," Vraa said. "They think the same way."
He packs chunks of baked sweets and a swirl of something extra with flavors — from marshmallow to mustard — that change by the week and follow the seasons.
"I get inspiration from walking around the grocery store and watching baking shows on the Food Network," Vraa said. "Some of it's childhood memories of things my mom used to make."
Scarcity is the extra ingredient. The A to Z Creamery website appears to show people what they can get, but really shows them what they've missed. Vraa makes only about 600 pints a week and sells them immediately. Every flavor is labeled "Out of Stock."
Like other food innovators and restaurants in recent years, Vraa relies chiefly on social media to drum up business. At random times, he alerts followers on A to Z's Instagram account, about 16,000 people now, that a new flavor is ready.
Then, he alternates between a "first come, first serve" e-mail ordering system and a drawing by lottery, which gives more of a chance to people who aren't drool-scrolling through Instagram.
In either process, customers end up with an e-mail for a pickup time at the A to Z storefront, typically forming a line down the street. Along with ice cream, they walk away with a story to tell.
"I feel like I won something," Kristi Goldstein of Eden Prairie said as she picked up a pint last week. "My husband says, 'You paid for it.' I tell him, 'I still feel like I won.' "
Matt Dymoke of Bloomington has scored the chance to buy one of Vraa's pints about a dozen times after a friend turned him onto A to Z. That makes him a regular. "I can't just buy this at Cub," he said.
For Krystel Reierson, who drove in from Chanhassen, it was only her second pint in multiple attempts over more than a year. "They're hard to get and that's part of the excitement," she said.
Vraa, who lives in St. Louis Park, grew up in a family of bakers and had long wanted to make ice cream. He got the chance in the spring of 2020, when he had time to experiment with an ice cream maker his mother gave him for his birthday.
He shared his creations on social media, then decided to sell some pints as a side hustle. Vraa met customers in parking lots to hand off the ice cream. He charged $5.
"It was kind of an underground thing," he said. "I was doing it out of my house and I later realized that I wasn't supposed to do that."
One follower, Adam Klosterman, owner of a commercial kitchen showroom in St. Louis Park, messaged Vraa to see whether he was interested in using the space.
Vraa jumped at the opportunity, got licensed and started producing batches weekly after his day job, resulting in lines down Excelsior Boulevard during pickup times. "People didn't have to worry about being inside so I think that's why it took off," Vraa said.
To come up with the flavors, he draws on pop culture, nostalgia and life in Minnesota. Puns, lyrics and innuendo inspire the names.
At State Fair time, he offered Naughty Martha's, a homage to the fair's Sweet Martha's cookie empire, and Turned Up Pronto Pup, a play on the fair's corn dog that laced swirls of ketchup and mustard into the ice cream.
Klosterman became Vraa's digital content partner and built A to Z's Instagram channel.
"He already had that exclusivity and limited drop rolling and I said, 'Let's hype it up. Let's use social media as a platform to help draw people into the ice cream,' " Klosterman said.
Vraa waited until after his daughter's birth last fall to turn A to Z into a full-time gig. His mother and a part-time employee now help pack the pints.
For now, he has no plans for a retail store or any other distribution, saying he likes having control over his schedule and the relationship he's building with customers.
"Friends literally can't believe I'm running my own food business that I started during COVID," he said. "But when you think about the product and the process, it makes sense. It's unique flavors and ingredients you wouldn't find in ice cream at a grocery store or traditional ice cream shop."
Keith Richardson of St. Louis Park, who's bought more than a dozen flavors, can attest to the allure. He's considered giving up on pursuing the A to Z pints that he shares with his wife and two kids.
"I've said numerous times, 'That's it! It's too stressful,' " Richardson said. "But then I do it again."