Little shop, big waves

Glen Simkins was 6 years old when his family members joked about quitting their jobs and opening an ice cream stand to escape the long, humid summers in Boston.

“My parents always teased me about getting serious about it and at that age, the thought process was like winning the lottery,” Simkins said Sunday. “Because of that, from a very young age I had this vision of starting an ice cream stand. Ice cream was always a big part of my life.”

Little did Simkins know that his childhood dream would come true some 30 years later on Maui.

Coconut Glen’s Ice Cream sits on the makai side of Hana Highway at Milepost 27.5 and serves organic dairy- and gluten-free ice cream. The unassuming storefront in Nahiku is a little known treat on the road to Hana, but it’s gaining worldwide attention for its refreshing take on a classic treat.

Readers of the critically acclaimed luxury and lifestyle travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler rated the small East Maui stand as one of the best ice cream shops in the world, alongside shops in areas such as the United Kingdom, Texas and California. The competition, which counted votes via Twitter, was in honor of National Ice Cream Month in July.

“You have no idea how surprised I was to be voted one of the best ice cream shops in the world,” he said. “It floored me. It’s absolutely bewildering.”

Simkins, 36, began his career in food at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. He later worked as a chef in Boston and spent a year at one- and two-star Michelin restaurants in Europe.

While Simkins was working his way up the ladder in the fine-dining world, he realized he did not want the life of a traditional chef, nor the money.

“I saw the Italian countryside with people living good lives and aren’t concentrated on money,” he said. “I thought the heck with it and bought a one-way ticket to Maui.”

Simkins moved to the island in 2008 and began selling coconuts out of his Volkswagen while working at a hotel in Hana. He would later acquire a home and began selling coconuts full time from a stand he built out of recycled materials. Much of the approximately 20-by-20-foot structure is made from the back porch of a nearby residence, he said.

When the economic downturn continued into 2010, Simkins was no longer making ends meet simply selling coconuts and needed to find something else.

“I was driving down the road and I swear to you an angel whispered in my ear: ice cream,” he said. “I came home, made my first batch of ice cream and was picked up on a wave and I’m just riding it.”

Using an old-fashioned ice cream maker that was gifted to him, Simkins began offering coconut-flavored ice cream to his coconut customers, which quickly became a hit. It didn’t take long for him to buy two more machines to keep up with demand and broaden his variety of flavors.

Coconut Glen’s has around 10 regular flavors, but it has experimented with more than 30 different concoctions. Some of the more exotic flavors include chipotle chocolate ice cream, chili chocolate ice cream and curry ice cream.

The stand also sells homemade coconut candy and the ice cream can be found at Breakwall Shave Ice and Maui’s Beach House in Lahaina.

Simkins said he typically makes a batch of ice cream out of whatever fruit is given to him by locals, including jackfruit, mangos or avocados.

“That’s how I paid for a lot of my ingredients,” he said. “They give me fruit and I give them some ice cream. It’s a stroke of dumb luck that this whole thing took hold.”

Simkins plans to expand his ice cream business soon with a mobile Bubble Bus that will roam the streets of Paia. The converted 1960s International Harvester Metro Van will arrive on Maui this week after he purchased it in Seattle and gave it a new paint job, biodiesel engine and a host of interior fixes.

“It needed a lot of work,” he said, adding that he will personally drive the vehicle during its launch.

Aside from a few ads and features in magazines, 90 percent of Simkins’ business comes from word of mouth, he said. He added that he would like to see pints of his ice cream sold throughout the state of Hawaii and possibly another stand on the Big Island.

“But I’m not attached to that,” he said of the Neighbor Island expansion. “Right now I consider myself the luckiest man in the world.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at