Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream owner brought Turkish culture to D.C. for decades

Media Credit: Krishna Rajpara I Assistant Photo Editor

At the age of 26, Cenkci said she and her family emigrated from Turkey so they could be in the “capital of the world” in 1988 and purchased the ice cream shop the following year after her son inspired the idea.

After selling ice cream for 33 years in Dupont Circle, Esen Cenkci is ready to close shop.

Cenkci, the owner of Dupont Circle staple Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream, spends as many as 12 hours at the ice cream shop every day, crafting treats that blend American, Turkish and French cultures and reflect her life journeys with ice cream in a cone. But Cenkci said she is looking to sell the store, and if she cannot find a buyer by next summer, she may put the scoops of Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream away once and for all.

“People said ‘This store is an institution, don’t sell,’” Cenkci said. “I understand. We don’t want to sell. We are so tired. You know, I’m 63 years old. I started at 26 years old. A long time.”

At the age of 26, Cenkci said she and her husband Jimmy emigrated from Turkey so they could be in the “capital of the world” with their two children in 1988 and purchased the ice cream shop the following year after her son inspired the idea.

“We went to Ben and Jerry’s and my son, he said ‘I hope you make ice cream too,’” Cenkci said. “He is six years old. Then we decide to sell ice cream in the United States.”

Cenkci said her husband attended an English-language American school in Turkey and saw the idealistic depictions of the United States in movies, which made him fantasize about coming to the country.

“It is his dream about coming here,” Cenkci said. “We want to do our own small business and maybe better educate our kids in the United States.”

Upon immigrating, neither Cenkci nor her husband had any experience running an ice cream shop or any kind of business – Esen had recently finished a four-year school for women in Turkey to learn tasks like kitchen work and childcare, and Jimmy worked at a construction company in Turkey.

At the time, Larry’s Cookies and Ice Cream shops populated the DMV area as a popular ice cream chain, including locations in Federal Triangle and Arlington. Cenkci said the owner of the original Dupont Circle location declared bankruptcy, so she and her husband decided to purchase the establishment. Thirty-three years later, their store is one of two locations still in operation, now under the name Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream, in honor of the original ice cream franchise.

“Fifty years it’s been Larry’s Ice Cream,” Cenkci said. “Why would we change it?”

Even though the name has stayed mostly the same, the shop underwent cultural and flavorful changes under the ownership of the Cenkcis. Cenkci said the couple integrated their heritage into the shop through the Turkish-inspired flavors and pastries they serve including pistachio, baklava and halva.

The shop boasts more than 100 flavors offered seasonally throughout the year, including eccentric tastes like a Florida-inspired orange-chocolate flavor called Key West Fever and a brandy-based treat called Fred and Ginger, all manufactured by Cenkci and her husband.

Cenkci said she only travels to Turkey once every few years to visit her sisters, so the treats keep her Turkish heritage close to home. She said the shop sells an ice cream flavored like halva – a sweet nut paste that often goes on sandwiches in Turkey – and their pistachio ice cream uses Turkish pistachios, which are smaller and nuttier than American pistachios.

Cenkci said the shop also sells baklava, a sweet and flaky nut-filled pastry common in Turkey. For a more decadent sweet, she said they offer five-layered cookies containing fudge brownie, coconut, pecan, caramel and chocolate chips from a recipe passed down from her mother.

The store doesn’t just represent Cenkci’s Turkish heritage but blends her home country with the culinary culture she has derived from living in the United States and traveling across other parts of Europe, like Italy and France. Cenkci said she uses a French recipe that calls for a higher-than-average 17 percent butter fat in her sweet cream mix and no eggs to give the ice cream a richer and creamier quality.

More domestically, Cenkci said the chocolate orange Key West Fever flavor reflects her experiences in the United States that have translated to the ice cream sold in the shop.

“We were in Key West, my husband, he buys me chocolate,” Cenkci said. “I say ‘Jimmy this is delicious’ and next day he buys again. And we came here, and he made this one for me. The name is Key West Fever.”

Cenkci said she based her ice cream flavors on those most popular among Americans, particularly cookie-infused indulgences, which pushed the number of flavors she sold from 16 to more than 100, including exclusive offerings, like Chocolate Jack Daniels, which blends chocolate and whiskey together.

“People like Jack Daniels, all my customers like Jack Daniels,” Cenkci said. “I said ‘Okay I’ll make ice cream for you.’ Now people love it.”

Former President Bill Clinton headlines the list of Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream lovers. Cenkci said one of Clinton’s then-employees was a regular customer and invited her to the White House around Christmas time to serve the president one of his favorite flavors – mud pie ice cream containing coffee, honey graham crackers and chocolate fudge. She said she loaded up her car with ice cream, drove to the White House and handed the sweets to the kitchen staff.

Nearly three and a half decades after purchasing the shop, Cenkci’s life still revolves around the parlor. She still crafts all of the store’s treats by hand, in addition to serving ice cream and conversing with customers.

“I’m here more than my home,” she said. “I’m like 12 hours here, eight hours sleep, four hours at home. I’m here all the time.”

Cenkci said this devotion to the ice cream shop may soon come to an end, with her husband already retired and the daily grind of the ice cream shop tiring her out. The shop’s half-century lifespan positions it as an essential Dupont indulgence, receiving acclaim for exceptional creaminess and inventive flavors, but the mounting years of scooping ice cream have taken their toll on Cenkci, who now uses a cane to walk around the store.

Even as she ages, Cenkci said the reason the shop continues to captivate her is similar to what caused her to purchase the ice cream shop in the first place – making the community happy.

“The customers smile after eating my ice cream,” she said. “It makes the customers happy. And then I’m more happy than the customer because people smile, come to me and say it’s the best ice cream. I’m happy to work this job.”

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