Yahya Muhammad is smooth. As he sits in his shop, John Coltrane easing out of the speakers, there’s not a hitch to be found in his movements or speech. But then, what would you expect from a man who traffics in ice cream?
“When I was younger, I played baseball in Avalon Park, and there was an older lady that sat outside and sold ice cream out of buckets. It was so distinctively different than what I’d had from stores, so good,” he recalls, closing his eyes to find the memory. “And it stuck with me up through college at Western Illinois, where I found that feeling again making my own batches, finding combinations that were perfect…it was completeness for me.”
He packed his debut flavor—honey-cinnamon-graham-cracker—into Styrofoam cups and doled them out to fellow Omega fraternity brothers, and soon the ice cream was the talk of campus. During the next few years, he returned to Chicago with a master’s in sociology and landed a job in children’s social work, but his passion for ice cream never left him—he always showed up to events with a freshly churned bucket in the trunk. After some prodding from his brothers in the Black Muslim community and his sister Shawn Michelle, Muhammad opened Jibril’s Supreme Creme in 1997 in the Chatham neighborhood where he grew up. “Things were right on track,” he says. “And then my sister was killed in a car wreck in 1999. I just stepped back for a minute. I needed to bring things back into focus, and so I closed the shop in 2000.”
Four years of grief recovery later, Muhammad honored his sister by opening Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream on 95th Street. By this time he had followed his father’s footsteps to become a police officer, so he was working nights in the 6th District while putting out batches of ice cream by day. When a friend turned him onto an opportunity in Blue Island in 2007, he moved the business there, widening his menu to include cakes and bean pies from community bakers but insisting on baking his own fruit cobblers, renting an incubator kitchen space downtown because “I make a stomp-your-feet cobbler like no one else.”
With all-butter crusts hugging vanilla-laced peaches or blueberries with cream cheese, the cobblers are popular on their own. But Muhammad is a fan of what he calls “perfect combinations.” These manifest as squares of apple cobbler topped with honey-cinnamon-graham-cracker ice cream; a scoop of chocolate cookies-and-cream with caramel and sunflower seeds mashed in; and Jamaican rum raisin blended with ginger ale for a shake with sweet bite. Concoctions like these are exclusive to the shop, while hand-packed pints of signature flavors are loaded onto a truck destined for Hyde Park’s Kimbark Plaza each day. Muhammad keeps his fingers crossed that a new food-truck ordinance allowing him to scoop to order goes into effect soon. In the meantime, he’s plugging along despite moderate sales and a slow-to-start summer, maintaining the perspective that Shawn Michelle’s is “a project of love, faith and the hope that eventually you will reap what you sow.”
Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream (11925 Western Ave, Blue Island, 708-925-9143). Truck parked at 53rd and Kimbark Sts Mon–Sat noon–7pm, Sun noon–5pm. Average cup of ice cream: $2.50.