As cool as it gets

Iceculture builds a $400,000 all-ice restaurant in Dubai.

In a sleepy southwestern Ontario town no larger than an intersection marked by a family diner, a small company is doing very big, and very cool, business.

Iceculture Inc., known for manufacturing and selling ice blocks and sculptures, has carved out its biggest single contract ever: $400,000 to build an all-ice restaurant, called Chillout, in Dubai, the first of eight projects the family-run company will produce for Sharaf Group, a Middle East consortium. “This is the single-largest, most lucrative project we have ever undertaken,” says Iceculture owner Julian Bayley, a former Fleet Street journalist.

Raising Iceculture's profile internationally may be the greatest benefit of the deal. Despite growing global competition in the ice trade, few businesses have the staff Bayley can throw at a project; a recent Toronto wedding featuring massive ice displays required 22 employees to set up. That, claims Bayley, is Iceculture's competitive advantage. The company's ability to make super-clear ice through a reverse osmosis filtration process that eliminates air bubbles is also in demand.

Bayley, 69, started making ice 18 years ago, when he ran a catering business. The quality of his ice punch bowls impressed ice carvers, who began requesting blocks of ice for their work. This led to clients in the events industry commissioning Iceculture to make elaborate displays, such as beaded ice curtains and ice lounges. As word spread, Iceculture found demand for its creations as far away as Australia and South Africa. But the Dubai project is special. “They are aiming for the wow factor,” says Bayley. “They just do not see ice like this in the Middle East.”

The ice for the Chillout restaurant will be shipped in freezer trucks from Hensall, about an hour's drive north of London, Ont., to freezer containers aboard ships in Montreal that will embark on Feb. 3 on a 6,500-nautical-mile voyage to Dubai. In total, four containers, each holding about 23,000 kilograms of Ontario-made ice, will set sail to the Middle East. It will take nearly a month to get there, and the $150,000 worth of ice will take eight Iceculture workers about seven days to assemble into an 1,800-square-foot eatery that will open in the first week of March.

Chillout, anchoring a new mall being developed by Sharaf, will be constructed in a large freezer, as Dubai's temperature reaches an average of 28ûC at that time of year. Ice will cover the walls and floor of the restaurant, concealing the freezer's appearance. Customers will lounge on ice furniture, cosy up to an ice bar and drink from, you guessed it, glasses made of ice. But they will hold non-alcoholic cocktails: Dubai, excuse the expression, is for the most part dry.

Other large Iceculture clients include NASA–which uses pure ice chunks, cut to exacting specifications, to test ice damage to its shuttles–and Boeing. Though it's the Dubai deal that has the potential to really boost the company's prospects. “This is such an unusual project,” says Bayley. “If we do this right, it could mean a lot more business for us.” For Bayley, who has gone from sculpting ice punch bowls to dining in the desert on ice, success is a dish best served cold.