In late July, Cambridge entrepreneur Ricky Fitzhugh announced his official acquisition of Ice Lab, a Glen Burnie-based company that carves custom ice sculptures and other things for special events throughout the United States. It is the next step in Fitzhugh’s 18 years’ involvement with the ice business that is a large part of his income and a contributor to the local economy.
A second freezing and production facility has been installed in the plant on Chesapeake Drive in Cambridge that also houses Hoopers Island Oyster Co., Fitzhugh’s other major enterprise. There, multiple icemakers freeze 10-inch by 20-inch by 40-inch blocks that weigh close to 300 pounds for turning into custom sculptures or top-quality cocktail ice.
They fill the tanks with water and keep pumps circulating to maintain the clarity of the block. They can place fruit and other objects — even Nike shoes — into the freezing water using a special tool of their own design that resembles a DNA model with the strands loosened.
“It’s very challenging trying to freeze stuff in the block, getting it to stay there,” said Fitzhugh. “You have to cut the machine off for a while and let it freeze there, and then turn it back on as the ice is getting set in place.”
Once the ice is ready, an employee puts a hoist on lifter plates and pulls out the block, which is placed on a cart for carrying over to the bandsaw where it is cut.
When he earned his degree in architecture from the University of Maryland, Cambridge-born Fitzhugh couldn’t have imagined he would be where he is today.
He got into the seafood business because of his family’s background in the industry. Early on, another company provided the ice for packing the fish, but then around 2003 a friend asked Fitzhugh if he was interested in a Baltimore ice producer called Rosedale Ice. He acquired the company and traveled to Baltimore every day for 16 years, growing the distribution for bagged and block ice. Rosedale sold bagged ice to businesses, institutions and convenience stores, becoming the top supplier to retail brands such as High’s and Royal Farms.
Fitzhugh was manufacturing blocks for a caterer in Baltimore who would bring in his own sculptors for events. When the caterer’s business downsized, Fitzhugh no longer had a market for selling blocks and decided his own company could do sculpting. When Manassas-based Ice Crystals chose to sell in 2006, Fitzhugh bought it and kept its main sculptor.
Single blocks can be used to make sculptures of such things as angelfish, reindeer and Christmas trees. If something bigger is needed, blocks are combined on-site and sprayed with water to fuse them together. Fitzhugh’s team has built ice bars (for drinks) that range from six to 40 feet long, as well as ice lounges for weddings, graduations, corporate functions and more. For the Russian Embassy, they created a building from 73 fused pieces of ice.
Around the time the pandemic hit in 2020, the owner of Ice Lab, one of Fitzhugh’s customers, wanted to get out of the business. Fitzhugh went in to help run the company and was impressed with its marketing strategy, which drew a lot of work. The owner had also brought ice festivals to the Eastern Shore. It was a concept he got from contractors in the northern U.S. and Canada.
“I had been trying numerous times to promote an ice festival here years ago,” said Fitzhugh, referring to Cambridge, but there had been little interest at the time.
Fitzhugh already had an ice festival in Frederick that began in 2004, and he maintained his interest in that type of event. During the pandemic, he came up with the idea for a drive-through ice sculpture Christmas display. Two-person carving teams were each given 25 blocks of ice, from which they sculpted their own themed designs. Then it was all lit up at night for carloads of appreciative visitors. The event sold out in two days.
For ice festivals, Fitzhugh’s team will build ice slides out of 60 to 70 blocks, as well as ice thrones for photo opportunities. There are also carving demonstrations and competitions. Fitzhugh wants these to be interactive events for families.
After ice festivals were established in Baltimore, Easton, Havre de Grace, and places in Delaware and Virginia, Fitzhugh was ready to try Cambridge again. In pitching the event, he told the mayor and city council how profitable it could be, and then he worked with the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce to make it happen.
Despite a thick snowfall that knocked the event from two days to one, the first-ever Cambridge Ice & Oyster Festival at the end of January 2022 was a bigger success than anyone had expected. Nearly 3,000 people showed up for a downtown winter wonderland with 50 sculptures, interactive games, carving demonstrations, firepits for toasting s’mores and an ice oyster bar. On a weekend when Cambridge is usually deserted, the restaurants were packed and the merchants were ecstatic.
“It’s just huge what it brings to those communities after Christmas,” Fitzhugh said. “You know, it’s like having a second Christmas in wintertime months.”
Being able to contribute to the town is a major motivator for the new Ice Lab owner, who wants “to help the community big time.”
While plans move forward to bring the festival back to Cambridge in 2023, Ice Lab will already be sponsoring festivals almost every week next January and February. Also, they will send sculptors to Dallas, Texas; San Jose, California; and Scottsdale, Arizona, for Enchant, a series of Christmas-themed villages produced by a Canadian outfit.
Plus, there is the cocktail ice division, which has become a larger part of the business. For specialty drinks, Ice Lab can provide oversized spheres and two-inch cubes that are engraved with logos and other custom elements.
It’s crystal clear that Fitzhugh is a very busy man.