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Former chef carves a cool niche with Charlotte-based Artisan Ice Sculptures

Travis Dale’s artwork starts as a block of ice he can shape into mermaids, Easter bunnies and baby bottles that pour milk.

The former chef-turned-ice sculptor spends his days inside a giant walk-in freezer, cutting and chiseling chunks of ice, carving them into flower vases, wine glasses and even once a 4-foot-tall replica of a train surrounded by 300 martini glasses.

“We’ve done the big stagecoach for Wells Fargo,” said Dale, 41. “We’ve carved Cadillacs, Lexuses, people, animals, big food displays ... furniture.”

Chances are, Dale will soon carve a herd of reindeer for an office Christmas party or holiday fundraiser. It’s the busiest time of year for his company, Artisan Ice Sculptures, an ice-carving enterprise he runs in a shop near the N.C. Music Factory in Charlotte.

“We had people starting to book holiday parties this summer,” he said. “Last year, they started booking holiday parties in early October. We looked at that and said, ‘Wow, it’s going to be a busy holiday season.’ ”

He started carving ice while studying to become a chef. A decade later, after reaching the pinnacle of his pastime by earning certifications and winning competitions, Dale faced an all-too-familiar question that often spurs entrepreneurial innovation: What’s next?

The answer came in 2010 when he formed his company, which now has four employees and sells pieces ranging from $25 ice spears to $375 decorative statues.

To keep business steady when warmer temperatures chill profits, Dale focuses on creating repeat customers, investing in top-notch equipment and managing his product’s time wisely – after all, ice does melt.

Chilly beginnings

Dale’s passion for ice carving took him from a culinary apprenticeship in the 1990s when he picked up his first chisel to national competitions. Once achieving master-level status, he began carving sculptures for friends on the side.

During the downturn, he and his wife, Martha, started their ice-carving company, buying a walk-in freezer and installing it in the garage of their Mooresville home.

Working his day job as a chef helped Dale pay the household bills, while he reinvested every dollar from Artisan Ice sales to buy equipment.

In 2012, Artisan Ice Sculptures moved into a workshop that once housed Ice Sensations, a 20-year Charlotte ice-carving company. Dale bought the company when the owner retired, and he purchased high-speed grinders, sanders, Japanese chisels and machines that produce 40 huge blocks of ice every three to four days.

Another investment followed: a computer-controlled cutting machine that cost about $65,000 and turns designs into computer code giving measurements on how deep to dig into the ice. It also creates templates used to produce copies of the same carving.

That tech has helped Artisan Ice Sculptures expand its reach throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, Dale said. It’s one of about four or five ice-carving companies in the Southeast, according to the National Ice Carving Association. .

Photos won’t melt

Once a sculpture is finished, “the clock starts ticking the second I pull it out of my freezer,” he said.

Employees must quickly box and wrap the sculptures and stick them in transport freezer bags. If building a sculpture for an event outside, they can’t unload the carving until 30 minutes before starting time. They set it up away from direct sunlight.

A typical carving, Dale said, lasts four to six hours.

“I learned a long time ago you’ve got to take pictures because a picture will last forever,” he said.

Creativity for customers

Successful ice carvers have to be able to meld technology with artistic ability, said Paul Germain, president and master instructor at the Academy of Ice Carving and Design in Fresno, Calif.

“There’s a problem in the industry (with) a lack of skilled carvers,” Germain said.

Dale likes to create the unexpected. Last Sunday, he and his employees spent eight hours preparing a massive icy display of a Christmas tree, Santa Claus and an elf for Rock Hill’s annual ChristmasVille festival. He designed the piece so that spectators could stand in the middle of the 7-foot ice tree to pose for photos.

“I like to think we’re extremely creative,” Dale said.

Expect that creativity to be on display this Christmas, when Artisan typically sees its most clients, many of whom are looking for drink luges or centerpieces for parties or galas.

“It’s great for us but ... it means a lot of late nights,” he said.

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