With Steve Herrell, the ice cream is still king
PRIME – August 2013 Ice cream pioneer Steve Herrell prepares his favorite ice cream treat a hot fudge sundae. Herrell celebrated 40 years as an ice cream maker and flavor innovator on June 29, 2013.
PRIME photo by Debbie Gardner
By Debbie Gardner
In a recent review of New England ice cream meccas, Boston.com
referred to him as a "trailblazer." In 1983, the Washington Post alluded that he was the inventor of "radical ice cream chic."
During the past 40 years Nothampton's Steve Herrell has been those things and more – his work history includes stints as a hospital orderly, an insurance claim processor, a taxi driver, a high school English teacher and a piano tuner.
But of all the jobs the 69-year-old Washington, D.C. native has tried his hand at over the years, the only one that seemed to satisfy and stick was the one he's lauded for – ice cream pioneer.
It might seem a strange career choice for a man who majored in sociology at the University of Maryland and later completed a teaching certificate at Boston University (BU). That is, until you talk to him.
PRIME had the privilege of sitting down in late June with Herrell and his business partner – his former wife and "best friend" Judith – at Herrell's Ice Cream, located on the lower level of Thorne's Market in Northampton, Mass.
It was just after lunch on the last day of school and a steady stream of customers – teens, 20-something couples, moms with small ones in tow, even whole families – lined up along the counter for hand-dipped dishes, cones, sundaes and shakes, all made to each customer's specifications, many with specialty toppings or a custom folded blend or "Smoosh-in " of favorite ingredients to their chosen flavor. As we commandeered a booth for the interview, Herrell apologized for the noise level in the cozy shop.
"It will ebb and flow," he noted as I asked him how someone from the D.C. area ended up living in Boston in the 1970s. He said many factors – a Boston-bound friend he'd met while at college, a need to fulfill two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War – "It wasn't that he wasn't patriotic . this guy can't kill a fly, let alone a human being," Judith interjected – and a fondness for New England all contributed to his relocation. He spent the end of the 1960s working at Boston's Children's Hospital, then attended BU to earn his teaching credentials and took a job as a high school English teacher.
"I did not like it; it wasn't my cup of tea," Herrell said "I resigned and drove a taxi for a few of years."
It was while behind the wheel of that cab – and lunching, Judith noted, on hot fudge sundaes at Boston's Brigham's Ice Cream – that Herrell began to think about opening his own business.
"I thought ice cream could be better than it was, and I thought I could do a good job running a business so I started making recipes [and] I started working on it. It became more and more of a project and finally I opened Steve's Ice Cream," he said. The shop, which debuted on June 29, 1973, in Somerville, Mass., was an immediate hit, selling out of the 32 gallons of his first five flavors of homemade ice cream in one day.
On the 40th anniversary of Herrell's fateful decision, Judith said the lifelong ice cream lover's business choice was "not a big surprise to people who have know him for a long time."
According to Herrell, he came by ice cream making honestly – all his life his family made the creamy treat in an old-fashioned hand crank machine with ice and salt for July 4th and other special occasions.
"Ice cream and ice cream making and the enjoyment of it are all related to having a good time, being with family and friends. It's joyful, childlike, simple and a great pleasure," Herrell said. "I think large companies started to get away from that [and] I was hoping my ice cream store would have that feeling to it."
Those early customers seemed to crave his dense, creamy ice cream, which by nature of its homemade production had far less air than most big company ice cream available at the time. Herrell said he sold out of his production run every day the first week he was open, and had to scramble to keep up with demand.
"My plan initially was to work during the day, to have one employee come in at dinnertime to work the night, go home for dinner and come back to make ice cream at night," he said. That plan failed and Herrell soon had his girlfriend, housemates and friends pitching in with ice cream making to try and keep up. Ten days after opening Steve's Ice Cream, Herrell closed for "a good week" so he could hire and train the staff he needed and develop a plan to keep up with customer demand.
He figured out a way to retool an old White Mountain commercial ice cream machine so it would mimic his ice-and-salt method of production, and then put the ice cream making process on display in his shop.
He also con-centrated on making his flavors the best he could – adding in more ingredients to intensify the taste, where most ice cream makers, he said, tried to control costs by using the lowest amount of flavoring ingredients they could add. And, he experimented with developing new flavors – for example he tried adding malt powder to the ice cream mix before freezing to create the first malted ice cream, which is still a Herrell's signature flavor.
At Steve's Ice Cream, Herrell also pioneered the process of allowing customers to choose items such as popular candy bar or cookies pieces and have them mixed into their flavor choice to order (now called Smoosh-in ).
"When I started, you couldn't get Heath Bar Crunch or Cookies & Cream ice cream," Herrell noted.
Today, of course, the concept of adding ingredients to ice cream by a customer's order is promoted by many chains, including Cold Stone Creamery – with which Judith says she has had dealings regarding their claim of inventing the process.
"My tendency is not to say a lot about competitors or imitators," Herrell said.
When the original Steve's Ice Cream reopened, Judith said "there were lines out the door," which stunned the 29-year-old entrepreneur.
"Who knew good ice cream would do that to people?" she added.
By 1977, an exhausted Herrell had had enough of success and sold the store location, brand and equipment – but not his ice cream recipes – to Joey and Nino Crugnale, brothers who owned a competing ice cream shop a few streets away.
Before he sold however, Herrell's Somerville operation apparently inspired the founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream in Burlington, Vt.
"Ben and Jerry came to Steve's Ice Cream," Herrell said the pair has since told him. "I think they came more than one time; they said I was helpful and friendly."
He was quick to add that he never shared any recipes with the aspiring ice cream entrepreneurs.
Judith then pointed to a picture of Ben, Jerry, herself, Steve and their daughter that hangs on the Northampton shops' wall, noting that the famous ice cream makers, at this point in their lives, are good friends.
"At one point in her life, our daughter either wanted to marry daddy, or Jerry," she added.
The move to Western Massachusetts following the sale of Steve's was, according to Herrell, really just a fallback to an earlier plan.
"Before I found a spot in Somerville to rent . I had already developed a plan to move to Amherst and open the ice cream business out here [but] never went through with [it]," he said.
Herrell said he finally decided to come west anyway to "build my own house and grow my own food."
He got as far as Northampton, decided he liked what he saw and settled. But the media kept asking him about ice cream and by 1980, he was itching to go back.
"I missed the ice cream business and decided to go back into it and the rest is history," he said simply.
His first store, which opened in Northampton in 1980, was called Herrell's Homemade Ice Cream Company.
"But people called it Steve's, especially those who had moved here from Boston," Herrell said. That became a point of contention with the Crugnales, who pressed him to run advertising indicating his shop was not Steve's Ice Cream. After consulting legal advice, he changed the Northampton shop's name to Steve Herrell's Ice Cream, and promptly got sued. He immediately dropped "Steve," modifying the shop's name to the now-familiar Herrell's Ice Cream.
As the 1980s progressed, with Judith by his side, Herrell continued to make a name for himself doing what he has always done best – create gourmet ice cream.
"Steve has become a flavorist," Judith said. "He can imagine at this point what
[a final product] is going to taste like if we do this, this and this."
The breadth of his imagination is evident by a quick glance at Herrell's brochure, which lists more than 240 flavors – including frozen yogurt, non-dairy and no-sugar added offerings – though not all are guaranteed to be available in the shop every day.
And though Herrell's early competitors in Boston accused him of over-flavoring his product, the number of gourmet ice cream makers that have sprung up since he opened that first Somerville shop indicate he was on the right track.
Herrell's creativity hasn't stopped at ice cream flavors, either. The Northampton shop offers – and packages for sale – six flavors of hot fudge, including the original 1973 classic, and a selection of peppermint, coconut, almond, orange, chipotle and soon, cherry – every day.
"The hot fudge is paramount to the concept of my ice cream store," he said, adding that for his sundaes, it's always the original version drizzled over scoops of "vanilla or peppermint."
After more than 30 years of scooping frozen treats in Northampton – and working with franchisees, several who opened Herrell's back in the Boston area (the last one closed in 2009) – Judith said the pair is now considering branching out, possibly packaging Herrell's Ice Cream for sale at select supermarkets. Four hot fudge flavors are already available at Whole Foods Markets and select flavors are scooped at two locations in Franklin County. They are also offering the business to select franchisees again.
Herrell said that kind of expansion is Judith's end of the business. He's "very good" at being a shopkeeper, ice cream maker and employee trainer and that's where his heart has always been.
"There's a big difference between running an ice cream store [and marketing] – seeing customers in front of you, buying and enjoying ice cream, and making it fresh [for them]," he noted. "That's where I want to keep working."
In fact, at the 40-year mark, his biggest question seems to be, "Am I ever going to retire?"
Judith quickly pointed out that, should Herrell step away from the day-to-day running of the Northampton store, he would remain on as a "consultant flavorist."
Somehow, the topic of caramel topping came up between the two, with Herrell ruminating on the potential of blending the classic sundae topper with select liquors to create new flavors.
"The sky's the limit – I haven't even touched caramel yet," he said.
Judith good-naturedly suggested it might be time to "start on carmel."