When Erica Bernardi moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2010, she noticed something curious: there were a lot of Dairy Queens here compared to that eastern city.
She didn’t think much about Vancouverites’ apparent adoration of ice cream until a year later, when she met Ben Ernst, then a Seattle resident who was dating her roommate. He loved the frozen treat so much he took his future wife to all his favourite ice-cream spots there on their first date.
Ernst’s Vancouver-based partner half-jokingly suggested he open an ice-cream shop here, and rather than laugh it off, he floated the idea by Bernardi. Even though neither had any experience running a business, it didn’t seem so crazy.
He had witnessed the scene explode south of the border, and she saw the potential too: despite so many fast-food ice-cream outlets in town, the selection of artisanal products at the time was scant.
The two launched Earnest Ice Cream in 2012, igniting the city’s ice-cream craze. The company has been thriving ever since, even as more and more specialty shops have come onto the scene.
“It became something that people discovered and shared with friends and family, like a sort of secret passed on by word of mouth,’’ Ernst says in an interview with Bernardi at the company’s Quebec Street shop. “People would say, ‘You’ve got to try my ice cream.’ We’re constantly surprised and have to pinch ourselves as to how warm of a welcome Vancouver has given us.”
The two have come a long way since they got started at the Woodland Smokehouse and Commissary, a small-business incubator with a modest retail section. (It later closed after a fire.) They spent their first winter selling pints in the rain at the Nat Bailey farmers market. Come spring, they were at other local markets, including Kitsilano, West End, Main Street, and Trout Lake. Then came the food-truck festival at the Waldorf, which further boosted the company’s profile, and Harvest Community Foods on Union Street, which began carrying its products.
Earnest’s first year at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival was an eye-opener: it was so busy that Ernst’s parents, who were in town visiting, helped the two scoop all weekend. Bernardi and Ernst would go back to the kitchen to make more ice cream through the night, almost selling out.
Now the company has two locations (the original one is on Fraser Street), a scoop truck that travels throughout the city (it was at the folk fest this past weekend), and more than 20 wholesale accounts with local, independent retailers. Earnest Ice Cream employs about 75 people—a number that doubles in the summertime—and its owners hint at plans to expand within the Lower Mainland.
“I can’t believe it,” Bernardi says of the pair’s success. “It’s been very surreal.
“I think the timing was very good,” she adds. “There wasn’t anyone making artisan ice cream. We use reusable glass jars, and I think the values that we incorporated into the business—sustainability, being good employers, sourcing local ingredients—really resonated with a lot of people from the get-go.
“It was very helpful that it was Ben and I that were the face of the company, scooping at the markets and delivering ice cream to wholesalers. It’s also very good ice cream.”
That point is hard to argue. Made with premium natural ingredients in small batches, the ice cream comes in rotating and seasonal flavours plus a few core ones: salted caramel, whisky hazelnut, London fog, milk chocolate, Tahitian vanilla, and cookies and cream. Since the company’s inception, the founders have made more than 80 different kinds of ice cream, using everything from spruce buds to elderflower.
“Ice cream is a fantastic blank canvas to express creativity,” Ernst says. “It’s also just a pure joy, a simple and pure joy.”
Bernardi adds: “Ice cream is a fun thing to do. You get ice cream maybe when you’re upset or after a bad day or as a reward for a positive thing. It’s so social. Everyone likes to talk about what they got or what new flavour they’ve tried.”
The frozen treat has definitely struck a chord with Vancouverites, with several new spots having opened lately. Rooster’s Ice Cream Bar describes itself as a boutique-style operation that, like Earnest, uses high-quality, natural ingredients without preservatives, artificial colouring, or other chemicals.
Rain or Shine Ice Cream takes a similar approach, using sustainable, natural local ingredients, organic where possible. Soft-serve ice cream has carved out its own niche, with Soft Peaks Ice Cream and UYU (“milk” in Korean) IceCream both serving up swirls in Gastown.
The frozen-treat industry has splintered in all sorts of other directions, with high-end, handcrafted popsicles becoming the norm—consider Johnny’s Pops, Rebel Pops, and Nice Pops being highly sought after—while the owners of On Yogurt have introduced ice-fried organic yogurt and yogurt gelato to Vancouver, with the dessert flash-frozen before customers’ eyes.
Then there are other eye-catching concoctions, like the treats that Tommy Choi and Michael Lai serve up at Mister. By using liquid nitrogen in the production process, the co-owners magically take a liquid base—all-natural dark chocolate or crème brûlée, for instance—and rapidly freeze it at an ultralow temperature to create ice cream on the spot while what look like billowing clouds of smoke pour out of the blender in front of you.
The result is a dense, creamy dish done in a very dramatic way. The two took a Persian customer’s suggestion—to make roasted-pistachio ice cream—to great success; they also have plans to experiment with pine, mint, and ginger, among other ingredients. “There are no rules,” Choi says at the Yaletown shop. “We want to push the ice-cream bar higher and higher.”
Competition is fierce, but those who are profiting from ice cream’s popularity see the industry as a community where there’s room for everyone.
Mario Loscerbo of Mario’s Gelati and Amato Gelato Café has been at it for 40 years, and he welcomes the way Vancouver has embraced frozen desserts. “I’ve been very well accepted by the community, customers, and so on; what can I say? Competition, I think, is a healthy thing,” he says by phone.
Loscerbo—whose parents ran a gelato business in Italy—trained as a chef in his native Amato before moving to Winnipeg decades ago. He opened an Italian restaurant there and noticed how much customers loved the authentic Italian dessert, which is lower in fat than regular ice cream.
“People all the time thought that was the highlight of the dinner,” Loscerbo recalls. “It really started to get me going.”
After he came to Vancouver, he opened up a gelato shop in Gastown before moving to Granville Island, which boosted his profile tremendously. His business kept growing, even after 14 years there, and it hasn’t stopped since.
“We moved to Cambie Street, and I thought that was a big place, then we were at Main and 5th, and I thought that was huge,” he says. “But that isn’t big enough, and we’re at the point now where we’re making plans to move again and have a way larger facility.”
The Amato Gelato Café will stay put on East 1st Avenue, but the manufacturing side of Mario’s will move to a site as large as five acres, likely somewhere in the Fraser Valley. The company sells its products across the country now, with Loscerbo’s son and daughter both actively involved in the business.
“When I came to Canada, I started with pizza,” Loscerbo says. “It was very hard to get going then; that was in the early ’60s. Now pizza is everywhere. It’s still popular, and it doesn’t hurt for there to be more pizza places. It’s the same with gelato.…Business keeps coming.”
Over the years, Loscerbo has seen trends come and go, but one area he thinks will continue to broaden is that of Asian flavours. “I was the first one that started to make green-tea gelato in Canada, and I am proud to say that,” Loscerbo says, noting that the company has even introduced a durian gelato. (He’s personally more fond of fresh-fruit sorbetto.)
Ernst agrees that Vancouver’s ice-cream scene is a supportive one.
“I think it’s a little bit like the craft beer industry,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for collaboration. If there is competition, it’s fun and friendly, and that just encourages you to do better or be more creative or do something differently.”