by Emily Materick
[This article is the final in a series of eight on artisanal ice cream makers, to see all of Emily Materick’s ‘Scoops’, click here – Ed.]
When I began this summer’s series of profiles I had no idea of the range of personalities I would meet and the contrasts of perspectives on one uniting topic – ice cream. For most people, when you bring up the topic of great ice cream in Toronto their first thought is of Greg’s, a small shop unassumingly located near the corner of Bloor and Spadina.
For almost 30 years running, Greg’s has come to represent not only delicious, quality ice cream but a mark of change in Toronto’s tastes and interests when it comes to food. Long before there was the idea of foodie meccas, before knowing the best spots for banh mi or fresh brioche made you the coolest person at the water cooler – there were lines in front of Greg’s that stretched down the block. Those lines are still there today, on hot summer nights where only a scoop of Coffee Toffee or Sweet Cream will do.
In a summer of inspiring and educational interviews, I saved Greg Mahon for the finale. His passion and enthusiasm for the work that he does is clearly as strong as it was when the shop first began. Straight forward and honest, Greg opened up to me about his thoughts on business, the city and most of all, ice cream. It was a fascinating final profile and a great way to end the series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
EM: How did you get started making ice cream?
GM: Well, I guess the bottom line is I wanted my own business so I looked around Toronto to see what there wasn’t because nobody was making premium natural ice cream when I started in 1980. So, there was a cover story in Time magazine about the best ice cream in the world and they said it was in Boston, a place called Steve’s. So I called Steve of Boston and I said, I cold called him, I said – Steve of Boston, this is Greg of Toronto and I want to come to Boston and learn everything is there is to know about ice cream. So, that’s what I did! I went to Boston and I developed a relationship with Steve and I learned to make ice cream and I came back to Toronto. Believing that there would be enough sophisticated people in this city – 30 years ago it was a very different city – believing there would be enough people to make a go of the business. I was right, there were. There were many people who studied at schools in New England, there were many Montrealers who moved to Toronto because of the political climate but had gone to school and summered or wintered in the States going South so a lot of awareness of American ice cream.
One of my pet peeves is the way that people confuse gelato and ice cream; it’s sort of like potatoes and squash. They’re in the same family but they’re really not the same thing at all. What we make here is traditional North American high quality ice cream. We do not make gelato. We also make ice cream that is really more tailored to the tastes of Canadians versus Americans because there is a different taste preference. Americans like a lot more things in their ice cream – inclusions is the technical term but Canadians are sort of a simpler lot. They say I was the first guy in Canada to make Oreo ice cream. Nobody did it when I did it, it’s written in a book somewhere – not by me! We were the first people to do mix-ins, which is mixing stuff in, nobody had done that.
EM: Which is what Steve’s pioneered?
GM: Yes, exactly. We brought it to Canada. I remember there was an article in the Globe and Mail that said, and you’d be too young for this but, when you’re driving down Bloor Street and you see a line up, a huge line up snaking down the street would you believe it’s to get into Return of the Jedi? It’s not, it’s to get into Greg’s Ice Cream. That’s what it was like, really a phenomenon. For 25 years I was at Bloor and Avenue Road and people still lament the move in terms of they felt it was like an institution. I jokingly said I felt like I was in an institution! But it was great, I mean the memories, the fond memories. You know, Emily – I was in the store the other day last week, we’d just opened at noon and there were 4 people in the store. I was in the back talking to somebody and they heard me but I didn’t know they were here. I walked out into the store and all four people knew me by name, like hi Greg, how are you? I knew all of them. None of them knew each other and they’ve all been customers since the day the business opened. 30 years, it will be 30 years. I mean I started in 1980 but I actually opened the business in ’81. So, in 2011 the business will be 30 years old and here I had 4 customers from day one who still believed that their favorite is here. I introduced them all to each other and it’s sort of neat! Really neat. So, back to the question of why? Because I thought Toronto could use some good ice cream.
Now, it’s interesting because I was interviewed by a writer for a European book in August, a book about food. We talked about foods in different countries of the world and cities that are really known for great food. The writer had just been to New York before they came to interview me and we were talking about restaurants at this point in time, I’d just come back from San Francisco and I don’t know if you’ve been there but the food is great, the food is outstanding. The writer had just been in New York, the food is outstanding – very different from Toronto, very, very different. The writer, to her credit, said to me – but remember, Toronto is only 30 years old. This is a writer from Europe and she was dead on because in the last 30 years food has changed in leaps and bounds. When I started 30 years ago it was quite a daring thing to do. There were people who said I was crazy. Ice cream? Crazy! But clearly, I wasn’t crazy. That’s sort of how I got started.
EM: It’s interesting that you talk about the difference between Canadian and American palates – do you find that Canadians prefer to have smoother ice cream, without chunks?
GM: Not as many chunks and they like a pure quality of a flavour. They like sort of the real McCoy. Believe me, I have friends, neighbours and relatives…God bless America, I love many, many things American but we’re a different people! We’re a very different people. We do have different tastes. There has been some American ice cream people who come to Canada with great aplomb and we’re gonna take over from coast to coast and sea to shining sea and guess what? They don’t. They repeatedly don’t. Every time somebody takes over one of these places there’s great bravado – we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that. That in my mind is stupid to Canadians because we, as Canadians, don’t like to be done that way! [Laughs.] It’s not the Canadian way.
We are very quiet at Greg’s. We wholesale our ice cream so places like the Air Canada Centre use it and the Four Seasons uses it and Pusateri’s sells it and All The Best Fine Foods sells it and high end restaurants and high end golf clubs and stuff like that. We have never approached anybody to carry our ice cream. Everybody comes to us for the ice cream. So, in 30 years, I’ve never and that says something about something, right? We’re just sort of quiet about it. We sit here and we do our thing. I’m a real believer that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so I would never say mine is the best. Mine works for you if it works you. If you want artificial flavours, if you want artificial colours which the majority of the ice cream in this city happens to be – then that’s great. If you like black and orange ice cream then that’s fantastic and I really mean it, that’s what you should have! But that’s not what we do.
You know, people say to me – how come the banana ice cream is white? And I say to them [Greg mimics peeling a banana] when…you peel…a banana…now, the smarter ones have got it by this point…what…and then sometimes you get to “white!”. So if you see a banana ice cream that’s yellow – it’s not real. It’s not real. The strawberry ice cream is pale, pale – that’s what it is! And the chocolate is dark and the lemon is white – I could go on! I mean, it’s just the way real things are.
EM: Considering the fact that so many people that I’ve interviewed have brought you up as their first influence in ice cream in Toronto, do you consider yourself a mentor? Have you instructed many people along the way?
GM: It’s funny you would say that because yes, I get asked a lot of things by a lot of people. My name is Greg, the business is Greg’s, the whole business is built on ask me anything and I’ll tell you everything. I really have nothing to hide because there is nothing to hide because I make ice cream the old fashioned way. It’s heavier, it doesn’t have as much air and it doesn’t have artificial things. I’m not that technically savvy personally. I don’t have a Blackberry. My kids have Blackberries – I have a simple phone. People say to me why is your ice cream good? I say – because I do it the old fashioned way, it’s just real. I also believe and I say this to people who are looking for business opportunities or creating their own business – go out and ask people. Ask for people’s time, ask to have a cup of coffee, ask can I chat with you? They’re going to say no, some of them. But many people who are entrepreneurial will sit down and chat like we are now. I just really believe in that. I believe in it.
I don’t believe in stealing things from people. I don’t believe in taking credit for something that’s not yours. I’m hugely opposed to that. For example, there are a couple of ice cream businesses that predate me that are artificial, no question, but were famous for a few flavours. People would come into my store – this is 30 years ago – and say “do you make a yadda-yadda-yadda?” which was a hallmark of a particular company and I would say no, I don’t – that’s theirs. I have a flavour which many people have tried to copy which is called Roasted Marshmallow and that’s our 15 minutes of fame. There’s no question. Ben & Jerry have come here to eat it, people come from all over the world to eat it, and people have tried to copy it.
One dairy, he called me up one day – we have a nice relationship – and he said, Greg, can I send my driver to pick up a big bucket of the Roasted Marshmallow ice cream? And I said sure. He said ok, how much is it? I said, it’s my treat. The driver came and picked up the big bucket of Roasted Marshmallow ice cream and for 2 years this major dairy tried in their research and development department to make it. They finally came out with one and they put it in their store and people came in and tasted and said “that’s not like Greg’s!” and nobody would buy it, they stopped making it. He told me the whole story! President’s Choice has tried to copy it, I mean, everybody…now, that’s very flattering, really quite flattering but it’s not something I would do to somebody. It’s just not what our ethics are at Greg’s. It might sound trite, but it’s such a unique…you know. I’m questioned all the time, how do you do this? And the answer is a campfire and Greg’s songs, you know…[Greg sing-spells out his name]
I’m happy to talk to people. I really believe in that because the two best things about my business for me are the making of the ice cream and the talking to the customers. It’s fantastic! I mean the people you meet and the experiences they share about their lives. You know, you can come here burdened with a sick child, an overdue mortgage, an exam at school, the death of a loved one – whatever! People come for ice cream to cheer themselves up. It’s a happiness business. We have a special group of customers and they’re a pretty smart group of people. They’re very discerning. You go to different ice cream places and you see different crowds, different ilk’s of people. Ours is very upscale but I don’t mean just financially. They think about stuff.
There was an article in one of the papers this summer that really, really disturbed me. That was, one of the papers went and taste tested a whole bunch of ice creams in the city (National Post, July 17th where staffers at the paper wrote mini reviews of various ice cream possibilities in the city). They did a whole front page of the food section with drawings of all the ice creams. Mine was right up there, top row and the only negative criticism was of me, of the Roasted Marshmallow which doesn’t faze me at all because not everybody likes it. I’m happy with that, we’re back to beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But every other ice cream, from the most chemically ladened to the…just every ice cream was fantastic. Now, you know what bothered me about that, Emily? The fact that the people in Toronto don’t have a clue, they’re not discerning. They really don’t know fine food. That’s what bothers me. I want my kids to grow up knowing the difference between mediocrity and something that’s really good. So, I don’t know who the people were that they used and I’ve actually had this discussion about that article with a lot of people. I think the article spoke about the ignorance of the people in Toronto, it didn’t speak about ice cream.
EM: I think there are a fair number of people who do appreciate and seek out good products, who want to have something that’s pure. I think the unfortunate thing is giving equal coverage to something that someone hasn’t put the time into to make a truly good product, something artificial over something pure.
GM: Yes, but I think it’s about taste. If you go to San Francisco and you go to The Slanted Door – it is going to blow you away, it’s so magnificent. I could name places all over the world, it doesn’t happen in Toronto. I don’t care what anybody says and you know what? People like me who speak out and say this get nailed against the wall but it doesn’t happen in Toronto. People don’t know the difference and they don’t care. They don’t want the difference, you know? Lately there’s been a hamburger thing going on in this city and I love a great hamburger but I’m not about to run all over town…I mean, I’m too busy, it’s not my life but I just wish that the young people and these were all young people, I’m assuming (in the ice cream review) were more sophisticated – they’re not. If, and I go back to what I told you in the beginning, when I opened my business I believed there were enough sophisticated people to get it. I was right.
But the majority of people in the city aren’t sophisticated enough to get it, they’re not. You know that expression “it’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle”? Well, if you’re going for sizzle, that’s ok too – I don’t have a problem with that. I think a lot of people in this town are scrambling to try to make something of themselves, for themselves – and I think that’s the wrong approach. I think that Greg’s has made a contribution to the city and it’s above and beyond ice cream. People like Alison [the shop’s friendly manager, who has just arrived to set up] have made this place a better place and I think the experience that people have here has made the city a better place – it isn’t just the product. People laugh, they come in and I really encourage people to taste.
If you end up with an ice cream cone you don’t like – I mean, what’s worse than that in life? An ice cream cone you don’t like! And you sit there and eat it all! Why? Because sometimes people will be standing here and they’ll have something and I’ll ask how is it and they’ll say “it’s alright but I didn’t realize that cardamom tasted like it does” so I grab it out of their hand and I throw it in the garbage and I say – we’re starting over! We do it until they get something they like because I want them to be happy, because we’re dealing in happiness. Then there are times where I’ll say to people “taste, taste, taste” and they’ll say “I’m going to taste them and not get any, I won’t need anything” and I’ll say “well, that’s just great as long as you leave here happy” and I mean that. We mean that. The staff all means it. So, we’re very particular about who we hire here.
EM: So, it’s interesting to me because your ice cream is so prevalent, when you say ice cream to people in Toronto they usually say Greg’s yet you only have one location. Why have you decided to stick to one location?
GM: It wasn’t really a decision because for 30 years I’ve been thinking I should open another location. About 25 years ago All The Best Fine Foods came to me and said we’ve opened our business and we want your ice cream for our store and I told them I don’t do wholesale. They said “we want your ice cream!” and they kept bugging me so finally I broke down and I made them ice cream. Then the Four Seasons came to me and said we want your ice cream for the hotel and the studio and for Truffles and I told them that I didn’t do that but they said they wanted it so I did. It started out that I was doing retail out the front door and wholesale out the back door and then just little by little it grew and grew. We have a pretty loyal following. Pusateri’s sells our ice cream and Summerhill Market in Rosedale sells so much of our ice cream, so does All The Best and there are places in St. Thomas, west of London and Slickers, who you met, had my ice cream for years so there’s that side of the business which keeps us really busy. That sort of precluded another location but I’m looking now for another location, two or three actually. I get asked all the time. There isn’t anybody who can understand why I haven’t opened another location, nobody! I’m not sure I can understand it.
EM: Well, you have to go with your gut!
GM: Yeah, yeah.
EM: As far as expanding into a wholesale business, what were the challenges you found along the way? Did you worry about compromising quality?
GM: I wouldn’t compromise quality. I wouldn’t worry about it because I wouldn’t do it, period. I think the fact that I can control, because we do small batches we completely control what we’re doing and I mean that’s not even an option. I know that’s a critical downfall to many businesses, you lose control and you don’t care. If you stop caring…my integrity, my name is on the place. It’s very different to have a business with your name on it than a business without your name. I say to people think twice about putting your name on it. When come out in the store and ask how it is – the customers are directly relating back to me if they like it or didn’t like it. Whereas if some dairy had made it and I’m buying it I could put the blame on to them but the buck stops here in every respect. People say to me that the product hasn’t changed since the day it opened, nothing’s changed and in a world that’s constantly changing I know my customers love that they can count on us. When we talk about the fact that it’s a happy thing, people have so many emotional memories connected to ice cream consumption.
I meet people all the time that say “our first date was at your store” or “my baby was breastfed on your Sweet Cream” or “our wedding party came to the store” or “you did our wedding cake”. The stories that I’m told that have huge meaning to the people who are telling them, it just sort of blows me away – it’s pretty wonderful. There’s a huge emotional component. I’ve always said that everybody, when they are eating ice cream, is thinking of a grandparent that took them out for ice cream or a treat they got because they did well in school or the time they broke their collarbone and it was something to assuage the pain.
EM: What usually influences your flavour creations?
GM: It’s interesting. The customers influence the flavour creations, no question, but only to a certain point because when I started 30 years ago, I mean – Green Tea? Never, nobody would have eaten Green Tea ice cream but we can’t keep it in the store now.
EM: Or Stout…
GM: Stout, yeah. Cardamom, Star Anise and all sorts of flavours, combinations of flavours…Durian, the Indonesian fruit. Pistachio is hugely popular and even more popular with the Indian population. Mango, I use Alphonso mangoes is hugely popular with most people but the Indian population loves that. I’ve had Japanese people tell me that the Green Tea ice cream I make is better than what they get in Japan and I’ve been to Japan a few times – I know it is. I use their green tea but I use our milk. Our milk is better, milk is not a big thing in Japan and so our Green Tea ice cream tastes better than theirs. The other thing about flavours and I guess the Roasted Marshmallow kind of sums it up because for the Canadian experience, especially in this part of Canada, the campfire of the summer is truly iconic. So, with that flavour, we immediately transport the taster right back to some experience they have had which is all good.
The interesting thing about flavour is I think places try to promote themselves on a unique flavour and I don’t think that’s the way to promote a business. I think the way to grow is to offer flavours your customers want and offer the best quality there can be of whatever they are because at the end of the day, I don’t care what anybody says. Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry and the odd esoteric flavour is what’s going to make it. People want the standards. If you sit down and have a hot fudge sundae then wow, I defy you to have anything better than that. Fantastic Vanilla ice cream and we make our own hot fudge too and real whip cream – we make our own whip cream, we don’t use the artificial junk. It’s like, wow. Every time I have one of those I go nuts because it’s basic. Basic like please and thank you and hi, how are you? The basics always cut it.
People are always saying “what’s the latest? What’s the latest?” You talk about the Stout – people will call in January and February and say “I’d like to order some Stout ice cream” and I’ll say “no, you don’t” They’re going to have one taste of it and they’re going to say “ugh, I’ll wait ‘til July” There certain flavours that are good certain times. At Christmastime we make Cranberry ice cream and Mince Meat ice cream and Candy Cane ice cream. I’ve always used Laura Secord candy canes in our ice cream because they are the best and you know, my Candy Cane ice cream is much better than theirs – they don’t even use their own candy canes! So, I don’t think the need to be constantly coming up with new flavours is a solid way to approach business. Somebody may be into it once, twice or 29 times but they’re going to come back to something solid. Vanilla ice cream is often served as default because it will offend the least number of people but that offends me because a great Vanilla is a great thing. Vanilla is the flavour of kings! Vanilla has always been. A crème brulee and vanilla – you can’t beat it. Don’t try to hide it with lime or Cointreau or whatever – it’s meant to be vanilla. Where do you get a great crème brulee? There aren’t many great crème brulees but it’s the vanilla. A fine vanilla cake, madeleines are vanilla – if you can get them – are vanilla and they are great. Don’t mess around with what is great and we try not to do that here.
EM: Have you had a flavour that you thought was going to do well and didn’t end up doing as well as you thought?
GM: No but I had a travel agent and his favourite flavour was and is, he just requested it the other day, Chocolate Cinnamon Raisin. Chocolate with cinnamon and raisins in it and he adores that flavour, his offspring adores that flavour. Lots of people don’t like cinnamon – they wouldn’t go near anything with cinnamon. Lots of people don’t like raisins; there are lots of people who don’t like chocolate so Chocolate Cinnamon Raisin? What percentage of the population is that going to appeal to? We have enough customers that we can make Chocolate Cinnamon Raisin. I have about 130 recipes and some sell more quickly than others, some are more popular than others. They all sell, though – there’s a customer for everything. That’s true in any business.
EM: Do you have a hard time choosing the flavours you’re going to keep in rotation?
GM: No, because the fact that we do so much wholesale, the wholesale customers call up and request what they want and we get the leftovers. Such as, they want one container and we make two of them. What is difficult is to please everybody all the time. “You don’t have my favorite flavour?” But that’s also what I see as one of the good things about our business, it’s not predictable. I hate when life is totally predictable. Someone was in here last week and they came for something specific and we didn’t have it and they got Oreo instead and they said “oh my god, it is so delicious. If you had had what I wanted I wanted I wouldn’t have gotten the Oreo” and that’s my whole attitude about it.
Try something else! Live a little! I’ve been doing this so long and people are still coming after 30 years and I’ve got to tell you, I know each and every one of those people has come here and we haven’t had the flavour and that has not stopped them from coming back. I think the quality of your product and the consistency of your product is something to be worried about. I think how you treat your customers is something to be worried about. I think how the staff feels about one another and the customers is something to be worried about. I ask customers “how is it?” I’m prepared for them to say they don’t like it. They hardly ever have but I’m giving them the option of being honest. Here it is, give it to me, there’s too much this or there’s not enough that. I step up to the plate and I want to hear what people have to say.
EM: I want to know what your favorite flavour is but I’ve heard you don’t like to say what it is.
GM: The problem is, if I say what my favorite flavour is people will come in and want it and it’s often not here. There’s another one here that’s similar and it’s more popular with other people. Whenever I have the Coconut ice cream them it’s just, wow. But I like coconut and a lot of people don’t like coconut. I had a Strawberry ice cream cone and it was wow. It just hit me; you know when stuff just hits you? Hm, I don’t know if I should tell you… [Alison guesses it might be Maple Walnut, Greg says no]. The Maple Walnut is amazing and I’ll tell you why it is – I get the maple syrup from the Mennonites and its really good maple syrup. It’s all real, it’s not artificial maple and it’s really good.
Chocolate Toffee is my favorite. Not the Coffee Toffee, I love the Coffee Toffee and the Roasted Marshmallow and the Coffee Toffee are really popular – really, really popular. There are days we could run the entire business with just those two flavours. I like chocolate and I just love the Chocolate Toffee and when we have it I get excited. But I like lots of them and I’m not trying to be gratuitous in saying that. Pie – I love a good pie and it’s very hard to find a good pie, the pastry but the other day I had a strawberry, raspberry and blueberry pie but I also like an outstanding coconut cream pie and I love a good pumpkin pie. I love pie and I like cake! [Laughs.] I like good stuff, you know?
EM: So my last question that I’ve asked everyone is that there’s a line of thought that when you put this much effort into making a great product and you work so hard on great flavour that to have it in a cone is to interrupt the delivery of such great flavour. So, what I’m asking everyone that I profile is what your preference is – cup or cone is?
GM: Both! It has to do with my mood and it has to do with where I’m at, at that moment, in terms of how I want to eat the ice cream. The cone is a bit more frivolous but if you’re into frivolity, if you’re into fun, if you’re into being really happy and not being so focused and serious about things then I would go for the cone. But the dish, if I wanted to be into myself and just focus and connect with the ice cream for me and leave you out of it then the dish. Does that make sense? It’s not a cop out to say both – I really think there are a time and a place for either. I just very strongly feel – what mood am I in? What do I want? When I had the Strawberry yesterday it was in a sugar cone. Sometimes I’ll have a plain cone. It depends on the flavours. I think the interesting thing is generally I like my ice cream plain. I mentioned the hot fudge sundae because I love a hot fudge sundae but I don’t have them very often. I like my ice cream plain. I don’t mix flavours; very seldom do I mix flavours. If I’m driving and I run into the store here I might get a mix of flavours to check the flavours but to me, I’m a purist and its one flavour at a time.