by Emily Materick
[This article is the third in a series. To read all of Emily Materick’s ‘Scoops’, click here. – Ed]
A riot of colour and eclectic décor both inside and out, Dutch Dreams dominates a small corner just off St Clair West. Inside, customers press up against the glass display and give their orders to the counter help, barely visible over the stacks of fresh waffle cones and toppings. Theo Aben, the genial and exuberant owner has come over from his home. It’s the only house on the street with a giant ice cream cone slide in the front yard. He is carrying his three month old daughter, Ellie, who may be scooping ice cream one day the way Theo has done here since he was 12. The business, which grew from his father’s necessity, has become a neighbourhood tradition and a unique tourist spot. We take a spot under the air conditioner while Theo gives me a peek behind the scenes of Dutch Dreams.
TA: My father’s childhood dream was to open an ice cream store one day and funny enough; my father did go into the ice cream business and always had something to do with it throughout his life. My family has been in the hotel business for three hundred and fifty years. My father went into the hotel industry and traveled all around the world, working for different companies, and everywhere he went he would always open a company ice cream store that were very successful. This was all over the world. My father spent most of his time in Africa, which is where I was born and raised in a small town in Guinea. He had a contract there providing accommodations for the ex-patriots and he opened a little ice cream store at the local swimming pool that was very successful.
He’d always been kind of magical that way. He makes puppets and has puppet shows; he used to go from orphanage to orphanage in his spare time doing puppet shows. Then, he came to Toronto and through circumstances of life, he lost all his money. My mother died and he didn’t know what to do because he’d never been a mother, never been a single parent. He’d always been working and been very busy and all of sudden he had two kids and he just decided to open a little store where he could sell some ice cream and look after us, fulfill his childhood dream. It was what came naturally to him – opening an ice cream store. All of us worked here. We grew up in the ice cream – serving it, eating it.
The shop very Dutch – my grandmother’s house looked like this; it’s very much the Dutch style. Even though my father left Holland when he was 17, you know, whatever country you come from you always remember certain things that you love about it. Certain things are just inherited, like the coziness and the art – my dad’s always been a very big art collector so there a lot of art hanging up in (the shop). He decorated the shop with things he always wanted as a child because he was a child of war and they didn’t have very much. He always wanted to play tennis, for example, so there’s a tennis racket hanging up over there. When he was a little kid he had a sleigh just like this. [Aben points to an old fashioned wooden sled hanging above us from the ceiling.]
EM: So, how do you produce your ice cream? Do you make it here?
TA: We don’t do it on the premises; we use a facility as we have not been able to get our own facility yet. We’re working on doing that someday! For the sheer volumes that we go through, for me to invest in getting my own small batch freezer – I wouldn’t be able compete with the volume that (the facility) can produce for me. I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I would have to turn to the facility in the end anyway. We go through a hundred tubs of ice cream a week here – or more.
EM: Still, not being a large corporate producer – what benefits have you found by being able to control things yourself?
TA: I think being a small, independent business means you’re able to keep consistency in all the desserts we serve, we oversee everything. We’re able that way to keep control of the consistency of the product. It brings in that extra touch for customers. Knowing that it’s a family business just makes people feel something more. In the many years that people have come here, they came because they’ve built up a relationship with my father and me. They’ve known me since I was little.
EM: You must have generations of customers now!
TA: It’s funny – I’m 37 now but I remember when I started working here in the early 80’s. I came from a regular family, I never in a million years thought I would be working at 12 but we were thrown into the business. We were pretty sheltered kids, even though my Dad has always been outgoing. We came from Africa, from this little town to a big city, and all of a sudden I was thrown in front of the public to serve – where I was always served as a child. We had to give it our all because it was our father’s business, so we felt it in our hearts – we cared. You’re a little bit more a perfectionist that way. People don’t realize it, but for everyone who’s in an independent business – when you go home at night and the lights are off – you think about the business, about the customers who were maybe upset about something. It bothers you for days, how can I do better, how can I improve on that.
EM: It’s a lot to grow up with.
TA: It is a lot grow up with! On top of that we had to strive so hard to make everything perfect because we wanted my dad to succeed. We knew he needed to succeed if he was going to make and we were going to be ok. That we were going to be able to eat.
EM: Other than ice cream! [Laughs.]
TA: [Laughs.] So, I guess the truth is we grew up in a privileged family and a nice lifestyle and all of sudden it went to zero and we had to forget about the past and we just had to get our gear on and go. You learn to care about everything a lot. But back to your question – I started serving people and they would come in with their brand new babies. I remember a woman who would come in, pregnant. I remember the first time I saw her daughter come in on a date and I remember thinking, I can’t believe time flew like that! People come in with their kids – who were kids coming here.
EM: So, other than the obvious worries and taking the work very personally, what other challenges have you found trying to produce the volume of ice cream that you have to produce? What other challenges have you found being a small producer?
TA: So far, we haven’t had very many challenges that way. I met my wife here at Dutch Dreams and she works here. My father still works in the business and we have a lot of help. When you have your wife working with you, it’s like having a right hand and a left hand. So, I’m very lucky that way – if I had to do it all on my own – I wouldn’t be able to. With the new baby, she’s had some time off and I’ve had some hairy moments but she’s helping with the orders and the inventory, that’s the hard part of it – just making sure we have everything we need.
EM: I’ve recently begun working in ice cream and I’ve started to learn about keeping up the supply for the demand you have in the summer – it’s almost unpredictable, how many people are going to come in and how hot it’s going to be – I know it can be a challenge.
TA: We run out of stuff. We try not to but it happens. I don’t know how it works but I know the days we are out of banana ice cream – everybody orders banana. It’s like, where were you people yesterday when we had twenty tubs of banana. I never understand how the world moves that way. The store can be empty for an hour and then you get one customer and then thirty more follow and then complain about the wait. I think, there was that whole hour when people could have had ice cream and I don’t know, it’s science! It’s thirty years of watching how the patterns work and that’s the only predictable thing. Every single time! You can never tell, you only know when you are out of peanut butter and chocolate that’s the day everybody wants peanut butter and chocolate. [Laughs.] I can put money on it!
EM: It’s a sixth sense! So, what do you look for when you come up with new flavours?
TA: We go to ice cream conventions every year. That’s where the new ideas go down but we don’t do anything wacky or crazy because wacky and crazy doesn’t sell. If you’re going to make twenty tubs of peanut butter and jelly ice cream – you have to sell those twenty tubs. So, you can’t do anything off the wall, you kind of have to know where your customer base is. Not everything works for every area.
EM: Do you have trends that you follow?
TA: Generally, all the stuff that is standard in the business. For example, when I went to Florida about 6 years ago I stopped at Dunkin Donuts and I bought a doughnut filled with birthday cake icing. I bit into this doughnut and I swear I hit heaven. I’ve never been a big fan of doughnuts, I like them but I don’t love them, but this doughnut was so good! My wife took one bite and then ate the whole thing. I went back in and got two more and I never normally would do that. I thought to myself – that would be a really good ice cream flavour! Then we went to the ice cream convention that year and that was the new (flavour) and I said see, I should have started that before everyone else!
EM: Have you ever had a flavour that you really liked but didn’t work out?
TA: We’ve had a few. One flavour that we had that was a bomb and I thought was a bomb too was the chocolate chili. That was years ago. Cajun chocolate – nobody bought it. Luckily a George Brown student was working on an ice cream project and I just happened to pick up the phone and said “you’re exactly who I want to talk to!” – He bought ten tubs, bought it all. So, yeah – we’ll never do that again. We did one that I liked a lot – chocolate covered cashews with chocolate and caramel. I loved it but people didn’t like it.
EM: Do you find it’s difficult to tell what people will like?
TA: When it’s all said and done, people go to the classic flavours of ice cream. So, you can take me to the fanciest ice cream store like Dutch Dreams [Laughs.] and tell me that they have the best watermelon and when I’m in the line I’m going to go straight to the chocolate chip or cookie dough. Pomegranate has been a big seller though. I think it’s because pomegranate has a lot of health benefits mentioned in the media. Watermelon also went through the roof. The watermelon sherbet has been a big hit.
EM: Back when your father was making ice cream it must have been a lot harder to have the kind of variety and keep up with the demand.
TA: My father was doing everything on his own. He is a workaholic and he gets the job done. My dad is amazing and I know that everyone says that about their father but my dad is amazing. My whole life he’s never disappointed me in anything. If he says he’s going to do it then he gets it done. I inspire to be like him. That’s what it takes!
EM: So, what is your favorite flavour of the moment?
TA: Moose droppings. Very Canadian, we get a lot of tourists here and they like it too. It’s Reece’s peanut butter cups with a very rich chocolate sauce and a sweet vanilla and chocolate chips. It calls my name at night. Literally. I don’t go to bed at night without eating some.
EM: Finally, what do you think is better – cup or cone?
TA: I’m a cone guy. I can see how it’s possible that a cone could take away from the flavour but I really don’t think it’s that big a deal. I have a friend who is way too cool and could never eat ice cream out of a cone – always a cup – but I think a cone is better. That’s the way the Dutch do it and the French, so it’s got to be better!
Dutch Dreams is located at 78 Vaughn Rd. The website, dutchdreams.ca is currently under construction.