by Emily Materick
[This article is the first in a series. To read all of Emily Materick’s ‘Scoops’, click here. – Ed]
Throughout the summer, I’ll be profiling the artisanal creators of frozen flavours, bringing you an inside look at Toronto’s best scoops. For my first stop, I started close to home. Ed’s Real Scoop, comfortably located at the east end of the Beaches, is easily spotted by the number of contented consumers hanging out around its cheery yellow storefront. One of my personal markers of a great ice cream store is freshly made waffle cones and at Ed’s the air is heavy with the sweet smell. The Beaches location and its sister shop in Leslieville offer a wide range of flavours using in house-made ingredients such as brownies and peanut butter fudge, local seasonal fruit and coffee from nearby Mercury Espresso Bar.
Passionate and enthusiastic about his craft, Ed Francis was initially inspired to create ice cream in 1973 when he lived in Boston and frequented Steve’s Ice Cream. The artisanal shop was the first to create the concept of mix-ins, combining fresh ice cream with candy and other ingredients to make custom flavours. As well, as one of six children, his childhood was filled with treat making, such as taffy pulls. Upon moving to Toronto, Ed saw the need for truly great ice cream in his neighbourhood and decided to exchange his twenty year career in computer networks for the dream of opening his own ice cream shop. “I wanted to do it my way” says Ed “I wanted to use really good chocolate, really good locally sourced cream and milk, the best fruit I could find, the best of everything I could find…that’s why it’s called Ed’s Real Scoop – because I want everything to be real”
I sat down with Ed recently to get a better idea on what his experiences have been like as a small batch producer.
Emily Materick: What do you think the benefits are to being a small batch ice cream maker instead of being a larger, corporate business?
Ed Francis: Well, you can differentiate yourself from the other guys. I’m in the Beaches and in the Beaches there are probably six or eight ice cream places but they are all commercial. There are the new guys, the Marble Slab guys that opened but even there it’s pre-determined. They assemble ice cream, they don’t invent any ice cream. It’s a way of differentiating yourself. Also, what I found out is that I stayed with the quality thing because I was just stubborn and wanted to do it that way. What I’ve learned is there’s a market for that and there are enough people who are looking for that, who aren’t looking for the commercial stuff, to keep us going. In fact, in the big city there are a lot of people looking for that. So, there’s a market and a market in a city like Toronto can support several of us, as you know.
EM: Very true! What do you think some of the challenges are that you face having to it by yourself, making it real?
EF: The challenges are meeting peak demand, for me anyways, because I have such a small store. When the jazz festival comes, there’s almost an endless supply of customers…in a way, I limit it. I could sell more ice cream but I can’t make it fast enough. If you’re baking the brownies to go in, instead of buying commercial brownies, making the fudge instead of buying fudge bits – you can only do it so fast without driving everybody crazy. You’re limited in the quantity that you can do. We make a decent profit now, the first few years you had to establish a customer base. Now things are pretty good and I’m happy with the way it is. I’ve opened the second store in Leslieville and it was immediately busy.
EM: Well, I feel the tide has turned from when you opened to now where people are looking for, even specifically seeking out the artisanal products.
EF: Right! A lot of people are actually looking for it, more than commercial brands.
EM: What do you look for when you create new flavours? Are there trends that you follow? Customer feedback? Do people request certain flavours?
EF: There’s a little bit of everything. A couple of years ago we did something we called “Do us a favour, create a flavour” and people would come in with these ideas for ice cream. We actually got two or three that we still do periodically. One was Banana Blitz – banana ice cream with peanut butter in it…we also did a carrot cake ice cream that we don’t do very often because it’s hard to make. We made a spice ice cream using the spices that are in carrot cake, we grated up carrots, chopped up walnuts and mixed them in. Then we took cream cheese, added some oil, whipped it a bit and made a ripple and it tasted exactly like you were eating carrot cake – it was really good but it’s a lot of work. I thought it was cool because I’d never put a vegetable into ice cream before.
EM: I think one of my favorite things about doing pastry is taking an idea and trying to figure out how to make it work.
EF: And that’s the biggest challenge, people come up with ideas but sometimes it will take me two to three years before I figure out how to do it. The most interesting one was one that I figured out pretty quickly. It was September and a lady was in one day and said “do you have pumpkin ice cream?” and I said “no” and I didn’t say it but I was thinking that it sounds really weird to me, pumpkin ice cream. Then she left and I thought – Thanksgiving is coming up and I always do holiday specific flavours but how do you make pumpkin ice cream?
My mother, she baked and I went to her in my late twenties and said show me how to bake pies, how to make pie crusts, give me pie recipes and so I learned how to bake pies and I bake a lot. So, I had her recipe for pumpkin pie and I just looked at the filling recipe and said ok, that’s my starting point. That’s pretty much what it is, it’s the pumpkin, the spices, the brown sugar, the eggs and cream are already in and I just added until I got the right flavour. The first time I made it, I made like, one gallon’s worth and I thought, this could be really bad but now, during September and October it’s our biggest selling flavour and it’s all due to my Mum. You know, it’s sad, she never got to have it…I’m from Southern Ohio and it’s an eight hour drive, I never thought it would make it. After she died, there was a Thanksgiving at my Dad’s house and all my siblings were there so I packed a bunch of the ice cream into a freezer and went down and it survived. My siblings and my Dad all got to have some of the pumpkin ice cream.
EM: That’s so great. Did you ever have a flavour that didn’t work out but you thought would be wonderful? Do you go through a lot of trial and error?
EF: Yes, well, one of the things I’ve learned is naming is important. I made a sour cream ice cream and I couldn’t even get people to taste it [Laughs.] It was like pulling teeth to get people to even try it. Finally, I changed the name to, well, it kind of tastes like cream cheese so I called it cream cheese ice cream and eventually it all sold and I never made it again. But I thought it was really good! There are different categories of ice cream and that’s one of the after dinner ones, it’s not really a scoop shop flavour – it’s something I’d make for a restaurant.
EM: Do you make different flavours for the (take home) pints than you do for the scoops?
EF: No, we just pack pints (from the main flavours). It’s nice having the pint freezer, actually because most people don’t want the last few scoops on the bottom and you can pack pints with them. It really all tastes the same, but they don’t they don’t know that. [Laughs.]
EM: We’ve already sort of been through your emphasis on local and organic but are there any particular suppliers you’ve made relationships with in Ontario, in particular?
EF: The cream is the biggest, but it’s a problem doing local ice cream because ice cream relies more on exotic flavours. So, vanilla is not grown in Canada, cocoa is not grown in Canada, coffee is not grown in Canada so all those flavours that are standards, you can’t get locally.
EM: I suppose you can compensate with fruit?
EF: You can but, the problem with the fruits, is finding a supplier that picks them ripe, that doesn’t pick them green. I’m actually trying to working with a guy now who’s in Prince Edward County and he grows raspberries and blueberries and such, so I’m trying to create a source I can use on a regular basis from a local farmer but it’s hard. The times that it’s been the best (for peaches), I’ve actually driven down to the Niagara Peninsula and gone to the orchards during the season. I pick those and make large batch of (ice cream). I love peach but it’s really hard to find good peaches in the fruit markets.
EM: You must have some flavours that are pretty limited in their time span if you’re trying to incorporate local fruits.
EF: Well, the time you can do with local fruit is limited and other than that I buy frozen purees. In fact, the frozen purees tend to be better than buying the market fruit because what happens is when (the fruit) is almost overly ripe, the farmers will sell it to the puree companies at a discount – but it has the most flavour. They process it immediately and freeze it and I can pull it out months later and thaw it out and it still has the flavour. It’s interesting thing.
EM: So, what are your favorite flavours of the moment?
EF: [Laughs.] I have three flavours that I like, well, four now. I eat chocolate, straight chocolate – chocolate ice cream or chocolate gelato. Espresso, the Mercury espresso because I love coffee flavours, we use Mercury espresso and make the ice cream with it. I used actually make my own espresso and I found that theirs is so good, I just buy it from them. I like mango, so I make an ice cream called Mango Tango so when I want a fruit flavour, it’s that. Nowadays, I’m actually – I hate to admit it but I’m getting hooked on burnt marshmallow.
EM: Well, it’s a really good flavour!
EF: It’s really good! Normally, I don’t go for the real popular ones but that’s one I really go for.
EM: Finally, there’s a debate among ice cream makers whether you should have an artisanal ice cream in a cup or a cone, that the cone distracts from the pure flavour of the ice cream. What are your thoughts on that?
EF: It might distract you, that’s true. I feel waffle cones distract you, but we sell lots of them. In their own right, they are really good. It’s funny, the only thing I can say is that I’ve gone to a neighbour’s for dinner and they served my ice cream in a nice little china dish and it does seem to taste better! [Laughs.] The other thing is that we do these chocolate cups for ice cream now, real couveture chocolate with a scoop of ice cream in them, and with the chocolate it’s a really nice touch…if you really want to focus on the ice cream, I’d put it in a dish.
Ed’s Real Scoop is located at 2224 Queen Street East and 920 Queen Street East – visit the website: edsrealscoop.com for more details.