By Dan Rankin
By November, Bob Hearn, owner of Hearn’s Ice Cream in St. Marys, has generally closed down his 327 Queen Street East shop – but, even though he doesn’t sell much of the cold stuff in the winter, he’s still got it on his mind – and I’m not talking about brain-freeze.
Hearn is a board member of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association and, for the past six years, has been attending annual conventions held by the NICRA. They generally take place in November in various places around the southern United States. The most recent convention took place Nov. 3-6 in St. Petersburg, Florida, while other recent conventions have taken place in Jacksonville and Lexington, Kentucky.
As he’s based in Ontario, Hearn’s ice cream-selling season may be shorter than some American ice cream shops, but he notes that, like him, many ice cream shops south of the border close up shop when autumn arrives. “It seems that there’s a line about the middle of Georgia where shops below that line stay open year-round,” he said. “A lot of the places north of that are seasonal just like me. That’s why they have the convention when they do, because for everyone they’re either closed, or it’s their slow time.”
Each convention attracts between 400 and 500 attendees, who are either independent ice cream shop owners or prospective owners thinking about getting into the business, but seeking ideas and advice from experienced owners, Hearn said.
Attendees this year came from across Canada and the United States, he said. “This year there were a few from Mexico, Italy, Spain and England,” Hearn said. “In the past retailers from as far away as Australia have come.”
Besides the attendees, there are also around 100 booths set up by suppliers and other vendors. “There’s everything from ice cream machines, to toppings, to insurance companies and cash register companies,” he said. “Everything to do with ice cream and ice cream products.”
Yes, that means along with all of the colourful booths and vibrant personalities in ice cream-cone decorated ties, the NICRA Convention is also home to free samples galore. If that weren’t enough, competitions also take place each year to find the best vanilla, chocolate and “new flavour” ice creams in the United States. Besides a taste test held during the convention, each of the 150 samples entered in the competition also gets analyze by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Hearn added.
“Some of the new machines that caught my eye are really state-of-the-art stuff,” Hearn said, noting that he’s seen more machines gradually go digital and work much faster than the old days. “I have a couple of ideas for the store that might involve adding some new products.”
2016 represents the 49th year of operation for Hearn’s in St. Marys, which Bob has run since 2000. Looking ahead to the 50th anniversary in 2017, he said he’s excited about some plans he’s working on to “change things up.”
Hearn’s Ice Cream opens annually in March.