We talked to: Herrell's Ice Cream & Bakery
Hi! Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your business, and why you chose downtown Northampton as a location many years ago?
Of course! Originally, Steve Herrell owned his ice cream business, Steve’s, in Davis Square in Somerville. When he sold it, he decided to move to Western MA, as he owned a property in Goshen at the time and also had friends in this area. Once he was settled, he realized he knew too much about ice cream to stay out of the business. That passion and drive led to the opening of Herrell’s in Thornes in 1980. Based on the reactions to his shop in Boston—to the quality, creativity, and innovativeness—he felt certain that that same positive response would carry over to Northampton. And it definitely did.
Northampton was really buzzing and vibrant at that time, and included both well-established businesses like Ann August and E.J. Gare Jewelers, as well as up-and-coming spots like Paul & Elizabeth’s, SZE’s, Faces, and La Cazuela. It felt like a destination spot, with great energy and an array of offerings, including plenty of live music events at the Iron Horse, the Calvin, and Pearl Street. People were coming to visit, locals were frequenting their favorite spots, and Herrell’s definitely became a major draw. At that time, positive word-of-mouth advertising was a huge factor in making the business successful. Our approach and offerings were also unique, as we came up with the idea for putting cookies and candy into ice cream—Herrell’s is where the “smoosh-in” was created. People love being able to customize their ice cream with add-ons, and we continue to come up with new flavors and exciting combinations.
We always wanted Herrell’s to be a friendly, welcoming place where kids could hang out after school, people could go on dates, or families could go for a spontaneous treat. We’ve even had weddings happen in line because they first met at Herrell’s, and it was such a meaningful spot for them. I’ve been there from almost the beginning, but I preferred being in the background. I did a lot of the marketing, as well as social media in the beginning of that era. I also always had other jobs, including store manager of Iris Photo from 1990 to 2006. I would work there during the day, then run down to Herrell’s in the evenings. We’ve always had a wonderful team of people that keep the place going, and we remain friends to this day with so many of them who first started out with us.
While I do think we could’ve opened in any college town that had a decent amount of pedestrian, family, and tourist traffic, Northampton’s vibe and energy just felt right at that time. It truly felt like the best place to open the shop.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced as well as some positive things that have transpired in the past few years?
Covid was clearly a challenge for everyone. Ours was that we only closed for a day or two, as we were one of the stores that the state said could be open as an establishment serving food. We had some immediate challenges, such as learning pretty fast that the idea of an online ordering system was not good for ice cream. A frozen product really is not meant to be packaged and placed on a to-go table for pick-up. This was just one of the issues we had to figure out. But then they permitted us to open–with dividers in place—to a certain number of masked customers.
We quickly added another phone line to keep up with orders and inquiries. It was pretty tough at that time, as it was hard to hear through masks and with dividers set up, and of course, everyone on our staff got sick at some point. Every day we were looking for subs and often operating with a skeleton crew. Many people quit because they were Smith students and were sent home, so if they didn’t live in the area, they couldn’t keep their jobs. Also, people did not necessarily want to work and were scared about getting sick.
We also don’t have outdoor seating, though people can sit on the wall/grass across the street, but that just added another layer to our struggles at the time. Sometimes it felt like we wouldn’t make it, but the team we had at that time persevered. I am so incredibly grateful to every one of them, and I’m so happy that a few remain with us to this day. I’m also grateful to the landlords in town, many of whom permitted business owners to pay partial or no rent for some time—they deserve to be thanked more than they have been! We continue to have supply chain issues and often cannot get certain types of cookies and candy, which means driving to meet trucks and purchasing directly from distributors. Hopefully things will continue to improve in time, but we’re definitely still challenged in various ways.
What are some exciting things/events coming up for the business? (New ice cream flavors, etc.?)
Winter is a time for experimenting, but I am not going to reveal specifics as we like to surprise folks! We didn’t do as much experimentation during Covid, so we’re back at it and it’s really fun for all of us to come up with new and interesting combinations and flavors. My ice cream makers and manager are true treasures to me, and we love that we get to have this fun, creative outlet in the colder months. We have also been doing a new sundae each month—someone from the staff gets to come up with their own special one, which we then test out on the public.
We also recently got into creating soda ice creams, which have been really interesting and challenging. I found that a cola-flavored ice cream was particularly difficult to get right, but eventually, using mostly flower extracts instead of syrups, we were able to dial it in. I also love that I get to teach a class in ice cream-making at UMASS—it keeps me invigorated and youthful.
As business owners, what do you do to unwind/relax/rejuvenate?
I really love watching Jeopardy regularly, as it’s a great way to both unwind and yet challenge my brain. I also love to cook and bake. My husband Stephan and I have not taken a proper vacation in ages, but we do have one scheduled with friends—a cruise to the Caribbean—in January! I honestly don’t see myself ever retiring altogether, as I am very passionate about what I do and it keeps me focused and moving forward.
And finally... What’s your favorite fall food and/or beverage?
Caramel apples! It’s a known fact to everyone who knows me well that I’m a complete junkie for them. I also love ice cream sodas with root beer, diluted lemonade (very refreshing), and the mango lassi from India House!