The Scoop on Steve, Founder of Herrell’s

Photo by Annie Bell '17 | Steve Herrell stands behind the counter of Northampton ice cream store Herrell’s, awaiting customers.

Photo by Annie Bell ’17 | Steve Herrell stands behind the counter of Northampton ice cream store Herrell’s, awaiting customers.

 

Annie Bell ’17
Contributing Writer

In 1965, before he ever thought of starting an ice-cream store, Steve Herrell of Herrell’s Ice Cream graduated from the University of Maryland with a B.A in Sociology.

“People say, ‘What good does a B.A in Sociology do you?’ But you learn how to learn. You learn about planning, setting goals and getting over roadblocks. I only learned that in college. An education will always help you in anything you do,” Herrell said in a recent interview.

After graduation, Herrell faced the Vietnam War draft but was involved with the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, and applied for status as a conscientious objector to the war. He won an appeal, received designation and found a job as an orderly at Boston Children’s Hospital to fulfill the necessary two years of public service.

After working as an orderly, Herrell drove a taxi in Boston while he tried to “figure out what I wanted to do with my life.” Herrell thought he wanted to teach and graduated from Boston University with a certificate to teach high-school English in Massachusetts; however, he found teaching overwhelming and was back at square one.

“I knew I wanted to run my own business, and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got and the more I started to plan it out,” Herrell said.

Herrell opened Steve’s Ice Cream in 1973 in Somerville, Mass. The decision to join the ice cream business, however, was not simply by chance. Herrell grew up in a seven-person Victorian home in Washington, D.C., with two parents with family traditions of making homemade ice cream.

“We had a freezer where we crushed ice and rock salt to make ice cream. It had a crank and, as time went on, it would get harder to turn. Everyone would take a turn every three to five minutes so it was a very participatory thing, everyone was helping out and it was all fun,” Herrell recalled, smiling.

When he was younger, Herrell would often go to ice-cream stores such as Gifford’s and various Hot Shoppes.

“Gifford’s had marble tabletops, chandeliers, and metal shiny dishware. Waiters were wearing white caps. But it wasn’t so much what Gifford’s looked like; it was a fun place to go out with family or after a date. It was the experience of wholesome good time fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

When Herrell began to think about starting up an ice-cream store, “none of my friends were really surprised.” However, many warned Herrell of the risks.

“People would tell me about how 80 percent of small businesses would fail and stuff like that. But I just thought, ‘People have done this before. I’ve seen ice cream stores all over the place and ice-cream will always be popular. I can do this,’” Herrell said.

“To start, I really did it on my own, no partners, no business plan, or wives or anything. I had a fair amount of self-confidence and a little bit of arrogance. I’d say I was naive.”

Steve’s Ice Cream originated the concept of “mix-ins” (where customers could ask for candy to be incorporated into the ice-cream), as well as a freezer altered to decrease the air supply in the ice-cream. The store shortly became a roaring success, with coverage from the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, USA Today, and the New Yorker, which described the ice cream as “highly delicious.”

“If anything, I was just happy and pleased. I couldn’t have imagined anything like this. I was just glad that people liked my ice cream store and that I could support myself,” Herrell said.

Steve sold Herell’s in 1977, planning to homestead: build his own house and grow his own food. Although he first planned to move to Maine, his friends in Northampton convinced him to move there instead.

“I bought some land to homestead in, but I liked living downtown too much; I missed the ice cream business and people downtown too much to go through with it.”

After three years of missing the industry, Herrell decided to start up another store and opened Herrell’s.

“I’m not a Renaissance man, but I sometimes feel like I am challenged as much as a Renaissance man is. I have to be a mechanic, [a] food expert. I have to know about design, color, size, atmosphere, lighting, music. I need to know about math and arithmetic and profitability,” Herrell said.

“Mostly, I need to know about human psychology. I need to know about my customers: their experiences, what they like, how they’re feeling and I have to know about my staff. I always have anywhere from 20 to 30 people and I have to interview them, train them, and make sure they’re happy. If the staff isn’t happy, then it comes across to the customers.”

Herrell has faced various offers to write recipe books from publishers, but is currently working on a book aimed at telling his story from his own perspective.

“I get enough questions frequently enough that I thought I should put this all down the way I want,” Herrell said.

Don’t worry though, he’s not going anywhere.

“We’ve been here for 33 years and I kind of know how these people work. We’ve had people come in and say how they would come here as kids. Someone even recently said that they’ve been coming here since they were in the womb!’’

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