I first met Kate Schrire in late-2012. Wednesday afternoons saw a small produce market spring up in the garden at Starlings, a charming café in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.
Some of my favourite food producers started out there, selling their wares on wobbly wooden tables. There was Julie Carter from Ocean Jewels with her cooler box of pole-caught tuna and delicious fishcakes. Richard Bosman with vacuum-packs of mouth-watering charcuterie. And Kate, selling tub after tub of delicious ice cream. The vintage-style label atop each one reading, simply, The Creamery.
The Starlings market eventually faded away, but most of the producers went on to bigger and better things. In just three short years The Creamery now employs more than 40 people and has become, I’d argue, the best-loved ice-cream producer in the city.
“We like to say that every six months this is a different business,” smiles Kate, who started The Creamery with partner Marianne Visser in 2011. “We started out with a small two-litre churn, before we took the big step of moving up to an eight-litre churn. Today, we have three of those.”
For Kate and Marianne, being forced to start small proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“For the first year and a bit we only did festivals, functions and markets, we couldn’t afford to open a retail store. In hindsight that was a good thing, as along the way we were learning how to run an ice cream business.”
A trained chef, with years of experience working in the non-profit sector around food security, Schrire dislikes the entrepreneur label and rather sees herself as someone simply following a passion.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own business, but we also wanted The Creamery to be something that added positively to our city, that contributed to the food culture here. I’d say we’re winning hearts and minds one ice cream at a time!”
And there’s certainly no shortage of Creamery converts on the streets of Cape Town. Today The Creamery has staff scooping at markets and festivals across the city, while the three retail stores – in Newlands, Salt River and, most recently, Mouille Point – see queues out the door on weekends.
While the delightful stores have all the retro charm of a vintage ice-cream parlour, it’s the superb scoops that keep locals coming back week after week.
The Creamery stores always have the five Classic flavours available – 65% Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Sea Salt Caramel, Rosetta Roastery Coffee and Sweet Cream – while a handful of decadent dessert options encourage true aficionados to tuck into a classic banana split, or puffed-up waffled topped with a scoop or two of ice cream.
While the Classic flavours fly out the door, that original two-litre churn is still in use, turning out test batches of the ever-changing array of seasonal flavours.
Seasonality has always been part of The Creamery’s philosophy, with flavours changing through the year according to what’s fresh on the farm or inspiring the team in the kitchen. That could mean Strawberry ice cream in early summer, Apple Crumble as autumn approaches, and Pistachio or Melktert in the winter. Come Easter, the Hot Cross Bun flavour is always a runaway success.
Along with embracing the seasons, the team goes to enormous effort and expense to work with local suppliers and small-scale farmers. However, changing with the seasons and focusing on small producers brings its own set of challenges.
“Every batch of fruit is different and there’s immense variation in what we’re getting in, which affects how we turn that into ice cream,” explains Kate, who says The Creamery never uses artificial flavourants or stabilisers. “When you work with a more natural product there are just so many more variables. The fat content of the milk and cream shifts between seasons, and from batch to batch. It all affects the texture and mouth-feel: salt, sugar and fat are the pedals you can use to change the freezing point, which affects the creaminess of the ice cream.”
Managing those challenges falls to Progress Ndlovu who joined The Creamery in 2011 and is now Head of Production, managing a team of five cooks that turn out hundreds of litres of ice cream each week. And with such care taken in sourcing the best ingredients, Progress keeps the process suitably old school in the kitchen. Whole eggs are cracked by hand; milk, cream and sugar heated on the stove; eggs are whisked in and the custard reheated before churning.
“Our churns might be hi-tech, but the process is straightforward,” says Kate.
So for the home cook, does making ice cream have to be rocket science?
“Oh no. If you’re willing to eat your mistakes, making ice cream is really very easy,” laughs Kate.
While Kate, Marianne and Progress wouldn’t dream of sending any of their ‘mistakes’ out into the wide world of Creamery fans, their unquenchable sense of ice cream adventure is what has turned a humble market stall into the makings of an ice cream empire in the Mother City.