Ice cream dream pays off

Customers queue for a Patti’s & Cream ice cream the St Clair Esplanade. Photo: Craig Baxter.
Customers queue for a Patti’s & Cream ice cream the St Clair Esplanade. Photo: Craig Baxter.
Giving up a full-time job to sell premium ice cream in Dunedin might seem like trying to sell ice to eskimos, but Olive Tabor is living proof that taking a risk can work. She tells Rebecca Fox about her journey.

Olive Tabor had never made ice cream in her life before she gave up everything to make the creamy frozen treat.

But the former restaurant manager had a strategy all planned out.

''I love a plan. Once I've decided on something I'll make it work. I do not want to fail.''

That determination has come in handy since she started her food truck ice cream business Patti's & Cream 18 months ago.

''There have been some tough times. A person reversed into me on my first day on campus. A freezer failed and I lost a whole batch.''

Some might question her dedication, thinking selling premium small-batch ice cream in Dunedin, a city not known for its balmy weather, is a risky proposition.

Tabor disagrees. She came up with the concept after travelling to the United States.

She has always wanted to be in control of her own destiny so whenever she travelled she was looking for new concepts and ideas.

After one such trip she discovered places injecting donuts with sweet fillings.

Olive Tabor hands one of her quirky-flavoured ice creams to a customer.
Olive Tabor hands one of her quirky-flavoured ice creams to a customer.
At the time, she was manager of Octagon restaurant stalwart Nova and she introduced the idea there.

''It was insane. They were huge, out of control, they were our biggest seller by 10 or 20 times.''

That success gave her confidence to search further. So on the next trip in 2016 she went with the aim of checking out burger businesses but got ''side-tracked'' on ice cream after visiting Portland Oregon's popular Salt and Straw, which makes ''small-batch, chef-driven ice cream made by hand with local ingredients''.

But she could not shake the burger idea, either.

''You could see the trends there and I wanted to bring something back to New Zealand from my time travelling.''

So she spent the next 18 months or so incubating the idea, working out how a similar concept could work in Dunedin.

There were plenty of similarities between Portland and Dunedin as both areas have good access to local dairy products, are close to fruit growing areas and are colder climates, she says.

Olive Tabor outside her ice cream truck. Photo: Sophia Gamperie
Olive Tabor outside her ice cream truck. Photo: Sophia Gamperie
She discovered Dunedin's Rob Roy Dairy sells more ice cream in winter than it does in summer and the city has one of the highest ice cream eating populations in the country.

''So I thought the concept could really work here.''

Ideally she wanted to open her own business on a site and was keeping an eye out for any suitably centrally located premises but nothing came up.

So she thought why not try the food truck option, as the concept was growing in popularity in the city.

She found an old Bedford soft-serve ice cream truck in Oamaru (a former paddy wagon) and then set about trying to find the equipment to make ice cream.

''I'd never made it all at this point in the process.''

She found the equipment at an affordable price and then dived in to learning how to make ice cream.

The next six months were spent experimenting with ice cream bases at the Kaikorai Valley Rugby Club's kitchen and doing a complete new fit-out of the truck.

She needed quality full cream milk so Clutha's Windy Ridge Farm was her first port of call. It provides 20-litre buckets of milk which she turns into ice cream.

''They have a great story and I wanted to support local.''

The process of making her ice cream takes three days, starting with making a base. Sixty litres are made at a time - a chocolate base and a white base - and once made it is rested in the fridge for eight hours.

Tabor chose not to use eggs, as she did not like the mouth feel, instead using guar gum as the stabiliser. It is a natural product which binds ingredients together.

''It allows whatever the flavour is to shine through.''

The base then has its flavours added - peanut butter, salted caramel, plums, hazelnuts, the list goes on - and then spun in 5-litre batches before being put into containers and frozen for 12 hours at minus18degC.

''It's quite a labour intensive process. I do a lot of nights in the kitchen.''

She started out with six flavours and has so far done 24, using fresh produce from around Otago.

''Savoury or sweet, the options are endless. It's such a flexible product and you can showcase great Otago product.''

These days, as demand for her ice cream grows, she has moved to a space with the larger freezer and storage space she needs for more ingredients and containers.

''In November, the volume we were doing in a day is what we were doing in a week. I just couldn't store enough.

''We had to stop trading to make the ice cream. I just couldn't keep up. It wasn't very efficient.''

Her flavours are often quirky and experimental - a recent try with Whitestone blue cheese and pear proved popular, as has her olive oil flavour.

''The stranger the better.''

Her first outing was during the Ed Sheeran concerts in Dunedin and at that stage she had never scooped her ice cream.

''It was a quick shock to the system. It's such a tiny space to work in after you've come from a restaurant.''

Especially when she was also making American-style burgers - one night at a food market she sold 150 burgers - and waffle cones, although to keep up with demand she is having to pre-make the cones, as she needs 500 a week.

There were concerns about whether she could make it work during winter, selling what is classically a low-spend product.

''The premium concept is different for people to get their head around.''

Tabor applied to the Otago Farmers Market to take part in their Saturday market but was turned down twice.

It was a setback but Tabor believes it has probably made her more resilient and urged her to think outside the square.

Thinking about people's reluctance to come outside during bad winter weather, she decided to offer an ice cream delivery service once a week.

She lets people know what flavours she has available through social media and then zooms around Dunedin on a Thursday night delivering half-litre tubs of ice cream and her waffle cones.

''The biggest night we've had is stopping at 48 different locations in one night, just the two of us. People seem to love it.''

When the weather is good, her truck can be found at spots around the city but her main spot is at St Clair, where it is not unusual for people wearing puffer jackets to ward off the cold to wait 20 minutes for their turn to order. In summer, the wait was often a lot longer.

''It just gets busier and busier. We've done 70 to 90 litres of ice cream in five hours.

''At St Clair it can be raining and people are still in line - it's insane.''

It has taken over her life. At Christmas, her idea of a gift box of four flavours took off and 50 were boxes ordered.

''I do 70-hour weeks. If I'm not in the truck, I'm making ice cream. It's constant.

''The summer was just crazy and it hasn't dropped off that much. It's all been a whirlwind - it's hard to get my washing done. No-one sees me.''

Tabor thinks the popularity of her ice cream product is due to its appeal to all ages.

''It's nostalgic.''

Also the ability to promote a business through social media networks has been key.

''I'm not sure this would have worked 10 years ago. The way you use social media now, you get instant feedback on what you are doing.''

Food trucks are also a more financially accessible proposition for someone to test a product to see if it will work.

''It's a great test bed. The truck is the first stage of the business to test out demand but in the future I'd still like to have a site.''

There are also plans to look at dairy-free and vegan ice creams and to develop new flavours.

She also enjoys the collegiality of the food truck community, taking part in night markets in Mosgiel and Dunedin and Macandrew Bay.

''There is a strength of community as everyone sees each other all the time and it's such a diverse range of people.''

Tabor, a commerce and physical education graduate, credits her hospitality background - five years as general manager of Nova - and experience gained working up the front of house ranks to manager as helping her through the ups and downs.

While being front of house, she picked up a lot of information from the kitchen along the way.

''I didn't realise how much I knew.''

Which is important given everything is on show in a food truck.

''You see me scooping ice cream, making the waffle cones.''

Another unforeseen side effect of the business is her obsession with the weather forecast as it impacts how much product she makes and where she goes.

''I get nervous when it starts to rain but it's amazing - people still come out.''

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