Sally Newall, who runs Simply Ice Cream from her home at Bonnington, near Ashford, is convinced uncertainty over the future of trade with Europe has brought its compensations: “There’s no doubt that buyers from the multiples are focusing on British-made produce, even though Article 50 has been triggered,” she says.
She speaks from a position of strength. Sales of Sally’s hand-made ice cream leapt by 51 per cent in 2015, followed by 22 per cent in 2016. Supermarket chains are queuing up to sell the range, with Morrison’s joining the list from 20 March. Turnover last year reached almost £1 million, no small feat for a niche family business.
Accolades from tasters are glowing, with James Martin of BBC’s “Saturday Kitchen” fame describing the Simply range as “the best shop-bought ice cream available”. So where did this all begin?
Sally chats to me in the huge kitchen of her family home, trying valiantly to ignore the distraction of three dogs scratching at the door to be let in and fielding complicated phone calls from husband and children. Life is clearly hectic, but she remains calm and charming.
I ask when she first made ice cream and how it grew into a business. “I was about 14 and regularly helping my mother with her catering company,” she says. “I made the ice cream as a dessert for wedding parties and so on. It proved successful and we continued putting it on the menu.”
After leaving school in Ashford, Sally sampled many diverse life opportunities, including working as a chef in her brother’s pub, living in Australia for five years, starting a course in chemistry at university and taking aerobics classes. She took over her mother’s catering business in 1994 and continued to run it after marrying Robin and having four children in fairly quick succession. At their busiest, the company was catering for 80 weddings a year. It still operates, with her mother retaining a strong supporting role from her home next door.
The idea of creating a business from ice cream came after inquiries from catering customers who wanted to know if it was available commercially. “We started making bigger batches and sold it in a farm shop nearby from 2005. The trial ran from October to March – hardly the ideal time to sell ice cream – but it sold well and we decided to take the plunge,” says Sally.
At first, she made the ice cream in her family kitchen, scrubbing it down after the children had gone to bed and working until the early hours to complete orders. By 2006, four farm shops were regularly taking supplies and by the following year it had grown to 16. Sally was thrilled when a buyer from Waitrose contacted her, but she waited until she had updated her branding and launched it in 2008 in its trademark pastel green tubs.
Simply Ice Cream now employs five in the production room, in an extension to the house, making the dessert by hand. They work a 9am till 3pm shift and produce 2,000 litres a day, using milk delivered by Kent Dairies. Staff numbers can be increased if orders demand it. Fruit used to flavour the ice cream comes from Kent farmers and the salted caramel fudge comes from “Over the Moon” at Cranbrook. Vanilla and mango are the only imported ingredients.
Sally makes regular appearances at public events, including the Kent Show, Canterbury Food and Drink Festival and the Whitstable Oyster Festival. She also made 20,000 small pots to distribute at the BBC Good Food Show and even branched out into camel milk ice cream for the annual camel race held at Chilham Castle in September 2016 by John Hare of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. Butlins is talking about taking special flavours for its holiday camps.
So, despite the great sales in the UK, does Sally itch to expand overseas? “I’m putting out feelers,” she tells me. “I have made links with Belgium, Holland and Singapore and I want to go to the Gulf Food Show in Dubai, but I’d have to look very closely at the logistics of transporting ice cream to such a hot climate.”
Beyond sales of the frozen stuff, Sally has ideas of marketing the brand in other ways, with a range of mugs and bowls, even tea towels and aprons.
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