Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream is a family’s labour of love in the hopes of leaving a legacy, all wrapped up in a cold delicious treat.
The ice cream line filled with Caribbean flavours may have begun hitting Canadian stores in 2013, but its origins began in Trinidad in the 1940s. Its first flavours were formulated by the creative mind of Charles A. Neale. The father of 12 needed a way to provide for his family and created a business out of his knack for creating ice cream with unique ingredients.
Rosemarie Wilson (nee Neale), grew up watching her dad build his ice cream empire in Trinidad, but she never could have known that she’d bring it to Canadian shelves, decades later.
“My early days were spent watching him work hard. He was a perfectionist in his own way that he encouraged us always to do our best. He said, “If you don’t like the ice cream to eat it yourself, it’s not good to give to anybody,” said Wilson.
She inherited his hard-working attitude and built a 25-year career on Bay Street while continuing to share her dad’s ice cream recipes with family and friends throughout the years. When her nephews, Andrew McBarnett and Stafford Attzs, came to her with the idea to package and sell the ice cream, it seemed like a no brainer—there was nothing like it on the shelves. After McBarnett and Attzs spent time building the brand, Wilson joined the team full-time.
“With the ice cream, I’m passionate about it. I love it. I see where the business could go. It’s our family heritage,” said Wilson. “It was a challenge, but I believed we could make it because we are like-minded Andrew, Stafford, and I. We saw the potential,” said Wilson.
Now, Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream is in over 500 stores in Canada, with six flavours that stand out against the competition. Their frozen treats are becoming a new fan favourite, in addition to reaching fans of Neale’s original ice cream too.
“Someone DM’d us and said, ‘Hey, I live in BC, but I’m originally from Trinidad. I remember your granddad from when I was young and he gave me free ice cream. It’s wonderful to know that you guys are in Canada!’” said Andrew McBarnett, Co-Founder and CEO of Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream. “So, it’s been good in terms of the feedback that we’ve been getting across Canada. It’s also nice to reconnect with people who actually knew granddad before as well.”
For this week’s Startup Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Rosemarie Wilson, Co-Founder and VP of Operations of Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream, and Andrew McBarnett, Co-Founder and CEO of Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream, about building their family legacy, facing COVID-19 setbacks, and being a Black-owned small business in Canada.
Rosemarie, how would you describe your dad’s beginning with Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream back in Trinidad, many decades ago?
Rosemarie: He had a favorite saying, “Every day is a spending day.” And he had 12 children, so he needed money every day [laughs]. He had never made ice cream before, however, he started working towards it and formulating the recipe, and he thought to himself “if I’m going to do this and I need to go out on the road and sell it.”
I don’t think he had a vehicle at the time, just bicycles. I remember watching him build and design a cart that would push at the front of the bicycle, with everything he needed [to go out and sell ice cream]. I don’t know the real inspiration why he started to make the ice cream, but I benefited from observing him in how he made the ice cream and the steps he took since everything back then was manual. I’m talking about getting up at 5:00 a.m. and trying to crack coconuts by hand with a little machete.
It was methodical. It was hard work. My early days were spent watching him work hard. He was a perfectionist in his own way that he encouraged us always to do our best. He said, “If you don’t like the ice cream to eat it yourself, it’s not good to give to anybody.” And we like to maintain that degree of excellence today.
Your dad sounds like he was a great example of the hard-working entrepreneurial spirit needed to be successful. After moving to Canada, and many years later, you showcased that same hard-working spirit when you decided to leave your job to help make Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice a full-blown business. What was it like to leave your job and take your dad’s recipes to share with the rest of Canada?
Rosemarie: Andrew and my other nephew Stafford came up with the idea [to turn it into a business] because basically everybody likes ice cream. Right? And being Caribbean flavours, it’s a little different from the everyday run-of-the-mill mint chocolate chip or Neopolitan ice cream in Canada. Andrew and Stafford started off with all the research and development, but there came a time where the business needed full-time attention. I was at a point in my career where I was not going any further; I knew if I stayed on, I would be doing the same job for the next, how many years until I retired.
In 2016, when I decided to leave my job, I was at a point where I needed myself to make a change. We were at the point of growth and expansion where you needed to have somebody who could monitor everything. With the ice cream, I’m passionate about it. I love it. I see where the business could go. It’s our family heritage. It was a challenge, but I believed we could make it because we are like-minded Andrew, Stafford, and I. We saw the potential.
It was easy for me to make that choice because I was going to be doing something that I am passionate about and happy about and not stuck with a nine-to-five job. Why not get out and do something exciting like making ice cream and getting our business and our brand out there. It’s a challenge, but every day I have excitement for my day. To know we can achieve and have something to be proud of as a family? I’m all for it.
It’s definitely been a great journey for you, and it seems it’s paid off quite well. Andrew, as a product that was rooted in Black-Caribbean culture, did you face any challenges bringing it to the Canadian market?
Andrew: I think starting as a small business in Canada, there are always challenges because you’re going against the mainstream and the existing incumbents in the space—especially with ice cream. It’s a tough space to be in and there are some great other products out there as well. So, it was tough initially. The way that we chose to do things was very grassroots at the beginning, which helped our cause in terms of working with independent grocers to start off with to gain a base following.
It took us a while to get into some of the major supermarkets, but in 2018, we were able to work with Sobey’s. They were pretty innovative in starting a local program, which allowed us and other smaller vendors, and Black-owned businesses with a good story to get on the shelves.
As a Black-owned business, of the challenges that you face, funding is one of the biggest. Also as a food business, getting funding from banks, et cetera, is always a challenge. Luckily we were able to self-fund ourselves for a number of years, which a lot of people aren’t able to. We were pretty self-funded, even after the launch in Sobey’s, until we worked with Wes Hall. He was Chairman of Kingsdale Advisors and he also has Black North, and he came on board last year because he wanted to support Black-owned businesses. That really helped propel us forward, to where we’re at today. When Wes came on board, we were at around 150 stores. Today we’re in around 530 stores, including Sobey’s, Loblaw’s, and Metro.
That’s awesome. Congratulations on the growth! Obviously, last year, there was a spotlight on support for Black-owned businesses due to the Black Lives Matter movement happening across the world. What was the effect on Sweet N’ Nice?
Andrew: Last year was a challenging year. No one knew at the turn of 2020 that we’d be faced with COVID-19 and that in itself was a challenge from a business perspective, where we had to pivot launches, that sort of thing. Then leading into the summer, when there was the whole Black Lives Matter movement in terms of the things that we saw on TV, et cetera, as a small Black-owned business, and local business, we had a lot of support. We had a lot of support from the community and a lot of advocates supporting us as well, and that really helped propel the brand forward.
Then of course with Black North as well, it also shone a spotlight [on us] from a corporate perspective. It wasn’t a great thing [in terms of what sparked the movement] but I think the community coming together to support businesses that were Black-owned was great.
As you said, COVID-19 threw a curveball at the entire world last year. Sweet N’ Nice is available in grocery stores, which was one of the places that were always open, thankfully. Did it affect your production or distribution at all though?
Andrew: On the business side of things that did affect us because we have tons of plans to do a little marketing and be in different banners. One of our big pillars last year was foodservice and then restaurants went away. In terms of launches, we were supposed to be in Loblaws and Metro in April, but those launches happened in July and August.
We also had a lot of plans for in-store marketing, where people could taste test, and we can’t do any of that. So, we pivoted and opened a pop-up store downtown last year for three months, and that helped get the brand noticed. People could come in and try our flavours, and then go back and buy it in stores as well.
Rosemarie: The supply chain was affected as well. For instance, when cream was available, the manufacturers said everybody would get a portion of the supply that came in]. So, that affected how much we could manufacture of a particular flavour. I worked closely with our co-packer, and he leveled with me about what was happening in the supply chain. So, sometimes he would push his product to do ours, and then the next time cream came in he would do his. We kept adjusting to the point where we were manufacturing on demand.
I had to keep my eyes on my inventory numbers for each flavor closely to see the best approach so that we didn’t run out of the product. And with the late launches that we had, we had to monitor it closely, because you don’t know what’s going to change. We were constantly recalculating things and it’s still a challenge now because we really don’t know what’s going to happen. We have to keep that on-demand type of manufacturing and work closely with our co-packer in terms of our supply chains because it’s still broken as of today.
And despite all those challenges, Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream is now in over 500 stores. What has the response been like?
Andrew: We’ve been getting some really good feedback. We were able to go beyond Ontario and, now we’re in a couple of stores in Quebec, BC, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. On our digital side of things, we’ve gotten some really good feedback as well. I think one of the challenges we actually had last summer was actually keeping products on the shelves. We were literally doing customer service through Instagram because people would DM us and say, “Hey, I can’t find it in my area.” And we would say, “We will search the stores to see where there are rum and raisin to tell you where to go!” [laughs]
Someone DM’d us and said, “Hey, I live in BC, but I’m originally from Trinidad. I remember your granddad from when I was young and he gave me free ice cream. It’s wonderful to know that you guys are in Canada!” So, it’s been good in terms of the feedback that we’ve been getting across Canada. It’s also nice to reconnect with people who actually knew granddad before as well.
That’s incredible! It’s great to hear how Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice has had an impact across generations. As a family business, what’s the best part of working together and building the brand?
Andrew: For us, it’s about legacy. Making sure that the name still exists. We could have made the name a lot smaller, just ‘Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream,’ but we wanted to have ‘Neale’s’ in there as a reflection of granddad. We were also able to put his face more center on our new packaging during our rebranding last year as well. So I think for us, we want our family to be proud of the fact that they can walk into a store, and take an ice cream off the shelf that has their name on it.
There are always challenges in terms of making decisions and discussing things robustly, but it’s fun in terms of seeing where we came from in 2012 with an electronic ice cream maker to now co-packing and having an investor on board and working with big chains like Loblaws and Sobey’s and Metro.
Rosemarie: The legacy is quite important to me, more than anything else. My oldest sister would say, “Who would have thought that Charles Alfred Neale’s name would resound in Canada?” He only visited Canada once in his life, in 1988! And here, years later, his name is he is being remembered in some way, shape, or form. It makes me feel very, very proud to do that—especially when I can understand, now as an adult, how hard he worked to support his 12 children. So if this is a sort of reminder and show of appreciation for what he has done, I’m only too happy to do so and be a part of this.
It is quite a success story to see our meager beginnings to where we are now: A name that is carried through the grocery chains in Canada. I would have never thought of that when I first moved to Canada, but it’s a very happy, warm feeling to be a part of this legacy that has grown from there to now.
Speaking of legacy, what do you think that your dad would say about Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream and where it’s at today?
Rosemarie: One time, we were looking at some flavours in Trinidad, and when I was making the ice cream, I asked, “Daddy, what do you think?” And he just said, “You know, sometimes the student becomes better than the teacher.” He’ll never give you a straight answer [laughs].
I think I would pose that same question to him. “What do you think? How does it make you feel?” I would love to know what his answer would be, but I think he would honestly say that we have done him proud.
Of the Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice Ice Cream flavours, which one is your favorite and why?
Rosemarie: That’s always a tough question! I would go with coconut, mainly because it’s what I knew from my early days, eating ice cream as a child. And because you can do so many things with it, like make a milkshake, or add any kind of fruit that you like to eat with it. My favourite is a bowl of coconut ice cream and fruit cocktail—I always fruit cocktail in my house. But, it works well with almost everything, and as a stand-alone flavour.
Andrew: I’m a rum and raisin guy. It’s a great flavor. I love all the others too and recently I’ve been enjoying a lot of the banana chocolate.
Is there anything else in the works? Any secret recipes that you’re testing for new flavours right now?
Rosemarie: Yeah. There are a few things in the works! In the next few weeks, you’ll hear [laughs], but we are working on some new flavours here to come out this year.