A birthday celebration isn’t complete without a sweet treat. And when that birthday celebration is both a milestone (ten years!) and for an ice cream company, you know what’s going to be served up.
Belly Ice Cream Company was launched on May 15, 2009. Owner Shelley Westgarth’s plunge into entrepreneurship was driven by her desire to find a balance between her work and family life.
When her twins were born, Westgarth told herself she needed a plan by the time they were in kindergarten. In the spring of 2009, with her kids due to start school that fall, she still hadn’t figured it out. But the ticking clock did its job and spurred her toward a decision: she’d use her skills as a chef to create a product she could sell at local farmers’ markets, a really awesome product. Ice cream.
“I launched the company, basically, because I was a chef and I worked holidays, nights and weekends, so I figured by the time they were in kindergarten I would be non-existent in their lives,” she said. The company name and original logo, a big-bellied ‘B’, were both a nod to her kids and her once-pregnant belly.
So the business became part of the family, and like Westgarth’s children, it grew and grew and grew.
In those first heady days, she excitedly tested flavour combinations with the help of fellow chef, Brian Stone, at Deerhurst Resort, where she worked at the time. Within weeks she had quit her job and was on her way to her first farmers’ market with a freezer full of ice cream.
The first flavours she created were Saigon Cinnamon and Blueberry Cheesecake, both of which are still on Belly’s menu (Saigon Cinnamon has evolved into Cinnamon Bun), along with combinations like Basil and Lemon, Melon with Prosecco, Scotch Whiskey with Smoked Almonds and Salted Caramel, and Wild Blueberry Lavender. For the less adventurous, there are more familiar flavours like Belgian Dark Chocolate and Vanilla Bean. And for the first week the shop was open this year, in honour of Belly’s tenth anniversary: Strawberries and Champagne.
“I don’t try to do weird ice cream,” said Westgarth. “A lot of places will push the boundaries for the sake of being interesting and weird, whereas my take on it has always been taking comfort food flavors, things people already know that they love, and just turning them on their side a little bit.”
She is always surprised to hear people comment that her strawberry ice cream tastes just like strawberries, or the honeydew tastes just like honeydew.
“People have been so conditioned to expect that the food that they’re buying at the grocery store isn’t actual food,” she said. “We start with strawberries and actual milk, not powdered. Nothing is shelf stable. It’s real, actual food that, you know, goes bad if you leave it up on the counter, as it supposed to.”
Belly’s flavours and fresh ingredients got rave reviews and Westgarth began distributing to high-end markets like McEwen’s in Toronto.
But then she was forced to take another leap of faith—her production kitchen was at the old lodge at Deerhurst Resort, a building the company had decided to tear down which meant Belly had to find a new home.
“I had to kind of either go big or close down,” recalled Westgarth, who had been entertaining the idea of building her own production facility. “There was no in between. If I tried to do what we were doing there, which was very small, very artisan, it wouldn’t support the cost of a building. But as we grew and started thinking about moving into our own building and getting larger volume, all the costs associated [with production]came down. We could be more efficient and more cost effective without changing the quality of anything. So I think once we started to realize that we can actually make it work at a lower price point, and people would buy it, we were solid.”
Belly’s new production kitchen and scoop shop opened on West Road on May 1, 2012, and Belly Ice Cream is now available in several hundred locations across southern and central Ontario.
It’s still a small company, despite those numbers. In winter months, there are just two people in the kitchen. In the summer, that grows to four or five in the kitchen and another four or five in the shop.
“We’re still pretty micro, and we still do everything by hand,” said Westgarth. “We’re not automated. We’re not doing any of that kind of factory-type processing. It’s still quite small in terms of ice cream factories, but we’re sustainable. The amount of product we manage to turn out with just four or five people in the kitchen is amazing.”
Every growing business has its ups and downs, of course.
Belly introduced ice cream cakes last summer and was stunned by their success. Staff raced to keep up with the orders and then, mid-summer when one of their freezers broke and the cakes awaiting pick up melted, they were forced to cancel them for the rest of the season.
“We literally could not remake them. We didn’t have the time to do it. So we canceled one of our big sellers in the middle of the season because we couldn’t keep up,” said Westgarth. Belly’s customers will see the triumphant return of the cakes this year, along with ice cream sandwiches and grab-and-go cups.
Highlights for Westgarth have included an appearance on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, as well as being featured on the Food Network’s Food Factory.
Belly Ice Cream Company officially turns 10 on May 15, but the scoop shop opened for the season on May 1 so the celebration started a little bit early.
If you’re in the neighbourhood, stop by and wish them a happy birthday!
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