Young ice cream-preneur churns up the industry

Paul Ballen’s journey into business reads like a tale from an entrepreneurship textbook – as a child he was exposed to the American ice cream industry on regular trips to the US, and, as a student he received an ice cream machine and began making a litre a day, sharing his indulgent and exotic creations with family and friends before investing in another machine and moving his enterprise from his parents’ kitchen into the garage. A year or so later he partnered with a university friend to run the business side, and, as the orders started to roll in, the team grew. Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream (PHIC) has just opened its third retail outlet in Johannesburg in Hyde Park and is about to open another store in Parkhurst.

Customers have developed an appetite for super premium ice cream and there’s no going back. “In the same way that good coffee and craft beer have become the norm, we’ve found that South Africans are developing an appreciation for real ice cream,” says Ballen. “We do feel that we’re taking on the role of educator though, as there is not much of an ice cream culture here; internationally it is a lot more extensive and there is less of an association between ice cream and season, whereas South Africans have strong associations between ice cream and summer and stray away from it during the cold months.”

PHIC use their social media channels to educate customers about the process of ice cream making, giving glimpses into the kitchen and all the work that goes into each batch, introducing innovative ice cream-related products, such as “hot churned ice cream” for winter, and running a “new flavour of the month” campaign that encourages customers to challenge their taste buds.

Blue cheese ice cream, anyone?

And challenge their taste buds they do – with the menu at the brand’s most recent pop-up event, Ice Cream Sunday, boasting blue cheese ice cream served on a buffalo wing taco. “If you want to be ahead of the curve in this industry you have to play around with lots of different elements and give customers something different,” explains Ballen.

Opportunities for flavour lie in mixing savoury and sweet or amalgamating desserts with ice cream, for example macaroons or donuts to make a sandwich. People are tired of over-indulgent desserts that look great on Instagram but make you feel sick after a few bites, and of course as people become more health conscious there’s a move to better made treats with less sugar. Ballen says they see this a lot with the demand for dark chocolate made with real cocoa and is one of the reasons they introduced a larger range of healthier ingredients into their offering.

While “real” food comes at a cost, he says that customers are starting to understand that real food, made with real ingredients, does come with a cost, and in many cases they would rather support local producers than spend on international luxury items which are inflated due to import costs. “And while there are lots of international brands entering the South African market, remember that when foreigners come they don’t want to eat the same food they have in their home country, they want a local version. This means there’s lots of opportunity here, we just need to support local to ensure these businesses can thrive.”

So, quite simply, the question should be: “One scoop or two?”