R.I.P. Herrell’s Ice Cream: A toast from Toscanini’s
Steve Herrell taught me how to make ice cream and taught everyone else how to once again enjoy ice cream. The Herrell’s ice cream store in Harvard Square will close soon, according to today’s Boston Globe.
In 1973 Steve Herrell opened the original Steve’s Ice Cream, not in Cambridge but in Davis Square, Somerville. Boston was already a good city for ice cream with Bailey’s, Howard Johnson, Brigham’s and Friendly’s. Steve had come to Boston to complete his conscientious objector duty. He briefly taught school before becoming a cab driver. He lived in a group house behind Porter Square and would entertain friends by making his own ice cream.
Steve’s was unique in many ways. The look was improvised hippie tree house. Steve made the ice cream in front of people, using an old-fashioned ice and salt machine that was manufactured in Winchendon. He made unusual flavors and did mix-ins where workers would customize servings like chefs in a Japanese steak house. I would always get vanilla ice cream with two portions of chocolate chips mixed in and hot fudge on top.
He opened the ice cream store on Elm Street with the idea that he would make ice cream in the morning and sell it in the evening. That plan was soon overtaken by facts: People loved Steve’s ice cream and its air of hippie authenticity. People who never thought to visit Somerville were suddenly lining up an hour before the store’s opening. The New Yorker wrote about the store. Two guys in Vermont copied the store down to the player piano that was against the back wall. Downstairs at the Davis Square T station there is a time line that includes the opening of Steve’s Ice Cream. Steve’s didn’t change Somerville, but it represented the changes that were transforming Greater Boston.
Shortly after Steve’s opened I got a job cleaning the store after midnight. The store’s success was problematic for Steve. He didn’t like business very much and he sold the business to Joey and Nino Crugnale, who owned a smaller imitation in nearby Teele Square, Somerville. Steve told the workers he was going to move to western Massachusetts and raise goats, but I think he actually tuned pianos until his noncompetition agreement expired and he opened a business called Herrell’s Ice Cream.
Steve was in the strange position of competing with his own idea. The original Steve’s opened more stores, was sold and expanded until it imploded. Ben & Jerry were distracted by the better idea of selling pints and got out of the player piano business. Every college town in America soon had a pretty good “homemade” ice cream store. A hundred flowers bloomed and Americans could get a dizzying variety of flavors, complete with mixed in candy bars, fruits and nuts. A few years ago Steve’s original ideas became the basis of several boring chains, including Marble Slab and Cold Stone Creamery. Steve’s “small is beautiful” ideals were heaved into the Dumpster behind a thousand strip malls.
For months the ice cream business has been full of rumors that Steve’s wife, or former wife, now controlled Herrell’s and planned to make changes that would make the business a more typical multiple-unit corporation. The Herrell’s in Allston is now an independent cafe and the store in Harvard Square will close its doors.
Years ago, when Steve owned the original Steve’s, he took up tap dancing. After the store closed I would begin cleaning and he would vigorously practice tap dancing for 15 to 30 minutes. “Tap dancing is great. It is good exercise and develops showmanship and confidence,” he’d say. Then he would sit down at a purple table and eat a big sundae of his very good ice cream.