Creaming the Competition: From Ice to Slice

Rachel E Davidson

The Cambridge Savings Bank building, Herrell’s former location, had a history of rolling in the (cookie) dough.

To Toscanini’s founder Gus E. Rancatore, Cambridge was made for the ice cream shop. “College students eat enough ice cream to keep all these stores around,” he says.

According to Rancatore, places like Toscanini’s tend to thrive in more rigorous academic settings—where the libraries remain open later than the bars.

“Boston doesn’t have a reputation for being a hard drinking town,” says Rancatore. Instead, he continues, “You can arrange to meet someone in the middle of the night, have a few bites of ice cream, share a few laughs and get back to work.”

Rancatore is hardly the only entrepreneur to seize upon the economic possibilities of this storyline, familiar to many a Harvard student. With profits, student loyalty, and reputation at stake, it is no wonder that the history of Cambridge creameries is rife with intrigue. Since the 1970s, these stores have been characterized by the hint of acidity tossed into their saccharine façades.

THE FIRST SCOOP

The seed for Rancatore’s now world-famous business began in September 1973, when he started working part-time for the recently opened Steve’s Ice Cream in Somerville. Founder Steve R. Herrell was onto something, as the lines snaking out the door and weaving through the Davis Square streets confirmed.

Herrell had pioneered a totally new concept in the ice cream sphere: the mix-in. Says current business partner Judy U. Herrell, “He thought he could make a better ice cream than was currently available.” She continues, “He felt the ice cream needed to be creamier, richer.” So he began tinkering with his home crank freezer, mixing in cookies, candies, and fruits.

“He invented Heath bar crunch, he invented cookies-and-cream,” says Judy. “It became this idea of customizing the ice cream flavor.”

These, combined with a technique of slowing the ice cream motor so that less air entered the ice cream, proved to be the coveted secret ingredients. A week after Steve’s Ice Cream opened, it had to close again—the initial 30 gallons of ice cream had already run out. Three weeks later it re-opened, this time with a  full staff and walk-in freezer.

“Working at Steve’s was like working at a club that was incredibly popular,” says Rancatore.

A journalist from The New Yorker came in once to write a story about the phenomenon (“Hub Roundup,” June 24, 1974). “I think it was the first time Somerville, Mass. was in The New Yorker,” says Rancatore, “and probably the last.”

And yet by 1977, Steve was feeling restless.

“The hankering to get out of a big city kept growing,” he says. “I enjoyed the ice cream business but it was very active and time consuming—we were open seven days a week.”

So he sold it to Joseph “Joey” Crugnale, moved to Northampton, and settled in with a job restoring pianos.

“My plan was to do a kind of home study and buy a plot of land and build my own house, grow my own food,” he says.

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