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April signals official start of ice cream season for Ottawa's The Merry Dairy

Marlene Haley has been dishing out her frozen custard in the capital for almost ten years.

Here's a scoop -- the only thing better than an ice cream on a hot, summer's day is a scoop of frozen custard.

That's according to Marlene Haley, the driving force behind Ottawa's The Merry Dairy.

Located at 102 Fairmont Ave. in the heart of Hintonburg, it's one of the few places you can find frozen custard in the city.

Similar to ice cream, frozen custard originated in Coney Island, New York, in 1919. Two brothers discovered that when they added egg yolks to their ice cream, it tasted richer and stayed frozen longer.

Twenty years ago, Haley was an English teacher working in the U.S., where she first tasted frozen custard, a treat popular with locals but strangely, little known north of the border. Unlike anything else she had ever tasted, she realized she had a million-dollar idea on her hands. So, she took a course in making frozen custard in St. Louis, Missouri, and launched The Merry Dairy in an ice cream truck in 2012.

“I wanted to introduce Ottawa to an ice cream called frozen custard,” Haley says. “When we first opened, there was a lot of explaining. People would ask 'What do you mean by frozen custard?' and rather than explain, I'd give them a taste and that was it. It was received really well because it was new and exciting and came in a truck.”

Business buzzed. She was conquering the local market one scoop at a time. Eventually, after five years of dishing out ice cream on the road, Haley centralize operations, adding her Merry Dairy home base shop out of what was once a variety store on Fairmont Avenue, in 2017. There, she and her staff start each work day at 6 a.m., making ice cream and frozen custard, which she sells by the scoop and by the pint online at themerrydairy.com.

Salted Caramel is currently the most requested flavour, but vanilla is a perennial best seller, and she changes her menu, depending on what fruits are in season and what customers have asked for, such as Cherry Chocolate, Earl Grey Tea, Funfetti Cereal Milk, Coffee, Key Lime Pie and Mint Chip.

Her menu changes all the time. This spring, she's offering Easter Egg Cakes, Happy-Go-Lucky pies and custom ice cream sandwiches.

“We associate ice cream with childhood memories. It's a treat if we grew up with that. It crosses cultures. You associate it with summer. It's a nostalgia thing. We get customers asking for flavours they remember as a child. Remember Tiger Tail ice cream (orange and clack licorice)? It's a treat. The only thing we haven't been able to do well is a light, sugar-free ice cream.”

Not surprisingly, The Merry Dairy's bottom line took a hit, albeit briefly, in March 2020 when pandemic protocols became the law, and social events like the ones she catered were prohibited.

However, necessity is the mother of invention. Working within pandemic protocols, Haley adjusted the way she did business.

“Initially, our catering business was cut 90 per cent, but we pivoted the business from a walk-in, selling ice cream by the scoop, to an online business, selling ice cream by the pint. And because we were unable to sell out of the trucks, we used them to deliver orders across the city.”

In addition to the shop, she pulls her three ice cream trucks out of hibernation on April 1 when the summer season begins. They'll log many kilometres criss-crossing the city, doing birthday parties, weddings and special events, and delivering pints of ice cream for take-away at Thyme and Again, Urban Spice, Jacobsons Fine Foods and Around the Block butcher shop.

In the summer, she likes to host community and live music events, anything to put a little more merry in her dairy.

"I love the business. You get to be creative. Ice cream is fun. Customers are out with their families and dogs looking for a treat. It's not stressful. It's fun."

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