When Charles Alfred Neale was looking for a way to feed his family of 12 children in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1940s, he decided to launch his own business making ice cream. Neale made the ice cream using tropical fruit bought from local farmers and sold it by peddling his ice cream bike through the streets of Southern Trinidad, shouting “sweet n nice!”
“From age five or six, I could picture him making ice cream. He would always strive for excellence,” recalls his daughter Rosemarie Wilson. “He had a saying: ‘If you just say that’s good enough, that’s not good at all.’” Prior to his death in 1988, Neale passed on his ice cream-making secrets to his family, including Wilson, who immigrated to Canada that same year. While the family continued to enjoy the ice cream at family get-togethers, they eventually decided to take things a step further and relaunch Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice in Canada.
And so, in 2013, Wilson and two of Neale’s grandchildren, Andrew McBarnett and Stafford Attzs, set out to revive the brand. “We had a legacy that should not have died when daddy died,” says Wilson, who left a 26-year career with Scotiabank to become vice-president, production and operations of Neale’s. “We felt uniquely positioned to address the unmet opportunity of tropical ice cream flavours,” adds Attzs, who acts as an advisor at the company.
The ice cream was initially sold through a few ethnic and Caribbean grocery stores in the Toronto area. At one store, “we were actually being kicked out when we tried to show it to one of the owners,” CEO McBarnett says. “But a customer recognized granddad’s name and shouted, ‘Hey, I remember that when I was small. You should definitely take this ice cream. I’ll buy it.’ So, the [owner] took it.”
Oshawa, Ont.-based Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice started with just two flavours, mango and coconut. Pineapple coconut, guava/passion fruit, and rum & raisin followed. A banana chocolate flavour is coming out soon, and at least one vegan product will be available by the end of the year. Three or four additional flavours are in development. The all-natural, premium ice cream comes in 100-mL single servings, the standard 500-mL supermarket size and in 5.7-Litre tubs for the hospitality and foodservice markets.
To propel the business forward, McBarnett and Attzs appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2015. The co-founders actually landed a deal with three of the Dragons; however, they decided to go their own way and maintain full ownership of the company. Still, the television appearance boosted brand recognition and the Dragons offered helpful advice that the company followed, says McBarnett.
Neale’s has been promoted mainly through social media, public relations and, before COVID-19, via in-store tastings. To raise brand awareness this summer, Neale’s has opened a pop-up store until September at the Stackt Marketplace in downtown Toronto. “People can come to visit us, try our ice cream and enjoy it and then visit their local supermarket” to buy it again, McBarnett says.
While Neale’s sells a lot of its ice cream to the Caribbean diaspora, McBarnett notes that “everyone loves ice cream.” Ethnic foods are increasingly trendy and the ice cream is gaining favour with health-conscious consumers. When people look at the ingredient list, “it’s simple to understand,” he says.
Neale’s has been gaining momentum “due to its premium quality, unique flavours and the inspiring backstory of my grandfather’s business,” Attzs explains. “It’s different and people want to try different things,” adds Wilson. “When they taste [Neale’s], they can taste substance. They really get the taste of the tropics.”
Neale’s is available in 500 stores as of the end of July, including Sobeys, Loblaw, Foodland, No Frills, Superstore, Longo’s and Metro in Ontario, FreshCo in Western Canada and mainly independents in Quebec. It’s not yet available in Atlantic Canada.
Wilson says her father would be thrilled to see his creation live on. “He’d be very proud seeing what [his grandchildren] have done and what they have achieved. He would really have been proud of those boys.”