For a list of who's who in Northampton, a techno-savvy person might reasonably look to Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia," for its list of "notable residents." The results of such an inquiry undoubtedly include a few entries for which the geographical boundaries of the Paradise City have been stretched a bit to include people who actually reside or once resided in neighboring burgs.
Nonetheless, it is an impressive and varied list, including historic figures (Calvin Coolidge and Sojourner Truth), literary giants (Kurt Vonnegut and Tracy Kidder), renowned artists (Eric Carle and Peter Laird), and notable musicians (Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon).
But an important name is missing from the Wiki list, a name that might not have quite the contemporary buzz of a Rachel Maddow or an Augusten Burroughs or the dusty gravitas of a Jonathan Edwards or a William Cullen Bryant, but a big and historically important name just the same.
Steve Herrell may never get his own network TV show, may never win a National Book Award or become president of the United States—accomplishments that, while rare enough, are hardly exclusive. Herrell, however, is one of a kind, an inventor and innovator who, largely alone and without peers, created the super-premium ice cream business, taking the air out of the ice cream and putting lots of delicious and varied flavor into it. His inventions, in fact, revolutionized the whole ice cream industry, not just its high-end segment: Herrell was the first ice cream maker to put Oreo cookies in vanilla ice cream. Herrell, who says he's lost count of exactly how many flavors of ice cream he's invented—well more than 200, he's sure—not only set the stage for the many boutique ice cream makers, like Burlington's Ben and Jerry's, who followed him, but compelled big national brands to widely broaden their flavor palettes.
Today, Herrell is still doing what he set out to do in 1973, when he opened the first Steve's Ice Cream store in Somerville's Davis Square and introduced greater Boston to the best ice cream it had ever known. Herrell sold his original chain of six Steve's stores in 1977, moved to Northampton and, at the end of a three-year non-compete agreement, opened Herrell's in 1980. Since then, Steve Herrell has continued to make great ice cream, always involved in every facet of his business, always innovating, always in pursuit of new ice cream flavors and new toppings.
"Owning a small business," Herrell says, "affords the owner the opportunity to exercise many disciplines." In fact, Herrell's decision to sell his original chain was largely based on his desire to keep his business small enough so he could be intimately involved in every part of the operation. "I didn't start out in the ice cream business to make a lot of money, but because I thought it would be a fun thing to do," Herrell says, noting that by the time he sold the Steve's chain—a chain whose big splash and sustained success inspired countless stories in business magazines and countless imitators—he was spending too much time with bankers and lawyers, doing deals and reviewing documents, and not enough time in his stores to satisfy him.
"A business reflects the character of the owner," Herrell says. "I like being here in the store in Northampton, being with the employees, making ice cream, coming up with new products, new ways to promote the store, having a good time."
Though he chose a more modest business model than many of those who followed him did, Herrell is fully aware of his place in ice cream history. "Steve's [Ice Cream] and the ideas presented there have had a profound influence on the ice cream business," he says. "Ben [Cohen] and Jerry [Greenfield] say they talked to me before they started [their parlor in Burlington] and that I was helpful to them, but I have no recollection of it."
It isn't all that surprising that Herrell doesn't recall such a meeting, given the intensity of his focus on more pressing matters, such as how to use a gear reducer to slow the turning rate of an ice cream-making machine so as to reduce the amount of air getting into the cream. While others to this day take cues from Herrell, he remains in the vanguard, searching continually for ways to make what he calls "retrogressive" techniques—akin to the old-time, arm-cranked, ice-and-rock salt freezers that, as a youngster, he delighted in using on hot, summer days—work for commercial application.
Perhaps what most distinguishes him from the pack is this: Steve Herrell has never lost the magical feeling he felt as a kid, when "it was a big deal to make ice cream in the back yard, everybody in the family taking a turn at the crank, particularly around the Fourth of July."
"Gosh, ice cream is a national passion," Herrell says. "The whole idea is as wholesome, happy, joyful and family-oriented as it gets."