As we pull together our list of Gizzy’s summery delights, a fresh fruit ice cream from The Village Berry is definitely on our list. This year The Village Berry team has been particularly busy, kicking off their summer season with a new shop, new look, and new mobile ice cream food cart.
Run by Shelley Hunt and her son-in-law Tom McCann, The Village Berry has evolved a lot from its early days as a summer weekend operation called Berries Plus. Shelley took the business over in 2011, after a spontaneous chat with the previous owner at their hairdresser’s. Shelley’s daughter Madeline was already working at Berries Plus, and initially two families shared the business. Between the families they had a built-in work force of 6 kids to chip in, and for Shelley it was really about them. “We thought it was a great opportunity for them to learn about running a business and have a fun holiday job when they were home from uni.”
As the kids grew and moved on, Shelley remained as the sole owner. But as she was also teaching full-time at Girls High, the business was only open on weekends during the summer months.
It was thanks to the Covid pandemic that Tom entered the picture. He and Madeline met at uni in Dunedin and spent several years living overseas. In 2020 they were back in New Zealand for his brother’s wedding, and initially forced to stay when the borders closed, they ended up never leaving.
Tom brings sales experience in the food industry, from working his way up to directing sales in London and Dubai for Harvey & Brockless, a distributor of artisan foods. Tom notes “we knew Auckland would be the best place to settle career-wise, but the Gisborne lifestyle really appealed to us.”
Under Tom’s guidance, they have experimented with opening year-round, expanding their offerings of fruit, veges, packaged foods and takeaways like freshly made soup and locally made sourdough. The team is passionate about offering an alternative to the big supermarkets that really supports local growers and fosters an appreciation for what’s fresh and in season.
“We roll seasonal, with food and offerings. It’s humble, healthy, good food, made with love.”
And our local community is getting behind this notion, if last winter is any indication. “It was surprisingly busy, we were flat out making four batches of soup a day.”
With that momentum, it quickly became clear they needed more space. Fletch the butcher next door was keen to swap spaces, and they opened the doors to the new corner shop on the corner of Ballance Street and Ormond Road in September. The move came with a re-brand, and the first thing they chose was yellow paint for the doors, to embody sunshine, happiness, and summer.
And while we might not have seen much of summer’s usual main player, ‘sunshine’ as yet, as Shelley notes, “summer means ice cream” and luckily it’s been warm enough for most of us to warrant the occasional ice cream!
The “village” part of Village Berry is just as important. “We have a village mentality, we are a family business that counts on relationships with other family businesses. We know where the food is from, we can tell you about the growers, we know their families.”
80% of the produce Village Berries sells is from Gisborne. Tom explains, “We can’t say it’s strictly local though, because we don’t want to limit what we can offer.” For example, Gisborne doesn’t have enough local asparagus growers to satisfy demand, so The Village Berry brings some in from Hawkes Bay.
“Even when we source from outside Gisborne, we try to stay close - Eastern Bay of Plenty or Hawkes Bay.”
It can be tough balancing customer demand and the business philosophy, “People might want tomatoes when they're not ready locally. We could get some in and make a bit of money but that goes against the importance we put on seasonal eating.”
The one notable exception is bananas! The team sources them to make their ice creams and the customer demand for them is huge. But they also make a point to stock locally grown bananas whenever available.
As a small independent business, it can be super challenging to compete with the huge purchasing power of the supermarkets. At The Village Berry, prices are agreed upon with the growers at the beginning of the season and remain fixed, even if there is a glut. Tom explains, “when we have these relationships, we’re not hustling each other, we all want each other to do well and operate fairly.” Because everything they stock is picked ripe, it’s better and fresher.
And when it comes to fruit, they mean really fresh, direct from the orchard up the road. Shelley recently retired from teaching, and she and her husband Chris purchased an orchard (formerly known as the Bruce Road Estate) which provides renowned stone fruit and up and coming nashis.
Fruit and veges aside, The Village Berry will likely always be known first and foremost for the ice creams. It’s fun to guess how many cones have been made over the years, but until moving into their new space, they never had a till that kept track. But now with an eye on it, so far the highest number in a single day was about 650 on Labour Monday. A record, which is bound to be easily broken once the heat of summer arrives!
The ice cream is now also going mobile with their cart, The Village Berry Express. It’s currently on the move, popping up at markets, events, and catering at weddings. It has to be noted that they do dairy-free ice cream as well as a yoghurt option!
This year they’ve got plans to continue refining takeaway food options, experiment with fun new ice cream flavours like mandarin and tamarillo, and offer fresh pressed juices.
There are so many benefits to supporting local and eating local, taste being one of them. Summer of course is such a good time with the amount of delicious produce on offer, from citrus to berries and stone fruit. It goes without saying that most of these fruits also taste damn fine when whizzed up with ice cream and curled into a cone.
We highly recommend you put The Village Berry on your list of musts this week, and don’t forget them when winter and soup season rolls around again…
By Victoria Williams Photos Sarah Cleave