THUNDER BAY, ONT. — There is nothing more nostalgic than enjoying an ice cream cone on a hot summer evening in a lot speckled with classic cars from the years gone by.
In fact, that is how it all began, more than 70 years ago when Merla Mae Ice Cream opened to serve customers with drive-in style ice cream cones, sundaes, milkshakes and burgers.
Now, 71 years later, the company has opened for the 2022 season and still draws a daily crowd with people lining up for their turn at the window for the nostalgic treats — all made from scratch with locally obtained ingredients.
And the classic cars still show up.
“The original owners had the idea to have an establishment with the dining concept because they loved seeing all the old cars come here,” said Pasquale Nardi, owner of the ice cream shop since 2000.
“This is where people grew up. They came here as kids with their grandparents, their parents, and they still continue to come here. We have some people where this was the place for their first date, and they still continue to come here 20 and 30 years later on the anniversary of the date.”
Nardi says they hear a lot of stories of the first date and the first kiss at Merla Mae and have seen these people show up with their entire wedding party on their wedding day to have a commemorative ice cream.
“They come after big things like graduation and as a celebratory thing after their prom. They’ll come after baseball games and soccer games,” he said.
Merla Mae Ice Cream has become a tradition with events in people’s lives. Various car clubs have hosted cruise nights there and a woman’s motorcycle club also makes Merla Mae a regular stop on their travels.
“Those Wednesday nights used to be biker night. The women that used to come here as kids now ride together 30 years later and will pull in here . . . but COVID has changed a lot of things unfortunately,” Nardi said.
He says they haven’t seen a lot of that (sociability) through 2021 because of the pandemic and noted that despite the pandemic, they were perfectly set up as an old-school drive-in where you walk up to a takeout window for your order.
“We followed the health unit guidelines that were set out for us, and it’s unfortunate because a lot of people were scared. A lot of people are scared of catching COVID and it’s been like that everywhere,” said Maria Dollery, who is the master behind the many new flavours of ice cream.
The recipe to Merla Mae’s success is their nostalgic way of serving food and their ever expanding flavours of ice cream, all of which are made on site, from scratch with local ingredients — including homemade cake. Dollery, together with Sam Nicholl, make the ice cream; Dianna Gilva supervises the restaurant and Elizabeth Aung manages the kitchen. Together they form Nardi’s team.
“We offer hard ice cream flavours that are all created and made in house,” Dollery said.
“I don’t think they had that before. They only had the soft ice cream, which is still very popular. Bennett’s Bakery delivers burger and hot dog buns to us daily and all of our burgers are all made by Superior Food with beef from local farmers.
“We use local products and we’ve kind of woven ourselves into the community fabric. We hire students and people that live here and we use agencies in town that will support us.”
When the Monty Parks Centre, formerly ARC Industries, closed, Dollery says it was really unfortunate that a lot of the people who worked there became unemployed and displaced.
“We have some of them coming here doing groundwork and care (for the property) and we’re providing an income for people that may have more of a challenging time finding employment,” she said.
“You need to support your community and the people in the community.”
Back in the kitchen, Dollery says you have to have a “really good imagination that has no limits” to be able to create new flavours that will appeal to the clients.
“That’s the best way to be able to create anything,” she said, as she described developing an autumn zucchini, chocolate chip-bread ice-cream flavour that is made with actual fresh zucchini that is “whipped into the ice cream.”
“We mimic the nostalgic creamsicle — that really does taste like the creamsicle — and we make bubble gum flavour and lemon biscotti from scratch. We’ve got an oven here so we can do the baking here as well and we actually incorporate the baking into the ice cream sometimes.”
This spring two new flavours, Nutella and blueberry cheese cake, are being tested in the kitchen. Dollery says she likes being in the kitchen, and creating great flavours from places she has visited that “sparks an idea for a flavour.”
“Our staff is our family,” said Nardi, adding that these women come in at 6 a.m. and finish late in the day. “We do what it takes to keep the tradition alive.”
From standard vanilla, chocolate or chocolate-vanilla swirl soft serve to more than ten flavours of hard ice cream, Merla Mae still serves up all the rest of the goodies that have kept people coming back for more than 70 years. Banana splits, sundaes, milkshakes, burgers, fries, onion rings and hot dogs remain popular with the crowds that continue to come rain or shine.
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal