It’s impossible to miss on a warm day.
Heck, it’s even pretty hard to miss on a medium day: It’s the line extending out of MacKay’s and down the First Street, made of families and friends excitedly waiting for their chance at a little bit of dairy respite.
Plenty of small retailers would long for a line like that, but it’s a significant responsibility to bear, too. They’re a representative of the Cochrane community, and it’s a role that current owners Meghan and Mark Tayfel appear to take seriously.
“We have Cochrane in our name, it’s MacKay’s Cochrane Ice Cream, and it’s really important that we do have a role in the community,” Meghan said. She’s the granddaughter of the original proprietors, James and Christina MacKay.
“For us, bringing tourists and visitors to Cochrane, and hopefully getting them to stay and play as well, is huge.”
“It’s a responsibility and an expectation that we took on right from the get-go,” added husband Mark.
“We’re not the biggest business in Cochrane, nor do we make the most money, but I think we’re the most recognizable. When we first took over we recognized that tourism responsibility.”
They like their staff to be to provide that tourism input to visitors as well.
“Basically, promote not just ourselves, but Cochrane.”
Meghan and her husband Mark took over the operation in 2011 from Meghan’s aunts Robyn and Rhona. They’d been running the place since 1983.
Asked if she always thought she’d take over the family biz, Meghan replied, “Not really.”
“I certainly had the opportunity when I was younger, this was one of my first jobs, but there were other family members as well. When the opportunity did come up for us, we were like, ‘Oh! Okay, yeah!’”
Their historic downtown retail shop is a hot spot on a Saturday afternoon no doubt, but many have probably spotted their colourful factory a couple blocks south on River Avenue as well. Since 1979, that’s been where the production happens.
“This was kind of a really big step in the business,” Meghan said.
“Prior to that, my grandparents made ice cream out of the back of the store.”
The factory can more or less be divided into four parts: A production kitchen, a quality and safety lab, a warehouse of packaging labeled for their dozens of flavours, and a freezer larger than most people will see in their life.
“The concept of making ice cream hasn’t changed in centuries,” Meghan said.
“Basically it’s a process of whipping some air into cream, as well as freezing it. The less air you whip in, the better the quality of the ice cream.”
She said industry standards allow for ice cream with either a lot, or a little, air whipped into it, and that MacKay’s is on the low end.
“It’s kind of enough just so that it doesn’t become a frozen block of ice and it gives a much richer, creamier texture to the product.”
When it comes to the all-important texture of the ice cream, processes like freezing and aeration play just as much of a role, possibly greater, than ingredients like dairy or flavouring.
“We always seem to have a really good visual idea of where the product is at,” Meghan said.
“We want to make sure that we’re not over or under-freezing it. Once the containers are filled, they go in the blast freezer which is usually between minus twenty-five and minus thirty, and we like them to be in there for at least forty-eight hours. That inhibits any kind of growth of ice crystals, making our product even smoother.”
The production kitchen itself isn’t huge, about the same footprint as one at a medium-sized restaurant. What sets it apart are the six ice cream machines whirring away as staff prep flavourings on a table.
“This is where all of the magic happens,” Mark said.
“In our store, we have the old wooden churns on display. The technology hasn’t really changed: we’ve just added modern-day refrigeration and motors to do the spinning.”
“Instead of packing snow around the ice cream mix, we now have a refrigeration unit around it. Instead of hand-cranking, we now have motors.”
Meghan gestured over to Julie and Brittany, the two employees on production that day, who were using spatulas to weave drizzles of caramel into fresh pints.
“All the ripples, all the bits, it’s all done by hand. There’s no kind of mass production. That way, we have ultimate control over every batch of ice cream.”
It’s clear all three generations have put significant thought and consideration into the flavour range offered. It comes from a mix of customer demand, outside considerations and good ol’ trial and error.
“Everybody loves the ‘research and development’ side of ice cream,” Meghan laughed.
“When my grandparents first started the business, they would be looking at local berries that were picked right in the Cochrane valley, or they were able to get cocoa or maybe maple walnut, but other more exotic flavours weren’t really available yet. As things change, even mango is pretty mainstream now, but back in their day was very exotic.”
The couple are proud of their range of ice cream flavours not historically common in North America: flavours like Halo Halo, Keso, Kulfi and Durian.
“I think [Durian]’s our number one seller in containers at our store, can’t keep that one on the shelves,” Mark said.
“It’s amazing how some of these exotic flavours that a lot of people haven’t heard of, they’re our number one sellers now.”
Some MacKay’s flavours are trickier to produce. Their avocado-flavoured ice cream for example, the high fat content already in avocados means staff have to be extra vigilant with how it mixes in. Even good old-fashioned cocoa can be a tricky ingredient to work with.
“Certainly, we have to be on our game when we’re running the ice cream out of these machines: The odd time if we’ve gotten distracted, we’ve actually frozen the machine itself,” Meghan laughed. She emphasized, however, that funny mishaps like those shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of relaxed safety or consistency standards.
“We are a federally regulated facility.”
“We even have our own microbiology lab at our facility so we can regularly do swab testing of our equipment & ingredients. We have taken this one step further: although our store is provincially governed and it is not required, we regularly take swab samples at our store as well.”
Sometimes, a potential flavour just won’t make the cut.
“Some things don’t work in ice cream, we’ve discovered that. It just sort of depends,” Meghan said.
“It could be the ingredient profile itself. For a while, we did a ‘Sour Candy’, but sour candies have a lot of citric acid in them. Well, that citric acid breaks down the dairy, and so it wasn’t a great combination. But it was certainly worth trying.”
Mike attended a unique ice cream production course at Guelph University, one of only two such programs in North America.
“Some ingredients might have too much water content in them and as soon as you freeze something with too much water, it becomes little ice cubes in our ice cream and that’s not really a texture that you want,” he explained.
“We need something that’s more of a sugar concentrate that doesn’t freeze or blends more smoothly with ice cream.”
Over the shop’s almost 75-year history, the three generations have compiled a recipe book of somewhere around three hundred flavours.
Said Meghan, “It’s always fun when customers come in and say, ‘Well, how come you don’t make Champagne ice cream?’ And it’s like ‘Well, we actually have made that, from 1975 until about 1985! It’s in our book, but it’s not discontinued.'”
“It’s always interesting to hear what people like and what they remember.”
The mix of flavours they’ve got going on right now seems to be working from them.
In addition to the in-store popularity, they’re in grocery stores locally and throughout the Calgary region. Calgary Co-op (as one example) reached out to them, not the other way around.
“It’s good cross-marketing, and diversifies our income a little bit,” Mark said.
“Now that we’re able to break this up between grocery stores and our retail store, it’s allowed us to weather this pandemic a little easier. People are able to buy our product in the grocery store and not be worried about coming out to Cochrane during the pandemic, things like that.”
Meanwhile, in the city, ice cream kind of became the new cupcake over the last decade or so: the trendy, go-out dessert. New shops popped up throughout Calgary.
“I guess, that just boosts our business when people are after the ‘craft’ ice cream feel,” Mark said.
“Everyone finds their little neighbourhood that they belong to. Made by Marcus and Village have their area, and they’ve got their local supporters, and we have ours, and I think it all works.”
Meghan echoed the sentiment: everyone’s got their own turf, their own niche.
“All the businesses we know in the Calgary area in particular, everybody has their unique flavours and things they want to try. So I don’t feel like we’re stepping on each other’s toes, which is kind of nice.”
Meghan and Mark aren’t looking to aggressively expand MacKay’s. There’s no major push to scale up their grocery presence or to sell across the border, for example.
They’ve talked about the potential for a second location, but nothing particularly concrete, and added that’s about as big as they’d ever want to grow.
They’ve got enough on their minds lately anyway, like looking out for their family of staff.
“Just like my grandfather and my aunts, we’re still a big employer in Cochrane,” Meghan said.
“I mean, a lot of our staff, it’s their first job, and we hope that we’re giving them a really good first job experience and a positive experience to take away.”
And, as winter turns to summer, they turn their focus to keeping families happy and safe in that First Street sidewalk line.
“We’re just thankful to be a part of this community,” Meghan said.
“Our kids are the sixth generation, so we’re pretty ingrained here. We’re definitely not going anywhere.”