Bob and Jeannette Breth have traded bicycles for something sweeter. After a friend expressed interest in their bike shop of 21 years at Five Corners, they thought they might take a few years off from the business scene. Those plans were foiled when the opportunity came to make Mr. Breth’s childhood dream come true and open an ice cream shop.
Bernie’s Homemade Ice Cream and Fudge on Main street Vineyard Haven was born.
The Breths have owned five shops on the Vineyard and were quick to get Bernie’s on its feet. Twenty-eight days after signing the lease, the doors opened in June.
But who is Bernie? The Breths say it’s always a conversation piece when people walk into the store.
“They always assume it’s one of us,” said Mrs. Breth. But you won’t catch Bernie behind the counter scooping ice cream, though she is an ice cream maverick in her own right. Bernie is Mr. Breth’s mother and the woman who introduced him to banana ice cream and first showed him the magic of the homemade treat. When she heard the news, the original Bernie said, “You guys really do like me,” the Breths recounted.
Though he had been exposed to the craft of ice cream making as a child by his mother, who always let Mr. Breth sprinkle the salt into the big wooden bucket with an old motor that served as an ice cream machine, Mr. and Mrs. Breth decided to get a bit of a formal education before taking up the ice cream scoop.
“We went to Ice Cream University for two days,” said Mrs. Breth, showing off the impressive book that came back with them from West Orange, N.J., where the university is located. Taught by longtime ice cream expert Malcolm Stogo, they picked up tips and tricks that would take a new owner 40 years to figure out on her own. “Like having a grandfather showing you the way,” Mrs. Breth said.
The higher education paid off: Bernie’s ice cream is rich, creamy and flavorful. On a recent day one customer yelled out the door, “It’s the best ice cream on the Vineyard!”
Mr. Breth said even he was astonished when he tasted their banana ice cream, made with six pounds of bananas for five gallons of ice cream, and realized he had duplicated his mother’s flavor.
“When I tried it I couldn’t believe it came out like my mom’s,” he said, wide eyed.
All the ice cream is made on the premises, one flavor at a time, in an industrial ice cream machine. It is then deep frozen for eight hours, at which point it takes on a consistency like custard. Then the freshly-made ice cream is kept in a large walk-in freezer until it’s ready to be scooped. Customers lucky enough to come in while ice cream is being made might be offered samples. It’s a big change from the wooden bucket that the original Bernie used, but all made in the same spirit of fun, enjoyment and a sweet treat.
The other side of Bernie’s is the fudge department. Mrs. Breth, who has a longtime love of baking, is primarily in charge of concocting Bernie’s extra creamy fudge. The kitchen is a place where she improvises with ease, such as when she didn’t have enough chocolate or vanilla for a whole batch and smashed the two together with a slab of peanut butter in the middle and created her Snickers fudge.
The Breths are true owner-operators and in the shop most of the time, although they have also enlisted the help of “Milk Shake Queen” Caitlin Cimeno. Ms. Cimeno, who lives in Florida but summers on the Vineyard is no newbie to ice cream. Back in the bike shop days, Mr. Breth would stop by her previous place of employment for a shake nearly every day. “We stole her,” he joked.
And they don’t eat as much ice cream and fudge as you might think, although Mr. Breth admitted to an occasional small soft serve cone for breakfast with a dollop of vanilla on top.
In addition to the traditional flavors, the Breths are experimenting with some new concoctions and recently added a second freezer. Rosemary pecan, fig ricotta, blueberry and lavender are all in the works. A current big seller is toasted coconut.
Mornings are slow; business picks up in the afternoon and at “nighttime, you rock and roll,” Mr. Breth said. Meeting people is one of the best parts of the business, Mrs. Breth said.
“We’re older now and we’re doing something that we thought would be successful and fun and we’d enjoy,” she also said. “Our son said, I’ve never seen Daddy smile this much in years.”
It’s a happy trade, Mr. Breth agreed: “When you come into ice cream stores, you’re happy.”