Live and Learn: Penny Chapman

The scoop on Canada's ice cream queen.

We were sort of a traditional family of the '50s. I had a bus-driver father and a stay-at-home mother. I had four siblings. I was last. They saved the best for last.

I went to Coleman Avenue Public School, the last one-room schoolhouse in Toronto. That was only for one year. I ended up at R. H. King in Scarborough, the high school I graduated from. And then I tried college. It sort of bored me, so I said goodbye and went to work.

When I was 16, I got a job scooping ice cream at what was the Luttrell Loop Maple Leaf Dairy Bar, the place where streetcars went in and turned around.

My husband, David, was working there as vice-president, and he hired me to scoop cones.

We got married in 1973, bought the ice-cream business in 1973, our daughter was born in 1975, and our son in 1979. So the '70s were really packed full of stuff. At first, we had maybe six or 10 flavours. There was orange-pineapple and rum and raisin. We'd dream up some flavours that never worked out. We made chocolate-marshmallow and froze it, and then all the marshmallows disintegrated, so there were just holes. It was like Swiss-cheese chocolate.

We took no pay, we lived very cheaply. The first Christmas, my husband gave me a set of TV trays and I gave him a set of drill bits. We didn't have furniture. We lived above the ice-cream plant. It was nasty and old and dirty. We lived there for seven years.

In 1983, No Frills gave us a chance, and that's when we definitely jumped up. Shortly thereafter, Zehrs gave us a chance. It's so easy for the buyers to just go with the multinational brands. To trust a little guy, up in the middle of nowhere, in a rural area, was just phenomenal.

The food industry is difficult, because pennies matter. Supermarkets make a small percentage, so it's critical you have everything priced right.

Whatever we do in the plant, we like to be ahead of the time. We always try to think ahead of what's needed. Eighteen years ago we started frozen yogurt — all the data coming out of the States said nobody wanted it. But it's important, there's less fat and it tastes just as good.

Now we're No. 1 in Canada. We make about 80% of all the frozen yogurt sold in Canada. Between ice cream and yogurt and sorbet, we probably sell about 150 different flavours.

Everything we do is geared to families and consumers. Kids started writing saying, “I've never had ice cream and cake at a birthday party because I'm allergic to peanuts.” We had to listen to them and make a peanut-free ice cream. We get thousands of letters every year.

I have always been inspired by anything butterscotch or caramel. Every day, we eat ice cream in the kitchen to taste what was made the day before.

Our daughter, Frances, is a lawyer. I'd love her to be in the business, but she's got other plans. Ashley, our son, is a chef in Toronto. Ice cream was our dream, they've got other dreams.

When we're not working, we just love to go home. It's our paradise away from here. We have a 100-acre farm. It's just glorious.

Penny Chapman
Markdale, Ont.
Born Nov. 9, 1951,
in Toronto President,
Chapman's Ice Cream


Got her first job scooping ice cream at the Luttrell Loop Maple Leaf Dairy Bar in Toronto, where her husband was VP at the time.


Chapman and her husband purchase the Markdale Creamery, owned by Toronto-based Summit Ice Cream, for $69,000.


Chapman's lands its first big break after the No Frills grocery chain agrees to sell the company's ice cream in its stores.


Loblaw Cos. asks Chapman's Ice Cream to make all of its President's Choice ice-cream products.


Receives the Susan Daglish Award for leadership and commitment to anaphylaxis safety for peanut-free products.