Across central Scotland the name Equi's is synonymous with deliciously rich and creamy ice cream, but there's a lot more to Equi's than its mouth wateringly good ice cream. What started off as a small restaurant at Peacock Cross in Hamilton has turned into one of the best-known ice cream brands in Scotland, and a firm office favorite.

We sat down with David Equi (owner) and Chris (head of sales and marketing) of Equi’s Ice Cream to discuss the evolution of the company. And yes, this chat involved samples.

How did Equi’s Ice Cream start?

David: My nonno, Pietro Equi, came over from Tuscany in 1915 following the outbreak of the First World War; and in 1922, he decided to try his luck making the delicious food and gelato he missed from back home.

When Pietro first opened Equi’s in 1922, he knew that to stand out and ensure people returned to his restaurant time and time again, he would have to make his gelato exceptional. Using the best ingredients he could get his hands on, allied to his family’s secret recipe, he began making ice cream by heating up the ice cream mix and cooling it down by leaving the big buckets outside - something you’d never get away with today! Now our ice cream goes through various tanks to ensure the ice cream mix is heated and cooled to exact temperatures. He stocked only vanilla ice cream but his reputation for delicious desserts quickly grew; making him one of the best-known gelato makers in the West of Scotland, with people travelling for miles for a cone! His sons, Roberto (my father), Ronnie and Vincent, started working in the shop when they were young - quickly learning the ropes.

Pietro retired in 1964, leaving my father Roberto as managing director. He upheld Pietro’s legacy and continued to grow the company. The following year, the restaurant moved across the road, combining two shops in to one to create the Equi’s ice cream parlour, hot food take away and restaurant that we're still in today. My father was always really interested in the different processes of making ice cream, so was regularly trying new machines and production methods. He respected my nonno’s ethos of using the best quality ingredients but knew to keep up with the times and the ever-growing demand, he would have to upgrade production methods. 

When did you become involved in the family business?

David: I was 8 when I started helping my father in the shop on Sunday mornings. I can remember sitting up on the till selling cigarettes for 26.5p and Mars Bars for 3.5p. Then when I was about 16 I started working Saturday nights on the counter, but I didn’t learn how to make ice cream until I was 18. 

After I graduated from university, I wanted to work full-time with my father, but I had to persuade him to take me on permanently, as he didn’t want me to come into the business straight from university. Probably quite rightly so considering I began changing his recipes without telling him! I used to write to an ice cream technical expert, Dr Roffle, going back and forth with ideas on how to improve our recipes. He only found out when he caught me with 200 eggs. After that my father and I looked at creating new recipes together by taking some inspiration from my Nonno’s original recipes, and of course, following his ethos of using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. 

Luckily that worked out – my father’s big ambition was for Equi’s to win a national trophy and using our new and improved recipes we won a silver at the UK ice cream championships for the first time. 

My father and I continued to test production techniques to ensure quality continuously improved. We also experimented with different flavours - identifying emerging flavour trends was something I was always interested in and felt I had an eye for! 
It was around this time that I started pushing for Equi’s to start wholesaling. Our first ever customer was a garden centre in Lanarkshire and I remember having to deliver it from the boot of my car. There was only one other guy working in the factory and he didn’t want anything to do with the wholesale business, so the only way I could get my father to agree was if I did it all myself - essentially creating a business within a business. 

I took over from my father as managing director in 1995 when my father passed away and I pushed the business more towards wholesale and began investing heavily in equipment. I knew we had this amazing product and people were travelling from all over Scotland to try our different flavours, so we knew we had to take the risk. 

Did the risk pay off?

It certainly did. We started off with single garden centre on our customer list and now we’re stocked in Asda, Morrisons, Co-op and independent retailers across Scotland and the north of England. 

Where do you get your flavour inspiration from?

I did a lot of travelling, especially to Italy. Italy have a lot of ice cream trade shows - the biggest one is Sigep in Rimini, so it’s great to see what all the big flavour houses over there are doing; and we always visit local gelaterias. There’s one in particular we visit in Bologna which creates the most amazing flavour combinations – this year they were experimenting with pink grapefruit and more floral flavours, so when we got home we trialled pink grapefruit and bergamot. It’s one of my favourite flavours that we’ve created this year! 

I like to bounce ideas off of people too – especially other artisan food producers. At a trade show in London last year I spoke to someone who made spice drops and we got chatting about cardamom, so we thought we’d see what happened when we mixed it with pistachio ice cream and it was delicious! 

It’s not just me who creates new flavours! Our production team get free time in the factory to come up with ideas and experiment too. I have to say they’ve come up with some amazing combinations! 

About 90% of the flavours we experiment with don’t really take off, but if we think we’re on to a winner we’ll sell it in our flagship store in Hamilton and that’s normally when we get a better idea of whether it’ll work for wholesale. 

We only have two rules – it needs to be something you would actually eat, we don’t do gimmicky flavours; and we don’t like artificial flavours or colours. Over the years, we’ve seen so many ice cream companies create weird flavours and get amazing publicity but that just doesn’t fit our brand. 

David, Equi's Ice Cream

How do you stand out in the ice cream industry when there are so many multi-national brands out there?

David: There’s no doubt that the ice cream industry is crowded in the UK. Not only are there numerous national brands sold in supermarkets and in convenience stores; there are also so many amazing regional manufacturers. For many of these companies, making ice cream is in their blood and similarly to Equi’s, may be in their third or fourth generation. Standing out in such a crowded space is always a challenge, but we believe our product speaks for itself. 

Our main point of difference is the sheer quality of our ice cream. Where possible, we only use the freshest, local ingredients, or the best ingredients from around the world; for example, pistachios from Bronte, Sicily and Madagascan vanilla. The milk is from a dairy farm which you can see from the office window, the tablet is from an award-winning confectioner in Glasgow and the caramel shortcake is from Kerr’s Bakery in Motherwell. 

I understood that to continue our growth, it would be important for customers to see Equi’s Ice Cream as a premium ice cream maker with innovative flavours and a rich history. However, due to the different sides of the business (the restaurant, ice cream parlours and wholesale business), striking that balance of flavours to suit every demographic can be a challenge. After conducting thorough market research, we’ve identified our main target market and exactly who is buying our ice cream. However, making sure there’s still something for the entire family is important to me and the team. 

How has the brand evolved over the years?

David: Although my father was ahead of his time for a lot of things, he didn’t really pay much attention when it came to logos and packaging. The tubs he used were a chocolate brown colour and the logo was ‘Equi’s’ shaped like a fish, which I hated but he wouldn’t let me change it!

Once I became MD and we began promoting the wholesale side of the business, we knew that we would have to make sure that our branding and overall marketing strategy was tip top, as people buy into brands just as much as the products themselves. 

We invested in a rebrand and worked with designers to upgrade our image and ensure the brand fully aligned with the artisan ethos of the family-run business. As well as updating packaging, point of sale materials and our amazing delivery vans, we also invested in redesigning our website. 

In 2015, we gave our website a facelift to help boost our digital presence. Prior to this, we’d had a busy few years of growth all over Scotland, but we knew our online presence didn’t reflect how progressive the company was. 

Chris: The website and online presence is so important for our wholesale customers and has played an integral part in our growth out with the West of Scotland. In the West of Scotland, we’re fortunate enough to have an excellent reputation, but we’re up against tough competition throughout the rest of Scotland and we still have some work to do to increase our brand presence in the east and north of Scotland. Effectively communicating our message with potential customers in these areas is important for us to continue to grow the business. Since the rebrand and website redesign, we have added the likes of Morrisons and the food wholesaler Dunns to our wholesale customer list. 

How important is digital marketing for Equi’s?

Chris: Social media has played an important role in raising brand awareness throughout Scotland. Focusing on the more visual channels like Facebook and Instagram has enabled us to build an impressive, and more importantly, a highly engaged following amongst ice cream lovers and foodies across Scotland. Catching the attention of the end user (or ‘eater’ in this case) is a key factor in reaching wholesale customers who are looking for an ice cream supplier. 

David: We invested in photography early on and spent time testing different styles to see what resonated best with our audience. We’ve found that close up shots of ice cream work particularly well on Instagram, whereas shots of ice cream in dishes and sundaes work better on Facebook.  The dynamic nature of social media encourages a dynamic strategy, so being able to constantly experiment with different concepts and content has been essential in growth across our social media platforms; in turn helping the team better understand the audience and how to communicate with this audience. We’re always willing to test new platforms, but at the same time I’d rather do a few platforms really well than being spread too thinly across the lot. 

We try to ensure there’s a constant stream of photos across all channels; with some behind the scenes imagery thrown in for good measure. These behind the scenes images often provide little sneak peaks of which flavours the team are experimenting with, and we have had a lot of success using the likes of Instagram Stories and Snapchat, due to the immediate nature of the function. 

We also started playing about with videos for sundae recipes and other tasty ideas. We’ve had a lot of good feedback, with Dunns even getting in touch to see if they could share on their social media channels. We believe it was in part our understanding of the power and influence of social media which led to Equi’s Ice Cream being nominated for Scotland Food and Drink’s Brand Success of the Year in 2017. 

Do you think winning awards has an impact on your sales?

David: It has definitely had a positive impact on our sales and brand awareness. Over the years, we have won numerous awards for our ice cream, but 2017 was the pinnacle in terms of award success. From winning Food and Drink Business of the Year at the Lanarkshire Business Awards, to winning six Great Taste Awards (including a 3 Star for our Alphonso Mango Sorbet); and not to mention beating tough competition in the London heat of the Gelato Festival to go on to represent the UK at the European final in Florence - 2017 was an exceptional year for us.

Chris: The Great Taste Award logo is recognised by customers who are looking for excellence. Three of our main flavours have been Great Taste Award winners, and this is something a lot of food and drink buyers look for. We have been sure to add the Great Taste Award logo to all relevant packaging as another differentiating factor for people picking up our products in supermarkets. This logo can make a big difference for wholesale customers, especially premium restaurants looking for something to complement their menu. The Great Taste Award logo is recognised throughout the UK and the prestige associated with this accolade has opened a lot of doors for us and brought in a lot of enquiries from across the UK. As a result, in early 2017, we welcomed our first wholesale customer in England, Scoop and Bean in South Shields, and are hoping this is just the first of many.

Which other methods of marketing do you employ?

Chris: In addition to our online push, the team at Equi’s have found experiential marketing to be vital in growing the brand. Experiential marketing (or sampling) was one of the first methods we used when we began selling in supermarkets, and it remains central to our marketing strategy today. You’ll often find the team at Equi’s packing up their scoops to attend trade shows, street food events and food festivals throughout Scotland and occasionally further afield. We also try to do a lot to support our wholesale customers. Our sales and marketing team offer support to wholesale customers by handing out a lot more than just your typical point of sale materials (pavement stands, flags, cone holders and posters). They also offer social media training and access to photography to help customers get the most from their own social media channels. 

What’s next for Equi’s?

David: There are a lot of exciting plans in the pipeline: From being the only dessert offering with two sites at The European Championships in Glasgow this summer, to adding the 265 Co-op stores to our wholesale customer list, and contact with a company in Texas, we have a busy summer to look forward to! 

We’re also going to launch new products in the summer, including a new flavour which is only 98 calories per 100ml, which we’re all really excited about! 

And the question on everyone’s mind – what’s your favourite flavour?

Chris: We have 50 flavours in our main flavour line with a variety of seasonal flavours coming in and out of production, so it’s a tough one but I’d have to go with Isle of Skye Sea Salt & Caramel. It’s a collaboration with the Isle of Skye Sea Salt company who use a solar evaporation process and their product works so well with our super creamy caramel ice cream. It’s also the one all the supermarkets tend to go for because it’s an all-round people pleaser!  David: I’d probably have to go with Sophie’s Crunch. I was over in Ireland visiting my friend Arnie Morrelli and I met a guy who made honeycomb and we started chatting about adding it to ice cream. When I got back to Hamilton, the trials went really well, and we started thinking about a name for this new flavour. Around the same time, my first daughter was born so I wanted to name it after her and so it became Sophie’s Crunch. She’s now a doctor and it’s still one of our top selling flavours. Funnily enough, about two years after meeting the honeycomb guy, honeycomb ice cream overtook vanilla in being Ireland’s top selling flavour of ice cream. 

Massive thanks to David and Chris for giving us the scoop on how Equi's Ice Cream has changed over the years.

If you fancy following Equi’s to drool over their mouth-watering ice cream, you can find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And now for the biggest question of the day, will that be one scoop or two?