‘Chaotically ambitious’: Herrell’s owner takes life two scoops at a time

  • Judy Herrell laughs at a comment made by long time co-worker, Maureen McHugh, while the two work on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell works with Maureen McHugh on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell works with Maureen McHugh on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell works with Maureen McHugh on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell, left, works with Maureen McHugh on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell reacts after tasting a vegan chocolate fudge sauce she has been experimenting with for a while. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Judy Herrell works with Maureen McHugh on creating a vegan chocolate fudge sauce. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nathan Sabolevski, left, of Bernardston, and Miles Retzlaff, of Greenfield, eat ice cream at Herrell’s. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katherine Pawlikowski, of Southampton, samples her ice cream at the counter before moving to a table at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lazarus Acosta hands a cone to a customer at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lazarus Acosta, right, hands a cone to a customer at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Iliana Rivera-Lovett, right, and Emma Eagle work the counter at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katherine Pawlikowski, of Southampton, samples her ice cream at the counter before moving to a table at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Young and old gather at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lazarus Acosta adds toppings to a sundae at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lazarus Acosta adds M&Ms to a cup of ice cream at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emma Eagle, right, waits on customers at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Iliana Rivera-Lovett stacks scoops of ice cream onto a cone at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Laurel Rose, of Santa Barbara, Ca., gives her 11-year-old mixed-breed teacup poodle and long-haired chihuahua service dog, Rosie, a taste of her strawberry ice cream at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery, Friday, July 19, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • —Courtesy of Judy Herrell

  • —Courtesy of Judy Herrell

  • Courtesy of Judy Herrell

  • Ben Cohen, left, pictured with Steve Herrell, his daughter Jessye, Judy Herrell and Jerry Greenfield.  —Courtesy of Judy Herrell

  • Outside of Steve’s Ice Cream in Somerville in the late 1970s.  —Courtesy of Judy Herrell

Staff Writer 
Published: 8/9/2019 9:47:03 AM

New ice cream flavor ideas come from a myriad of sources for Judy Herrell, owner and manager of Herrell’s Ice Cream. Sometimes they come from suggestions from customers or in discussions with family members, and at times, they just jump out during everyday life.

“Sometimes I like to try matching things that you don’t normally think about as flavors for ice cream,” she said.

Even a joke can turn into a flavor. Earlier this summer, her husband Stephan Wurmbrand had finished mowing their front lawn, and gazing at a patch of cut up dandelions, she joked to a friend that they should have harvested the dandelions for a salad.

Coincidently, her friend is a preserve maker in Vermont who supplies ingredients to Herrell’s. Vicky Allard, of Blake Hill Specialty Preserve Makers, had just made preserves out of dandelions with rhubarb and honey, and thus a new flavor — Wild Dandelion-infused Rhubarb & Honey — at Herrell’s Ice Cream was born, one of over 400 that rotate on the menu.

“Ziggy and I sometimes talk about flavors, what meshes and what doesn’t, what’s wild and crazy and what’s not,” she said.

Herrell owns and manages Herrell’s Ice Cream on Old South Street after taking the reins from her ex-husband, Steve Herrell, and last year she was inducted into the Massachusetts Restaurant Hall of Fame.

For the past two years, Judy Herrell has been asked to serve on special state boards. Last year, she served on the state Senate’s Task Force on Strengthening Massachusetts Local Retail, a group tasked with helping identify challenges posed to the retail industry.

This year, she is serving on a state Economic Development Planning Council which will write a report for the governor and the Statehouse on factors that are helping or hurting small and large businesses throughout the state.

Transportation, state mandates, and housing are all key areas the group is investigating and the impacts they have on workers and business owners, she said.

“I want to help our community as a whole,” she said. “There are issues that everyone can agree on ... So what do we do about it?”

Even with the public service work she does through state boards and her work with Herrell’s, she remains as humble as ever.

When approached to be featured in Hampshire Life, she responded, “Me? Really? You couldn’t find anyone more interesting?”

Taking over

Five years ago, Herrell took full ownership of the iconic ice cream shop on Old South Street that now has her distinctive stamp. She took over from her ex-husband Steve Herrell who retired after 34 years of running day-to-day operations of Herrell’s, the ice cream shop he opened in 1980.

The day she took over on January 1, 2014, the business began the process of accepting credit cards instead of being cash-only. Smoothies returned to the menu and the store expanded its baked good offerings, which are all made in-house.

In 2016, the store underwent a major renovation that took six weeks to complete, and it involved moving the counter to the other side of the store, redesigning the floor plan and building a kitchen in the store’s former loading dock.

“The renovation was my dream,” she said. “I wanted to make sure it was handicap accessible, and I wanted to make everything on premises. We bake and do ice cream cakes and I didn’t want to rely on another company for that.” 

Early ice cream days

The story of Herrell’s ice cream begins in Somerville during 1973. Steve Herrell opened Steve’s Ice Cream and introduced a new concept to the ice cream world: adding small bits of candy bars into rich, creamy ice cream, an innovation that revolutionized how people eat ice cream to this day. Sure, it may seem common these days to find chocolate bars infused into pints of ice cream, but that began at Steve’s. 

Aspiring ice cream makers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield visited Steve’s in the early 1970s to learn about his rich and creamy product before opening their own business in Burlington, Vermont, called Ben & Jerry’s, now a household name across the country. 

When Steve Herrell decided to open an ice cream store in Northampton in September 1980 — under a different name, this time called Herrell’s Ice Cream — Judy Udes (her last name at the time) worked upstairs at a jewelry boutique in Thornes Marketplace where Heavenly Chocolate is today. 

In the spring of 1983, she had just graduated from Hampshire College where she studied science and learning disabilities. She grew up in New Jersey as an avid lover of the sciences — her father was a chemist and mother a biologist. She enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s science education graduate school program, studying the genetic differences in the brains of people with dyslexia, a condition she had previously been diagnosed with. 

Over the summer, Steve Herrell would walk upstairs to “make believe he was interested in jewelry,” Judy Herrell recalls, and one day he asked her out to breakfast. “It was fun, very unassuming, pretty surprising date and we just hit it off.”

While studying for an education degree the two began dating, and before long, she began working at Herrell’s Ice Cream in an unofficial capacity, helping to develop flavors, with marketing as well as serving the occasional scoop of ice cream. 

“We got along real well,” she said of the many who would later become her husband. The two remain friends to this day, and Steve Herrell provides technical assistance every now and then. “We started to date exclusively after a little while, and I would be in the store all the time. He would bounce recipe ideas off me, and he would talk to me about management and PR stuff. At first, it was sort of untraditional.” 

Steve Herrell recalls Judy Herrell’s contributions to Herrell’s Ice Cream as rather immediate. 

“Right away she started having input on flavors — not just ideas — but also testing,” he said. “She was very much into developing flavors.” 

She had attention to detail, especially when it came to ingredients and flavors. These days, “you can’t get black raspberries on the East Coast anymore,” she said, adding that you can, but they are simply inferior to those grown on the West Coast. 

The black raspberries used for Herrell’s ice cream come from farms in Washington and Oregon which are turned to preserves at Blake Hill in Vermont. “It’s a six- to eight-week process, right as the growing season is harvested,” she said. 

By 1984, the pair was living together and they decided to get married. Judy Herrell continued contributing in an unofficial capacity to Herrell’s Ice Cream while working at the jewelry store in Thrones and completing her master’s degree in education. She also worked as an instructor for the Center for Counseling and Academic Development at UMass where she earned the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1987. 

After completing her master of education at UMass in 1986, it became clearer and clearer that her career path would diverge from education and into the ice cream business. 

“By ‘85, I was clearly there,” she said. Steve Herrell had purchased Mr. Frosty on Route 9 in Hadley and called it Twin Teddy’s, where they offered soft serve ice cream. The intention was for her to run the store, but after she got pregnant with their daughter Jessye in 1987, she could no longer manage the store. Her plans to pursue a doctorate in education were also abandoned. 

Jessye Herrell is currently engaged and living in Brooklyn. She works for Tech Kids Unlimited, a non-profit teaching computer science and technology to children, especially to those with learning disabilities. 

In November of 1991, Judy Herrell began working full-time at a film photography store on Main Street called Iris Photo & Digital, and she would spend her nights at Herrell’s Ice Cream. She would also spend her weekends working in real estate with Borowski Real Estate. By the early ‘90s, she began to be on the ice cream store’s payroll while still working at Iris until 2008, managing both the front end and film development lab. 

Working several jobs at once is something she has grown accustomed to since her days in high school when she would teach dancing lessons, work at a jewelry store and at a cookie factory. In college, she worked at Hampshire College’s farm center and at the admissions office during her first semester. 

“Hyperactivity has a lot to do with it,” she said. “Chaotically ambitious,” is how her father put it. 

All the while, her work at Herrell’s continued. She described her working relationship with Steve Herrell as needing unanimous approval on decisions for them to come to pass at the ice cream store. 

“We worked together and lived together, which is not a good idea for most people,” she said. Ideas such as accepting credit cards and making ice cream cakes were not implemented until she took the reigns. 

“Then I guess we realized we were better best friends than husband and wife, which happens.” In 2000, Judy Herrell and Steve Herrell amicably divorced. The two went out to dinner after filing their divorce papers, and she continued working at the ice cream store. 

In June 2008, Judy Herrell became the president of Herrell’s Development Corporation, which manages the hot fudge sales to distributors, grocery stores, franchises and wholesale operations. Her involvement from sounding board to central figure in operations seemed like a “natural progression,” Steve Herrell said. 

“Whenever we weren’t working, we were raising our daughter or talking about the ice cream business,” he said.

Although Judy Herrell had technically been 50-50 partners with Steve Herrell since the 1990s, most people outside of Herrell’s hardly knew of her involvement with the ice cream store. She recalls a publication referring to her as simply “Steve’s wife” when describing her as the co-owner of the store and completely neglecting to include her actual name. 

“I didn’t have an identity,” she said. “I called it the wife syndrome. For years I was referred to as Steve’s wife, I wasn’t referred to as Judy.” 

Passing on her knowledge

Even as Judy Herrell has taken full ownership of Herrell’s, she has never lost sight of her calling as an educator, of particular importance to her since she faced many challenges of her own growing up with dyslexia. 

Typically, she will tutor up to four students a year, often her own employees, to improve their studying skills. 

“I teach kids that work for me if they want to learn how to study better and faster and retain information,” she said, but she takes it a step further. In her decades working at Herrell’s, she’s made connections with local businesses and organizations and has helped her employees gain a footing in their desired professional careers. 

“I honestly understand that not everyone is going to stay in the ice cream business,” she said. “I figure if I can get an employee for three years I am doing very well. I tell them, ‘I don’t expect you to stay forever. If you are looking for a career position, let me know.’”

This past year, she helped her former employee Kelly Niland, 22, land an internship at Historic Northampton. Niland worked at Herrell’s since the summer of 2017 until this past May and studied communications and sociology at UMass Amherst. 

“Going into my last semester at UMass, I wanted a different type of experience,” said Niland, who had completed all her requirements and only had credits left to fulfill. After talking to Herrell about her interest in doing an internship, Herrell spoke to members of the Northampton Historical Society who happened to be looking for someone to help them with upcoming exhibits. 

But Herrell’s work didn’t stop there. She was a reference for Niland for an internship at Full Circle Adoption in Northampton, another experience that set her up for her current position at a non-profit in Worcester as a provider in the behavior health field. 

“Judy is really invested in her employees’ personal growth,” Niland said. “She likes to help out when asked and once asked for help, she is super engaged and super helpful to meet your goals if she can in anyway.” 

Herrell credits her propensity to help her employees — especially those who feel like they’ve given up on their goals — because she was once in their shoes. 

At the age of 13, she was kicked out of a grammar school in her home state of New Jersey for what the school classified as “attitude and discipline problems,” she now recalls with a laugh. 

“I was ready to give up,” she said. “I was done. Nobody could figure out why I couldn’t read and why you couldn’t read my handwriting and it was difficult.” 

It would be another five years before Judy Herrell was diagnosed with dyslexia, but she said a teacher named Paul Osmere at her new public school in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, gave her a second chance when she was in seventh grade. 

“He was kind and he was generous with his time and he was helpful,” she said. “He was my favorite teacher I ever had.” 

It was not until Herrell began applying to colleges that an admissions officer realized she had a learning disability. After three applications to a local community college, the officer called her into his office and asked her to read the age on the application. 

“Eighteen,” she said, looking at the officer somewhat dumbfounded. He handed the application back to her. 

“No,” he said. “You wrote 81. And I think I know what’s wrong with you. I think you have something called dyslexia.” 

It was the first time she had heard the word, and a test confirmed she had the learning disability. 

Letters such as “p,” “q,” “b,” and “d” continue to challenge her as they all appear very similar to her and she can get them confused. She chuckled when she mentioned how she keeps an alphabet tucked in her desk to help her whenever she needs it. 

But that doesn’t seem to slow her down. She still manages to balance owning a business, tutoring employees and being involved in the larger community. 

“Learning for me was a real chore, and I learn in a different way than other people learn,” she said. 

As for losing the occasional employee when helping them pursue their dream careers, she said, “Do I lose great employees that way? All the time. Is it the right thing to do? Yeah, it’s the right thing to do.” 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.

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