Who’s crazier…us for opening the first day of winter, or everyone coming for ice cream in this weather?”
Winnipeg’s newest spot for cool treats was born out of the warmth of the South Osborne neighbourhood. Despite the frigid weather that greeted their new business, Joseph Chaeban and Zainab Ali opened Chaeban Ice Cream on the official first day of winter in 2017. Offering deliciously different desserts, the couple has been overwhelmed by the warm response of the community.
“It’s been amazing, and so nice seeing people come in, especially with the cold weather,” Ali said. “Who’s crazier…us for opening the first day of winter, or everyone coming for ice cream in this weather?!”.
The 1,000-square-foot shop can seat about 30 customers and the couple hope to add coffee to the menu in the near future. The shop also features a 1,000-square-foot plant in the back of the property, where the ice cream is made from scratch with the majority of the ingredients being locally sourced.
“You see how much support people starting businesses get in this community and how much encouragement there is. People want to see you succeed.” This entrepreneurial couple is also recognizing the local support, and giving back more than just tasty treats.
Setting new roots in Winnipeg’s welcoming community
As a dairy scientist and second-generation cheesemaker, Joseph specializes in European-style cheeses. Having Lebanese roots, he has lived in Canada since he was a child, while Zainab emigrated from Syria about 12 years ago.
In 2015, the couple moved to Winnipeg from Hamilton when Joseph took a job as Head Cheesemaker at Santorini Dairies. And while he had been offered good employment opportunities at dairy companies in other Canadian cities, Winnipeg quickly became home.
“The main reason we stayed in Winnipeg is because of this community. It’s a huge part of this place,” Joseph said of the new business. “We really didn’t want to leave. We gained so many brothers and sisters, and then Zainab’s family came (to Winnipeg), and family members are working here with us.”
The couple got a real sense of the community’s spirit as the grassroots South Osborne Syrian Refugee Initiative came together over the last couple years to help their family. This local initiative helped sponsor 13 members of Ali’s family so they could immigrate to Canada and escape war-ravaged Syria. Joseph and Zainab said this generosity inspired them to give back to the community.
“We’re trying to put love into what we’re doing — like we received from these people in the community,” Ali said. “We want to give them the best of the best.”
How shawarma turned to ice cream
But the ice cream shop wasn’t originally in the cards.
Joseph had first considered opening a Lebanese-style shawarma restaurant. His friend and now business partner, Darryl Stewart, convinced him to take up the craft of ice cream making. After all, it was the perfect business to take over the space at the corner of Osborne Street and Don Avenue — formerly occupied by Banana Boat ice cream.
“Darryl knew my background and asked me if I’d be interested in doing something with ice cream,” Joseph recalled. “So I said to Zainab, ‘forget Shawarma!’.”
Darryl, who was also involved in the South Osborne Syrian Refugee Initiative, also had a lot of experience to offer as an entrepreneur, as the owner of local company Ibex Payroll.
“He really cares about this neighbourhood and has roots here,” Joseph said. “He wanted the best for this place.”
Must-taste ice cream creations with Middle Eastern inspiration
The move to ice cream proved brilliant, and the flavours they developed were just as wonderful.
To start, they knew they had to look back to their roots in the Middle East for one of their flavours — Abir al Sham. Based on a famous flavour that originated at the Bakdash ice cream parlour in Damascus, Syria, the ice cream is made with rose water, orange blossom water, vanilla, orchid root powder, ricotta cheese, pistachios and cashews.
“If we have an ice cream shop and we don’t make that ice cream, who are we?” Joseph said, laughing.
It’s also a labour of love. The couple develops all of the shop’s 14 premium ice cream flavours themselves — Zaiban creates the taste profiles and Joseph works on the technical side to perfect them. With his cheese-making background, it’s also no surprise that cheese finds its way into several of the shop’s current ice cream flavours, like Prairie Barry (made with ricotta cheese) and Plain Jane featuring cottage cheese and pure vanilla bean.
“I thought it would be really cool to add cheese, or sour cream,” Joseph said. “This is where my knowledge came in — to make our product a bit more exotic. I’ve done product development all my life. There’s lots of things I’ve created that worked, but it’s not usually the first time you succeed — you have to keep trying.”
Chaeban says he plans to make and use Middle Eastern style cheeses like halloumi and maybe also a goat cheese for an Easter-themed ice cream. He also makes his own coconut milk ricotta for the dairy-free Glen Coconut flavour, because he simply couldn’t find a worthy product on the market that would provide the richness he was aiming for.
It’s that attention to detail and quality that drives both Zaiban and Joseph when it comes to their products — from importing pricey orchid root powder from Turkey (used as the binder in the Abir al Sham ice cream) to scraping those vanilla beans for the exquisitely simple Plain Jane vanilla.
They also put time and care into creating caramel sauce for the Salty Carl flavour, which is Ali’s favourite. And to top it off, all Chaeban Ice Cream’s products are about 13 to 16 per cent cream, pushing it into the territory of premium ice cream.
“We’re so excited about making it all from scratch, with the highest quality ingredients we can find. We’re making it the real way like it was done in the beginning.”
Sourcing local ingredients
The idea of community also factors into Chaeban Ice Cream’s ingredient sourcing as they work to build strong relationships with local farms, producers and artisans.
“If there’s any way we can help support local suppliers, we will,” Joseph said.
In addition to milk from Grenkow Dairy Farms in Stonewall, Chaeban sources beans from Winnipeg’s Dogwood Coffee and honey from rooftop hives operated by Beeproject Apiaries, just up Osborne Street. They also have plans to purchase strawberries from the Steinbach area and other produce from South Osborne Permaculture Commons.
“Whatever we use, when it’s in season, we’re going to try getting from Manitoba farms,” he said. “It’s a big thing for us.”
As for the dairy itself, Chaeban Ice Cream goes through the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, adhering to the rules of milk in the province. Then, they single source the milk from Grenkow Dairy Farms. Joseph explained that working with a local producer helps them build and maintain a strong business relationship.
“Grenkow Dairy produces about 3,000 litres per day and we’re only taking a very small amount — maybe 100 litres a week. But he loved our story and wanted to be involved with us. I know how much hard work they do, why wouldn’t I want to partner with them?”
Finding the right financing partner
His business partner, Darryl, also referred the couple to Assiniboine Credit Union Community Finance Centre Account Manager, Bill Dinsdale. It’s there that they found additional support for the budding business’s financial needs.
“Darryl has had great experiences with ACU and said they really aim to help local businesses,” Joseph explained. “They got behind us and it’s been a very good relationship.
“I told Bill on one day’s notice that we were opening, and he was on holidays, too, but he was here to support us on opening day.”
Moving forward is more than just desserts
The future is looking great for ice cream sales and their local community. The couple actively supports neighbourhood and city charity events, and is working hard to keep Chaeban Ice Cream environmentally friendly.
On the environmental side, the shop is using glass jars for its retail ice cream to cut down on waste. Customers can wash and return a jar to get $1 back. And their staff members regularly clean up the surrounding neighbourhood to a radius of at least 150 metres around the shop.