Zainab Ali and her husband Joseph Chaeban moved from Hamilton, Ontario to Winnipeg when Joseph, a dairy scientist, became plant manager at a local cheese production facility. When they and their children were settled, Zainab and Joseph decided they needed to help Zainab’s extended family, precariously spread across Lebanon and Turkey, relocate to a safer new home. In 2015, a local group of like-minded individuals in their neighbourhood came together to combat the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. The South Osborne Syrian Refugee Initiative (or SOSRI) sponsored more than a dozen of Zainab’s relatives.
To thank the community for its warm welcome and also to provide employment for her arriving family, the couple decidedto capitalize on Joseph’s wealth of dairy experience. After much planning, some setbacks, and a great deal of hard work, Zainab and Joseph—along with Darryl Stewart, an original member of SOSRI—opened Chaeban Ice Cream, Winnipeg’s first made-from-scratch, super-premium ice cream shop.
Chaeban Ice Cream first opened its doors at the end of 2017. More than five years later, Chaeban products are sold locally and regionally in more than a dozen stores, including neighbourhood grocery stores, Safeway, and Sobey’s. And the original ice cream shop remains a beacon of friendly (and delicious) comfort.
Makers are passionate, and customers are equally passionate about supporting them. The passion for handmade comes from all directions: from people who have been on the scene for years, from brand new starts-ups, and from customers.
Darryl Stewart, the third business partner in Chaeban Ice Cream, is also CNEO (Chief Nerd and Executive Officer) of The Inclusion System and IBEX Payroll. He was part of the group that sponsored Zainab’s family. Entrepreneurship and community are part of his makeup, but he wasn’t expecting ice cream. “Zainab and Joseph wanted to stay and live in the community where SOSRI made things happen. I got caught up in that, and have been their partner ever since. We all learn from each other.”
“It’s what’s different about our ice cream that makes it special,” he says. “Zainab and Joseph, their passion for what they do, are at the heart of that. Joseph’s skills as a dairy scientist meant we developed the highest quality ice cream base we can make. There’s not a lot of air in it, but there is a lot of cream. It has the feel of an old fashioned ice cream.”
The other half of the equation is the distinct flavours Chaeban has on offer. “That’s Zainab,” Darryl explains. “She makes the most unique flavours. They appeal to international expats and longtime Canadians alike.” Like “Donnie Darcocoa”, in which a hint of coffee gives dark chocolate and cocoa a little extra smoulder. Or “LaLa Lemon”, which is the closest you’ll come to lemon meringue in ice cream form. Or “Abir Al Sham”, Zainab’s iteration of a classic Syrian flavour, starring rose and orange blossom, pistachios and cashews, ricotta cheese and orchid root powder.
Packed in environmentally responsible glass jars, which can be returned to the store for a deposit, those original flavours have taken them far. In July 2022, Chaeban was even named the best ice cream in Canada at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (the Royal takes place in November, but moved several of their food competitions to the summer for more appropriate tasting and judging). Chaeban entered in four categories, placing in all of them. Their “Rocky Ricardo”, in which almonds, marshmallows and milk chocolate are tied together with praline sauce, won first place in the ‘chocolate with inclusions category’. And their “Salty Carl”, with a decadently rich caramel sauce cooked right into the ice cream base, won both first place in the ‘other’ category and the Grand Champion award.
Salty Carl is one of Chaeban’s most popular flavours. “We make the caramel from scratch, every day” says Darryl. And by ‘make’, he means hundreds and hundreds of litres of it. Producing Salty Carl is a three-day affair: one day for the caramel sauce, a second to prepare the ice cream, and a third to freeze the two together properly. Winning the Grand Champion award, which came as a wonderful surprise, made all those hours over the stove making caramel absolutely worth it.
Those are not the only awards Chaeban has brought home. In 2019, Chaeban Ice Cream was awarded “Foodie of the Year” by Western Living magazine. And last November, Joseph was named one of CBC Manitoba’s Future 40. Every two years, CBC Manitoba honours 10 people under 40 making a difference in their communities: entrepreneurs, organizers, and scientists enacting change, who are working to make life better for everyone in the province.
And in late 2022, Darryl was awarded one of Manitoba’s Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medals, an accolade bestowed on individuals who strive to improve the lives of those around them. Nominated by his MLA (and Leader of the Opposition) Wab Kinew, Darryl received his award as a leader who works daily in the service of his community.
Over the last several years, Winnipeg has seen a strong shift in preference for an artisanal, handmade approach. Chaeban is happy to be part of that segment. “Makers are passionate,” says Darryl, “And customers are equally passionate about supporting them. The passion for handmade comes from all directions: from people who have been on the scene for years, from brand new start-ups, and from customers.”
On Chaeban’s side, their dedication extends to sourcing only the freshest, most accessible local ingredients. Chaeban pasturizes its own milk for their ice cream base, and obtains fruit from local growers. They have also developed partnerships with other local makers and products, partly as a fortuitous sort of accident.
Like most food operators, Chaeban was closed for much of the early pandemic. To survive, they created a local ice cream club. “The club had an overwhelming pickup when we first announced it, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic,” Darryl relates. “The welcome it got was heartwarming. Lots of people wanted to support us.”
Although smaller now that the shop has reopened, the ice cream club has carried on, buoyed by the continued support of a devoted local contingent. It has changed along the way, from strictly ice cream delivery to a wider food community club. “Frozen foods can be tough to deliver, especially in summer. Some of our customers reached out to us, saying ‘If you’re coming all this way anyway, why don’t you bring something else along with you?’”
When ice cream club members reached out to Chaeban with suggestions and recommendations, Darryl reached out to other local food makers and providers. “We now deliver local products from eight other companies. Pasta, cookies, frozen pizza, honey—even berries from local farmers.” Not only is it good business, it’s another way to strengthen the community as a whole.
The club isn’t the only innovative business strategy Chaeban has adopted in response to the pandemic and other business pressures. Winters in Winnipeg aren’t prime ice cream selling months, so creativity is in order. This winter, the Chaeban team decided to focus on an appropriate theme, inviting their customers to ‘Come Into the Warm’.
“We want to make the store a warm place for people to visit,” says Darryl, “As rich and comfortable as we can make it. That goes for decor, for service, for the menu. We want to make a wonderful experience for people.” After years of closures, restrictions and working from home, people are eager to have a snug and satisfying place to go. Chaeban puts board games out on all the tables, inviting guests to relax and have fun during their visits.
They also warmed up their menu, adding baked goods and a special centerpiece feature: hot chocolate. It’s more complicated than it sounds, but remember the source is ice cream. “We experimented, and learned how to turn our ice cream into hot chocolate. Now customers get to choose half a scoop of their favourite flavour, then we steam it with milk and cocoa.” The new pastry treats and hot chocolate have been eagerly snatched up by guests. Not to mention this current winter has been unseasonably warm by Winnipeg standards. “That’s good for ice cream sales.”
Necessity is the Mother of Innovation
Another major innovation was driven by a pressure felt by all food operators coast to coast: namely the steep rise in the price of ingredients. “We actually had to raise our prices over the summer. Dairy costs have gone up a lot.” Milk, which Chaeban sources solely through the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, has a non-negotiable price. And that price has risen steeply.
But Chaeban had a secret weapon: Joseph’s experience as a dairy scientist and second generation cheese maker. “One of our responses to the pandemic closures was to start making cheese; that has been great.” Chaeban has a mini dairy plant, which not only provides meaningful, full-time employment, but also makes the business financially viable all year round.
Although the focus of the shop is ice cream, of course, there’s also a fridge full of artisanal cheese selections. Darryl’s personal favourite is a soft, creamy feta. “It’s fairly unique. The taste is very similar to that of a firmer feta, but you can easily spread it on crackers or bread. Delicious!” In addition to being stocked in local stores, their cheese has recently made its way onto Sobey’s shelves. “We’ve recently started being distributed in Western Canada: Eastern Canada is up next.”
Where the Heart Is
Chaeban is an excellent match for Winnipeg’s eclectic and exciting food scene. “We’re a cultural mosaic here,” says Darryl. “Winnipeg has a wide variety of foods from around the world on offer, made by the people who come from those places.” Winnipeg is also well supplied with eager and adventurous diners. “People here are curious, interested, and very supportive. It’s like an extension of Folklorama. Maybe it’s because of our long winters. We like to frequent new places, try new things.”
Even in times of economic uncertainty, Winnipeg reaches out for the new and novel. Darryl is aware that the road ahead will probably see them facing more challenges, but Chaeban is looking forward with the same optimistic, hardworking attitude that brought them this far. “As it stands, on the store side, we’re a treat. And ice cream is a cheaper treat than some.”
But the root of Chaeban’s appeal doesn’t rely on the price tag: it’s their sense of welcome, and their all-pervasive passion. “I think if you’re committed to doing a good job, people will come back.”