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Newcastle is front line in ice cream war

By Yvette Shapiro

Published 30/06/2015

Patricia Pell, owner of Cafe Mauds in Newcastle, watches Naomi Costly, Clara Wilson and Vicky Patterson enjoy their ice creams
Patricia Pell, owner of Cafe Mauds in Newcastle, watches Naomi Costly, Clara Wilson and Vicky Patterson enjoy their ice creams
Michael Nugent at the Nugelato ice cream shop
Simon Welby from Lick ice cream shop
Paul Tumelty of Morelli’s ice cream shop

Whipped, scooped, served in cones, sliders and cups, Newcastle is the undisputed ice cream capital of Northern Ireland.

But behind the gleaming display cabinets piled high with calorific confections there's a battle under way for the tastebuds of daytrippers, holidaymakers and locals.

When your family's been making ice cream for 85 years, you can call yourself an expert.

Michael Nugent is carrying on a tradition that was started by his great-grandfather John in 1930. The Strand Café still occupies its prime spot on Newcastle Promenade. It's run by his father Michael senior, and still sells the ice cream that's been winning medals since 1938.

But a couple of hundred yards away Michael junior and his fiancée Catriona Doherty have opened Nugelato, styled as an "ice cream boutique".

"Back in January, Catriona and I visited the Rimini Fiera, a huge ice cream trade show in Italy," said Michael. "That's where we got the inspiration for this new venture. I wanted to create something original and stylish, not just another shop selling cones."

It's a big investment and Michael is still hiring staff for the anticipated summer trade. But he has stiff competition - and it's just two doors away.

Lick Gelato, a sparkling white ice cream parlour, opened in time for the Irish Open at the end of May, creating eight jobs. It's a new venture for Simon Welby, who's been running the popular Café Crème in the town centre for the past nine years. He hopes to franchise the operation and isn't too worried about taking on the Nugent ice cream "empire" by setting up - literally - on their doorstep.

"You could say we're creating a bit of an ice cream hub here on the Promenade," said Simon. "The competition is healthy. We've both invested a lot and we're both giving people what they want, just in different ways. It's all about the wow factor."

Like Michael Nugent, he's making his own Italian-style gelato, after completing an Invest NI-backed course at Loughry College.

"I learned a lot about making ice cream," said Simon. "I came up with a rhubarb and vanilla ice cream, and lemon curd flavour. Those are really traditional Northern Ireland favourites and they've proved very popular in Lick."

The new parlours are trying to find a sweet spot for themselves against the competition offered by long-established brands like Café Maud's, a huge glass-fronted emporium overlooking the Prom. Maud's is a household name across Ireland and its customers are fiercely loyal: queues for its famous confections (particularly Pooh Bear) stretch out through the doors on many a sunny Saturday.

And at the other end of the town, the North Coast giant Morelli's has an outlet that scoops out gallons of the sugary stuff to customers attracted by the famous name and the award-winning taste. The franchise owner is Charlie Magennis, who also owns The Base café next door. If he doesn't get you with his ice cream, he'll lure you in with his cakes.

"We sell ice cream 364 days a year," said Charlie, as he stuffed a tub with a small mountain of multi-coloured scoops. The end result was larger than the head of the small boy buying the treat.

"We're lucky with our location here and it's a well-known brand."

And on the principle that you can never have too much of a good thing, Newcastle has yet more ice cream vendors: traditionalists can still beat a path to the small, locally-owned Graham's kiosk on Main Street, and not far from the Nugent family's Strand and Nugelato, there's the long-established Lido, offering Italian ices. If American style is more to your taste, there's Ben and Jerry's, also owned by Charlie. Back at Nugelato, Michael Nugent senior popped up from The Strand to see how the family dynasty was shaping up.

"I'm very proud of them," said Michael senior.

"I've been in this business all my life and I suppose I'm past innovation like this, but it's great to see Michael and Catriona striking out.

"People are flocking here in great numbers and the more the town can offer, the more they will come. People love ice cream and we've no shortage of that in this town."

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