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Tom's is still serving soft-serve on the Queensway, but you can now get the classic cones without the pilgrimage
Toronto Pillars is NOW’s new series profiling longstanding legacy businesses that make the city what it is. Have a suggestion? Email me (select Life from the drop-down).
There’s nothing quite as timeless as a frosty soft-serve cone on a hot summer day. That might be why soft-serve has taken over Toronto’s ice cream landscape, swirling it with modern takes like cereal, matcha and chimney cones.
But there’s one spot on the Queensway that doesn’t need to look backwards to hit a nostalgic note – it’s been doling out cones the same way since 1969. Mostly. You can order it for delivery now, and there’s a secret menu you’ll only know if you follow them on Instagram.
“Social media has definitely helped, especially during the pandemic,” says co-owner Guido Di Piazza. “But it’s not why people have been coming here for so many years.”
It’s still as popular as ever, garnering lines down the block. In a lot of ways, Tom’s Dairy Freeze feels like a time capsule. It’s the old-school sign and colourful cones that have turned it into a popular Instagram destination.
If there’s one type of business that feels pandemic-proof, it’s ice cream. But Tom’s Dairy Freeze has felt the creep of the TikTok and UberEats era as much as any other restaurant, and it’s made strides to modernize without abandoning its classic charm.
“Our ice cream has always been the same,” says Di Piazza, noting that some businesses use words like “cones” or “ice milk dessert” because their product doesn’t fit the definition. “[With us], it’s real cream. We run it at 10.5 per cent – high butter fat, the way ice cream should be made.
“Our milkshakes are made with homo milk, not the soya-based oil mix that a lot of other places use to make them thick. We keep it simple, but it’s the real deal.”
Di Piazza and his brother-in-law Sebastian Distefano took over the business 19 years ago from family friends, which included the titular Tom. He was only 21 then and just graduating college.
He’s still working there, swirling cones 15 hours a day for about five days a week. It’s how he forges relationships with regulars, he says, which is the most important part of the business.
He’s only in his early 40s, but he’s seen customers grow up and get married. He’s known one server since she was a baby. Original owner Tom’s niece Toula has been working there for 36 years – she’s semi-retired but still comes in a couple of days a week.
Their original soft-serve was very simple, and the hard ice cream had only three flavours – now there are between 20 and 25 at any given time. Sweet Jesus has exploded and expanded by Frankensteining tall soft-serve cones with things like cotton candy and birthday cake. Di Piazza is reluctant to comment on specific ice cream spots other than his own, but he admits Sweet Jesus was probably inspired by Tom’s – not him, but his customers.
“They’d come in and ask us ‘Can you dip it in this? Can you roll it in that?’” he says. “So I said, if the customers want it, let’s give it to them. That’s how we ended up with all these funky flavours with Reese’s and Smarties and Skor – we basically just listened to what people were telling us.”
That’s also how they got the ghost location on Ossington, operating out of Noble Market, a shipping company that has pivoted to e-commerce during the pandemic.
Tom’s is a seasonal business, so it was already closed for a couple of months when the first COVID lockdown hit in March 2020. It typically opens around March break, which was rapidly approaching. Di Piazza had a decision to make.
“I honestly couldn’t even sleep when the pandemic started,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’ I started thinking of ways to get our product out there.”
Grabbing ice cream (like going to a drive-in movie) is a classic summer activity that’s very COVID-safe, which is why it’s been attracting especially huge lineups over the last few weeks. But we didn’t really know that in March, when the science about the rarity of outdoor transmission wasn’t as clear as it is now. So Di Piazza started experimenting with a delivery menu for the first time in Tom’s five decades of existence.
“I started making a lot of product just to give it away,” he says. “I gave it to friends and family, to all the parents at my kids’ school. I wanted to see how long it would take to melt, how it tasted, how it travelled. I did that for two months.”
He invested in a special blast freezer to flash freeze the ice cream. You can use a regular ice cream freezer, but there’s a chance of extra softness or ice crystals.
Now, you can order plastic containers of soft-serve in the classic flavours (chocolate, vanilla, twist) or layered with dips or candy, topped with sprinkles or nuts. Or you can get the toppings and dips on the side, take it to a park and make a Tom’s sundae or cone yourself. You can order for pickup on their website or delivery through the big delivery apps.
Di Piazza says he can see on the online platform Tom’s is still attracting regulars. Some repeat customers had ordered 20-30 times over the past year. But some on social media were saying they’d love to order, but they were outside the delivery radius.
Tom’s Dairy Freeze tends to cater to Etobicoke regulars or those willing to make the pilgrimage, but this was a chance for downtowners to get the ice cream on the regular. So they opened the satellite location. The ice cream is still made on the Queensway, but flash frozen and shipped and stored at Noble Market, where couriers (or Trinity Bellwoods scenesters) can then pick it up.
“This past year and a half has been tough for a lot of places,” Di Piazza says. “Some businesses have adapted or changed, some haven’t and they’re struggling. We’ve adapted, but it never would have worked unless the community accepted us. So I’m super grateful to be where I am.”