When you’re lining up to buy a scoop of delicious ice cream from Dee Dee’s, your thought process may be no deeper than whether you should choose between Shaker Lemon, Buttered Almond or Mexican Chocolate. Dee Dee’s owner, Ditta Kasdan, however, is always thinking deeply about not only her product and how she can keep her dedicated followers’ taste buds stimulated and happy, but also about the social responsibility linked to operating a business in her neighbourhood and the world at large. Kasdan is a complicated lady who cares deeply about so much more than just creating the best scoops in the city. But let’s start this story with the ice cream.
Using locally-sourced, organic ingredients wherever possible, the ice cream makers at Dee Dee’s handcraft the cold stuff in small batches, creating absolutely divine finished products. Intensely creamy and smooth, every taste (and you should ask to sample several before settling on your chosen flavour) is heavenly, and from first lick, you’ll wonder how on earth you managed not to always come here for ice cream.
Kasdan loves incorporating more exotic ingredients and trying out new flavours, which is why you can rely on a rotating menu that incorporates unique combinations. But you’ll also find the old standards like vanilla and chocolate because the people who love those flavours are hardcore about them. “You can’t change those people,” says Kasdan. “One of the problems with bringing in new flavours is that all of a sudden it’s a flavour that a certain group of people loves, and they always have to have it! You can’t have everybody’s favourite all the time!”
When you taste the Dee Dee’s flavours, even the plainer ones such as good old vanilla, there’s a huge difference between them and store-bought ice cream. “When you use real ingredients, you don’t really have to do anything fancy; you get good food from good ingredients,” says Kasdan, who has been serving ice cream since 2004. What’s also vital is how fast you freeze the ice cream — the faster the freeze, the smaller the ice crystals and the smoother the product. Small batches and proper attention mean that the ice cream at Dee Dee’s is super smooth.
Kasdan has a background in teaching but always had a lot of entrepreneurial ideas and could never see herself staying in the field forever. “When we moved here when I was fourteen, from the States, the only ice cream in Halifax was Dairy Queen, and that hadn’t really changed by the time I was thinking about retiring as a teacher,” she says. “I saw this gap in the market and opened in Peggy’s Cove selling ice cream only in the summertime in a little ice cream window.” However, the season out at Peggy’s Cove is rather short, so Kasdan knew that if she was going to make a go of it, she’d have to find premises in the city.
When she found out that the location on Cornwallis Street was available, she was very happy. “I’ve always been drawn to mixed neighbourhoods. I’ve never felt like I was a Spring Garden Road type,” she explains. Affordability was key, and the proximity to the Halifax Common appealed even before the Oval was set up (a definite bonus to her business). It was really important to Kasdan that she became a part of her neighbourhood, and she has certainly achieved that. “We have a regular lunchtime crowd and people that come in every single day and sometimes even twice a day for coffee. My staff know them by name and what they want before they get in the door, and I love that about them.”
The building is pretty special to Kasdan, and the community, as it has always been a spot where people would naturally converge. “It used to be Pat’s Convenience store, run by the same couple for thirty years or more, and they sold things like rabbit; they had credit with everybody in the neighbourhood. It was a real community store. I always loved this building but I never imagined why they’d ever close,” she says. “But Pat died, and his wife couldn’t run it alone.” Kasdan moved in and now loves being part of this diverse neighbourhood (she lived on Creighton Street many years ago and had stayed connected to the area).
Because Nova Scotians don’t eat a lot of ice cream in the winter, Dee Dee’s serves up a lunchtime menu of (very good) burritos, soups, chili and baked goods. “There are the hardcore ones who will eat it all year round, but I could never survive on ice cream alone,” she says. “The other stuff keeps you going.” It is a menu that she likes to keep simple, despite the occasional suggestions from family members that she should branch out into other things and reports that a comedian doing a set at Gus’ Pub once mocked the limited range.
Now to the more serious stuff. Kasdan thinks deeply about how her business practices affect those not only in her community or neighbourhood, but also in the world at large, and she feels that more people need to do the same. “I’m becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of things,” she says, “and recognizing on a global scale it matters how I treat people far away.” By this Kasdan refers to the buying power she has as a business owner and how her actions can impact communities far away, potentially contributing to issues like climate change.
“My black beans come from Bolivia, so I’m affecting the social-economic situation in Bolivia depending on the kind of beans I buy and how I buy them. So even though I could pretend that I’m not related to those people, I am, and how I run my business impacts them, and they impact me in some way.” Ultimately, in order to run a business with a conscience, you have to look beyond just the bottom line and perhaps rethink the notion of what success is. Maybe endless growth and expansion isn’t what it should all be about.
“I try to run my business according to principals I believe in, trying to source ingredients from places where I know people are getting fair wages and the environment isn’t being decimated,” says Kasdan. Not that it is easy to do so. “I buy locally from farmers whenever I can, but we don’t grow lettuce in the winter in Nova Scotia. The reality is that it is near impossible to get frozen strawberries in Nova Scotia, but you can get cheap ones from Chile, and the ones that are frozen in Nova Scotia are imported from Chile,” she says, wishing that things were different. “As consumers we all make choices, and as business owners, we need to do that as well.”
What we all need to do, says Kasdan, is change the paradigm about business and not always look to be bigger both at a small business level and as a province. Like many Nova Scotians, Kasdan finds the government’s attitude about encouraging big business here somewhat ridiculous. “I employ 14 people over the summer and have never taken a penny from the government and have certainly never been offered a penny. Royal Bank just got $22 million, and we’re giving tax subsidies to Irving,” she says. “We all have to realize that something isn’t working. We all have to change. I do think there’s a growing public awareness about this.”
Kasdan also thinks deeply about what it means to run a business in this city, and in her neighbourhood, and how she as a business owner can affect change. On an immediately personal level, Kasdan believes that everybody working in our city deserves to have a living wage. “I know when there’s a question of raising the minimum wage, business owners are terrified because let’s face it: a lot of us are working our asses off. But it’s a really serious question: Is it fair that I make a living wage but someone who’s working for me doesn’t?”
And then there’s the matter of gentrification and hiring people who actually live in the community that Kasdan has chosen to open her business. “Local businesses aren’t hiring the people who live in this diverse community. I think that’s an issue that we also need to think about,” she says, adding that although she actively went out to hire two local youth last year, she doesn’t think that was enough, just a beginning.
“I don’t think it’s something we are actively avoiding doing. You just hire the people that walk through your door and have the right resumes,” Kasdan explains. “You can’t love the diversity without embracing the diversity in the sense of inclusion. I’m really hoping that with more publicity and awareness of this issue, change will start to happen in this community in terms of conversation and dialogue. It’s going to take a proactive effort, but local business owners are definitely starting to recognize and respond to this issue.” Kasdan sits on the board of the North End Business Association and says that it is something members have been talking about for a while.
Because Kasdan obviously cares about what she does, and the fact that she has a voice in this neighbourhood, means people are drawn to her. Sure, they may come for the ice cream, but you can’t help being attracted to and wanting to support someone who looks beyond their own profit margins while trying to make a living in a city that doesn’t always make it easy for its citizens to get by. Ditta Kasdan is a part of the north end community, and her passion to do good as well as serve up the best ice cream in the city makes frequenting Dee Dee’s a sound choice, whether you’re a vanilla person or have tastes as diverse as the neighbourhood her business sits in.
DEE DEE’S ICE CREAM
5668 CORNWALLIS STREET, HALIFAX