Owen Norton

Right recipe leads to ice cream success
 
Two dairy farmers, a surplus of milk, and a bright idea were the right ingredients for an ice cream business to come to life in the early 1920s.
 
Owen Norton explains that his dad and uncle were the creators behind the famous Snowflake ice cream brand that was sold for more than 80 years throughout the West Coast.
 
Laurence Norton and his brother Wallace began dairy farming in Greymouth after World War One. Laurence had been working as an engineer on a ship at sea, while Wallace was a pilot recently returned from Britain.
 
Owen says that his dad and uncle would take their horse and cart into town, stocked with milk from their farm to sell to Greymouth locals.
 
“They ended up with a surplus of milk and thought it’d be a good idea to make some ice cream,” says Owen.
 
By 1922 Owen’s father and uncle were set up in the Riversdale dairy in Cobden, making Snowflake ice cream. The business took off and in the early 1930s, when demand started to rise, they moved Riversdale dairy to the family property at Coal Creek, after building a large factory, which is still standing today.
 
Tragedy struck the family in 1939, and Owen’s father and uncle passed away within months of each other, leaving 18-year-old Owen to run the family business with the help of his grandfather, his mother and her brother Arthur Carson.
 
In 1947, Riversdale dairy moved their milk production to a new milk treatment plant in Greymouth, which Arthur Carson managed at the time; and kept producing Snowflake ice cream from the Coal Creek factory, Owen says.
 
Owen had a knack for marketing and would go around the West Coast with his product, in the hopes of getting it sold in stores. His hard work paid off and, in the early days, Snowflake was sold throughout the West Coast.
 
Owen says the secret to success was simply getting out there and selling his product. “To be in this business you had to enjoy meeting people.”
 
He says the business had plenty of loyal West Coast customers throughout the years, some so loyal that they’d send Owen blank cheques and tell him to, “square up their bill”.
 
The business even expanded into ice-making, which they supplied to fishing boats, butchers, cargo ships, and retails fish shops; and they also became wholesalers for butter from the Inter-Wanganui dairy factory in Hari Hari.
 
Since taking over the business in 1947, Owen had to keep up with changing technology over the years and says refrigeration breakthroughs made life in an ice cream factory a lot easier.
 
“Refrigeration led to more efficiency. In the beginning, we had to use insulated bags to put the orders in, then we’d go out and deliver. By the end of a hot day some of the orders were pretty soft, until refrigerated trucks came to be” says Owen.
 
While the business had become successful, a difficult time came when the factory caught fire after being hit by lightning early one morning in 1994 - leaving the factory gutted. Owen helped supervise the rebuild of the factory, along with staff member Kevin Barlow.
 
“We had very loyal staff, and Kevin Barlow spent most of his life working for Snowflake, and when the business sold he was assistant manager at the time,” says Owen.
 
While the business was repaired, it didn’t operate from the factory for nearly a year.
The brand survived through the fire and continued to be popular throughout the South Island. Snowflake sold around 20 flavours and were distributing in Oamaru, Timaru, Blenheim, Christchurch, Invercargill, and into Countdown stores before selling the business to Development West Coast in 2008.

Despite the brand no longer in production, to this day Snowflake is an iconic West Coast brand, with most people remembering the great taste from a lick of hokey pokey or scoop of banana choc chip.