Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser
Famous dessert maker ensures the name lives on with another quality local firm
Ice cream is my passion and my art and I will always be here to serve the people of Airdrie and other nearby towns for as long as they continue to love the Capocci Man
To generations of families, he is known simply as The Capocci Man, the purveyor of delicious, authentic, Italian ice cream that Scots and their sweet tooths grew to love.
At the age of 86, Ernest is the last Capocci Man, and he has sold the family business to Albert Bartlett, another local business with a long history.
But Ernest has no intention of hanging up his apron just yet and, on Christmas Eve, he will be in the ice cream factory in Airdrie, as usual, mixing milk and sugar to make fresh ice cream for the queues of people lining down the street outside.
But the Capocci story begins many decades ago.
Ernest inherited the famous name from his father, Vincent, who first came to Airdrie in 1926 and set up a small business making ice cream in the family kitchen.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Italian families tired of the droughts, famine and poverty in their country sought new lives abroad and many came to the UK, where the Glasgow area was the third most popular choice to settle.
Vincent Capocci, accompanied by his older brother, made the dangerous journey through a Europe at war from Cassino in southern Italy to Airdrie.
Along with other Italian families, with names many of us will recognise – such as Spiteri, Nutini and Macari, the Capoccis were able to find safety in Scotland.
In 1926, Vincent got married and moved into a former pub at 29 Flowerhill Street, Airdrie, where initially they sold fish and chips alongside the now famous ice cream.
Ernest Capocci was born in the family home in 1936 where mother, father and two sisters lived together in what he refers to as the “small room and kitchen”, which is now the area where the ice cream is produced.
As a young boy, he keenly watched his father making the ice cream and serving the customers.
Almost a century later, this business remains a Lanarkshire institution and still continues today from the original site.
Pride of place on the walls of the Flowerhill Street shop there is a diploma from the Ice Cream Association of Britain and Ireland awarded to Vincent Capocci at the Open Competition of the Ice Cream Industry at The National Dairy Show in Olympia, London, in 1937, for the “High Standard of Quality of Ices”.
Following World War II and the development of the modern housing estates supporting the baby boom generation, Vincent decided to take his ice cream to the customer and bought his first van in 1948.
After finishing school and then completing National Service, Ernest returned to Airdrie in 1956 and took over the business as his parents enjoyed their well-earned retirement.
Not happy with simply continuing to run the business as it had been previously, Ernest set out on a journey to learn about the science of ice cream making.
At the age of 22, the young Capocci spent a month at the University in Maryland in the USA, then went to Aarhus in Denmark before spending three months at Auchencruive Dairy School in Ayrshire.
Shortly after, Ernest and Eleanor married and moved into another home, allowing the property on Flowerhill Street to be fully converted to an ice cream factory.
Over the next few years, the business developed quickly.
The fleet of vans was increased to 50, covering the whole of central Scotland, and the soft ice cream was made fresh in the van.
Families would be alerted to the approaching ice cream van with the tune of The Happy Wanderer from the Stargazers.
They were nicknamed the Fresco Kids as the word Fresco (Italian for Fresh) was printed on the vans.
Ever the entrepreneur, Ernest also opened four ice cream parlours.
The first was a 40-seater parlour in Airdrie, a second 80-seater opened in Airdrie, followed by one in Glasgow
and the largest 100-seater in Hamilton, which traded until 2002.
The local customers delighted in their sundaes, knickerbocker glories and milk shakes ordered from the Capocci Girls – a sought-after job in the 1960s!
In 1962, Capocci’s was one of the first private food companies to advertise on TV, educating the watching public in the correct pronunciation of the name “Ka Po Chi” although many locals to this day still say “Ka Poh Key”!
Ernest admits: “Because my father was from abroad, he was afraid to tell people and upset them that they were saying the name wrong, so he just left it alone.”
Through the 60s and 70s, the business continued to grow and was joined by staff who have only recently retired, testament to the loyalty inspired by Ernest.
Of the 14 ice cream parlours in Airdrie in the early 20th century, only Capocci’s survives today.
The recipe for the famous ice cream is a closely guarded secret, although Ernest does share some clues.
He says the ingredients must be the best and freshest, in properly balanced proportions, and the freezer must be set at the correct temperature (not too cold).
Perhaps most important of all – don’t try to have too many flavours reducing the throughput and compromising the freshness.
By far and away the most popular flavour is vanilla, which is also the personal favourite of Ernest himself.
The popularity of Capocci ice cream speaks for itself. From celebrity chef James Martin, who featured Ernest and his ice cream on his show recently, to the former employee who flies a two-litre tub to her Stornoway home every year, once tasted it is never forgotten.
In 2018, the Capocci Man brand was purchased by Albert Bartlett, another Airdrie business, founded in 1948, which shares the same understanding of quality and freshness in its own brands. Albert Bartlett will ensure future Lanarkshire generations are able to continue to enjoy the Capocci Man ice cream.
But Ernest has no plans to retire: “Ice cream is my passion and my art and I will always be here and about the place, to serve the people of Airdrie, Coatbridge, Motherwell and Hamilton for as long as they love the Capocci Man.”