Get the scoop: The Hop expands to Black Mountain

Marla Hardee Milling
Special To The Black Mountain News

The owners of The Hop Ice Cream Cafe will open their fourth location on Friday, Dec. 7, just in time for Holly Jolly. They’ve bought Sweet! on Cherry Street from Walt and Sydney McDougald, who are retiring and moving to Virginia.

If you had asked Greg and Ashley Garrison, owners of The Hop, a few months ago if they had any plans to expand their ice cream business, the answer would have been a quick no.

Then Walt and Sydney casually mentioned they were selling their business. The Garrisons didn’t give it a second thought, but the seed had been planted. They felt they had their hands full operating The Hop Creamery in West Asheville, running two locations of The Hop Ice Cream Cafe on Merrimon Avenue in North Asheville and Haywood Road in West Asheville, and raising their two young children—Finn and Lily.

A couple of months passed before Greg and Walt ran into each other again.

Walt and Sydney McDougald, left, sold Sweet! on Cherry Street to Greg and Ashley Garrison, right, who will open The Hop Black Mountain on Dec. 7.

“I asked if he had sold his business. When he said no, I asked him ‘What does it entail? What all goes along with it?” said Greg. “It wasn’t premeditated. I hadn’t planned to ask him all these questions.”

As he listened, Greg said his gut instinct was “we have to do this.”

Taking over Sweet! on Cherry Street felt natural since they were already supplying it with The Hop ice cream.

Creating a Plan

He discussed the idea with Ashley and then they approached their general manager Gretchen Ledford, who has been with them for eight years. Since they wouldn’t be able to operate the store themselves while maintaining their other locations and a busy life with two young kids, Gretchen quickly agreed to open the store and ultimately train a new manager.

“We wouldn’t have sought out a store in Black Mountain,” said Greg, “But all of a sudden the opportunity was there and it made sense. From the time Ashley and I started discussing buying the business to the time we closed was three weeks. It was so perfect. The way Walt and Sydney have built their customer base and they way they operate as a business is very much like what we’ve done. They’re really great people and fit into the community well and they treat their customers really really well. Because of how they operated as a business, it was a decision we couldn’t ignore.”

One of the most notable changes the Garrisons plan to make is an expansion of hours at the Black Mountain location. It will be open 12-9 p.m. daily except for Tuesdays, but they will eventually open seven days a week.

Greg Garrison paints the inside of the The Hop Black Mountain, which will open on Dec. 7 for Holly Jolly.

They’ll also continue to carry the line of candy sold at Sweet! on Cherry Street until the current inventory runs out. After that, they’ll stick to their menu of intriguing ice cream flavors, including their number-one top seller Salted Caramel. They continually test new flavors and will also offer vegan and sugar-free varieties among the regular offerings.

At Holly Jolly, expect to see some of the holiday favorites like Peppermint Stick and Rum Raisin.

Bittersweet Decision

Sydney McDougald says while she and Walt look forward to building a house in a Richmond, Virginia agri-community, she will miss being part of Black Mountain. Her daughter and two grandkids live in Richmond, so she’ll have more time to spend with them.

Walt’s son and three grandkids live here so they’ll have plenty of reasons to visit the Black Mountain area and maintain ties with their friends and former customers.

“My daughter decided it was time for us to retire,” said Sydney. “She said she didn’t know any other 71-year-old woman that worked seven days a week.”

She said it was time to pass the business to someone younger and more energetic. Sydney thinks it’s a plus that the Garrisons will maintain longer hours (she and Walt closed at 5 p.m.) and promote the business frequently through social media, as they do for their Asheville locations.

The McDougalds first opened Sweet! on Cherry Street four years ago. They relocated to Black Mountain to take care of Walt’s aging parents. After they passed away, Walt and Sydney began to brainstorm ideas for opening a business.

Greg Garrison steps into the future home of The Hop Black Mountain, which will be open on Dec. 7 for Holly Jolly.

“Walt had worked for Mast General for awhile and he saw what kind of candy business they did in Asheville. He said it would be fun to open a candy store in Black Mountain,” said Sydney. “We watched and waited for a space to open up and this space opened up and we thought it was perfect. It just felt right. We did it and it was very successful. My tagline has always been: People enter as strangers and leave as friends. That’s how I’ve always run my business.”

The Inside Scoop

Greg and Ashley’s journey in the ice cream world began when they were students at UNCA. They began working for The Hop in 2003 when it was located in its Woolsey Dip location (now occupied by Yolo) beside Luella’s Barbecue on Merrimon Avenue.

When the owners decided to sell in 2008 after moving to the current location in a shopping center at the corner of Merrimon and Edgewood Road, Greg and Ashley made the plunge into business ownership. They quickly delighted customers with new flavors, vegan options, sugar-free options, community events, fundraisers, birthday parties, and lots of appreciation including free ice cream scoops for everyone on their business anniversaries and other special times throughout the year. They quickly expanded to open The Hop West in 2010 and followed that by opening their own Hop Creamery in 2015. In addition to making ice cream there, they have additional space for parties and also host Friday night flights to give customers a chance to check out new flavors.

They worked to build their wholesale account business and have about 40 accounts in Western North Carolina including Earthfare at Westgate, Gas Up in West Asheville, and many area restaurants, plus their ice cream is sold in What’s the Scoop in Erwin, Tennessee. Their largest wholesale account is the Ice Cream Deck in Burnsville and their biggest packaged wholesale account is their alma mater—UNCA.

The Hop booths are a frequent sight at a wide variety of special events throughout the region. They scoop ice cream at festivals, fairs, concerts, weddings, school events, and other places. They’re doing about 500 special events a year. They also average selling 20 ice cream cakes a week, and in December, they offer their popular yule logs in a regular size, mini size, regular ice cream and vegan.

All of their hard work has reached well beyond their local fan base as they’ve gained the attention of the national news media. Here are a few of the accolades: Huffington Post and Domino Magazine named The Hop as one of the “12 Best Ice Cream Shops in America.” The Cooking Channel show “Unique Sweets” profiled “The Hop” in a segment about “Awesome Asheville Sweets.” VegNews included The Hop in its list of “8 Outrageous Vegan Scoops at Ice Cream Shops Nationwide.” And Saveur Magazine named The Hop’s blueberry kale ice cream as on of the “5 Great American Ice Creams.”

The Black Mountain location will be their smallest at 320 square-feet, but they’ll pack it full of love and community spirit just like they have in other locations. The Hop Creamery is 2500 square-feet, the Merrimon Hop is 3000 square-feet, and the The Hop West is 1000 square-feet.

“Ashley and I feel like we’re already a part of the Black Mountain community. People have been really accepting and welcoming,” said Greg. “It just seems like a perfect fit. It seems like the town is excited about The Hop coming in.”