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The new owners of Ollies. (Photo supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)
The new owners of Ollies. (Photo supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)

KaiDecember 23, 2023

A new chapter for Ollies, the iconic Royal Oak ice cream parlor

The new owners of Ollies. (Photo supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)
The new owners of Ollies. (Photo supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)

After celebrating its 50th birthday this year, Ollies’ longstanding owner Colin handed the baton to his son. What’s next for the beloved shop? 

It’s the last day of the school year, and as per tradition, my family and I are enthusiastically digging into ice cream sundaes smothered in chocolate sauce and all the trimmings. We’ve found a few scoops of the cold stuff goes a long way for both celebrations and commiserations, and on the days when everyone’s in a rut, the bad vibes melt faster than the ice cream dribbling down the cone. 

We always have at least one 4 litre tub in the freezer at home, and yet often find ourselves at our favourite neighbourhood ice cream parlour, because there’s something about the occasion of going out for a frozen treat. And there’s definitely something special about Ollies, the iconic diner wedged in between two converging roads at the Royal Oak roundabout that’s been bringing joy to locals for fifty years. 

This sentiment is obviously shared by all who come for the cheerful atmosphere and dizzying array of flavours, and stay for the entertainment provided by the near misses and occasional prangs of the intersection outside. Regular customer Bindiya Naran reports that a friend drives the 50+ km from Silverdale to Royal Oak to get a Tip Top ice cream cone they could easily get at their local dairy, because as she points out, “It just tastes better at Ollies”.

The author’s kids, about to tuck into their Ollies. (Photo: Rachel Judkins)

This year proved to be a big one for the little ice cream parlour and burger joint. Ollies quietly celebrated its half century birthday in February – incredible given that the average hospitality outlet in New Zealand only lasts three years – and just last month, long-time owner Colin Haines sold the business to his son Matt, passing the ice cream scoop onto the next generation to continue serving his loyal customers far into the future.

Colin and his wife Caroline opened Ollies on Valentine’s Day of 1973. They’d returned home from Canada with a love of the quintessential North American diner that they wanted to share with a city that had only just opened its first fast food restaurant. The location on the roundabout was as iconic as the red poppies on the window, and it quickly became a beloved fixture of the community. 

Stories circulate from the five decades since: of first dates, 65c floats, player of the day rewards and youngsters scrounging together enough coins for a single scoop and a game of spacies. Customers who visited as kids now relive the magic of their youth, bringing their grandchildren for a thick shake or famous Ollie Dog (an American hotdog with cheese and bacon) as part of a Sunday afternoon outing.

Colin and his wife Caroline opened Ollies on Valentine’s Day of 1973. (Photo: supplied)

All four of Colin’s kids grew up hanging around the parlour, and like many local teens, learnt the value of hard work behind the counter at Ollies. It may seem like destiny, but while geography teacher Matt Haines remembers doing his primary school speech on ice cream (his Dad sweetening the audience with mini sundaes), owning the place was never part of his grand plan. But things fell into place when his father decided it was time to sell up at the same time that his wife Leigh was looking for a career change.

The couple come with family connections, plenty of hands-on experience and a cute backstory, having met at Ollies as teenagers back in the early 2000s, when the youth wage was $7 per hour and a couple of shifts could fund the latest album on CD. Love eventually blossomed, they got hitched and started their own family earlier this year, and both feel really great about returning to the diner as proud new owners. “It’s nice now I’ve come back however many years later and the same customers are still coming in and they recognise me,” Leigh says. “‘I’m like, ‘yeah I’ve aged a little, but I’m the same person that used to work here.’” 

Mike Knowles, a customer who has been chowing down on ham and cheese toasties since Ollies first opened its door, is excited by the news that Matt is taking over. “I’m just so pleased it’s staying in the family,” he says with a smile. The feedback online has been similar, and Matt reports that there has been a real buzz in the air and a huge outpouring of support.

The unassuming exterior of Ollies in Royal Oak. (Photo: supplied)

Taking over from his Dad does have its own pressure though, as Matt feels he has big shoes to fill. Colin spent 50 years building relationships with the people in his community, and was something of a local celebrity. “He’s definitely a real people person and has the gift of the gab,” Matt says. “I wish I was as good as him in that regard.” While Colin’s successors are decidedly more shy, they share his fondness for the place, their eyes lighting up when talking about their customers, young staff and favourite items on the menu.

With a change of ownership comes the potential for a change in how the business is run, but Matt and Leigh plan to honour the original vision and the diner’s delightful lack of pretension. “I think the worst thing we could do is come in and change the place heaps, you know?” Matt says. ”We want to keep our loyal customers happy in the knowledge that it’s not going to turn into something that it never was.”

They have been busy modernising a few things behind the scenes, like upgrading the till and eftpos, streamlining the accounts and installing a fancy new sound system, but they plan to take the summer to find their feet before thinking about any future improvements. However, there is already talk of gift vouchers, a food truck (dubbed the “Ollie Trolley”) and dreams of opening another shop. Matt is also very keen to sell some good-quality merchandise for those wanting to take a souvenir home with them, and he has already had a request for the slogan “Loyal to the Royal since ‘73” to be emblazoned across a T-shirt.

Part of Leigh’s business plan is to replace the single-use plastics with greener alternatives like reusable dishes. “I would love to take it right back to how it used to be,” she says, “with the glass banana boats for our sundaes and parfait glasses.”

Ollies has been running 50 years, an amazing achievement given the average hospitality outlet only lasts three years. (Photo: Rachel Judkins)

‘How it used to be’ is part of Ollies’ brand, as apparently nothing has changed aesthetically since the place opened. The lampshades might even be the originals, and whenever the red formica counter wears out, it is replaced by an identical new one. And before any long-time customers freak out, Matt and Leigh are definitely committed to the decor staying the same. “We don’t want people to walk in and go, ‘oh my god. What have you done? It looks like a different shop.’” Leigh says. “We want people to have that nostalgia when they walk in.”

Something the couple will be hoping to continue is the roaring success of the business, with famous faces, queues out the door in summer, and a year-round weekend crowd satisfying their late night munchies. Ollies has already weathered the storms of the GFC and Covid pandemic, because people still appreciate a little treat when other luxuries are out of reach. Matt also feels confident that they fill a niche market. “There’s so many quite high-end ice cream places that are becoming really popular, but I don’t feel like we are competing with them,” he says. “We’re in a real unique spot in that we’re just true classic kiwi ice cream.” 

The new owners are already learning that running a business is “bloody hard work”, but with the effort comes rewards aplenty. “What I’ve noticed recently is how happy people are when they come in with their family to get an ice cream,” Matt reflects. “When I was a teenager and working here, I didn’t really care too much about it, but now that we’re running the shop you get a lot of satisfaction out of bringing them joy.”

My standing order of kid’s sundae with goody goody gumdrops and sprinkles never fails to transport me back to the happy memories of my childhood, and while my own ratbags always leave Ollies with the remnants of chocolate fudge sauce smeared across their faces, I always leave with a smile smeared across mine.

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