Words by Christina Dean

A large box of leftover pick ‘n’ mix is being passed around the table where the Happy Endings team is having breakfast on the morning we go to the brand’s HQ, and though completely unplanned and off the cuff, it perfectly encapsulates what the business is all about. Sweet things yes, but also fun and joy, the kind of joy that comes from being able to eat candy for breakfast because you want to and nobody can tell you otherwise.

Terri Mercieca founded Happy Endings as a way “just to do desserts only and not work in restaurants anymore, and build a business where we’d make really great desserts but in a more accessible price range, without having to go to a poncey restaurant.” She knows of what she speaks when it comes to poncey restaurants; a trained pastry chef, Terri started out as an apprentice on the fine dining scene in Australia, working around Sydney before moving to Melbourne and eventually into chocolate, first at a chocolate factory and then working with a chocolatier here in the UK.

“After that I really wanted to start a business. I wanted to make desserts. I’m quite experimental, I tried things and the thing that did work was the ice cream and it grew organically,” she says. “We do a little bit of desserts every now and then but mostly ice cream making and puddings.”

Founded in 2014, Happy Endings has only gone from strength to strength. Unless you’ve been living under a rock – or you don’t like ice cream – you’ll have seen the chequered-wrapped Happy Endings ice cream sandwiches in the fridges and on the menus of some of the city’s coolest shops and restaurants.

There’s a core range of eight ice cream sandwiches, including The Naughty One, with Guinness cake, miso salted caramel and soy dulce de leche, which is “quite umami and intense, but nice”; The Malty One, which is the most popular (they sell about 30% more of this than any other) and has “a Horlicks kinda vibe but we don’t use Horlicks, we use a really nice malt from Stowmarket, and that’s got a malt crumb round the outside and is dipped in a 55% milk chocolate”; the Strawberry Shorty, “a take on different Aussie things that I really like – Wagon Wheels, because the Australian ones have more jam, no offence to the British ones, and the Monte Carlo biscuit, which is another great biscuit”; and the Monumintal, “a fresh mint stracciatella so it’s got chocolate through it but we use fresh mint and we infuse overnight so it’s like a fresh mint tea kinda vibe, dipped in dark chocolate with a chocolate biscuit. I don’t like mint choc chip ice cream because I don’t like the fake peppermint flavour, this is the real deal.” 

“We could make the same thing with cheaper ingredients but what would be the point? I don’t want to make that food”

There are also seasonal and special sandwiches, like the Gay One, a take on the Australian Golden Gaytime, which was created for Pride and as a nod to her community. Terri admits that it wasn’t something that she really talked about in the beginning of Happy Endings, wanting to be recognised for the food above all else, but as she’s grown in confidence in running the business, she’s become more open about the fact that it’s queer-owned. “I don’t think I’m not open about being gay or anything like that but it was more like I didn’t know you could just stand there proudly as a queer-owned business and be like ‘yeah this is what we’re about and this is what we’re proud of and this makes us who we are because we think about the world this way’,” she says. “Not everyone’s queer that works here, it’s not a prerequisite! Definitely not, everybody’s welcome, but you do have to be not a homophobic twat.”

While she hasn’t been on the receiving end of any homophobia while running Happy Endings, she’s certainly faced challenges during her time in professional kitchens, where there was a feeling that you had to work harder as a woman to prove yourself as well as contending with numerous instances of sexist behaviour. She makes it clear that she runs her ship in a very different manner, “I want to make a positive difference, so hopefully we can create a safe workplace that really thinks about all the steps – where we buy it from, the person and their experience of eating it, it all should be memorable in a good, positive nice way.”

Good ice cream and good puds – Happy Endings also make sticky toffee and hot chocolate fudge puddings – rely on good raw materials. Terri’s serious about her sourcing and she’s built strong relationships with the suppliers she uses, including Wildfarmed, Shipton Mill flour, St Ewe eggs, Maldon salt, Original Beans chocolate, Billington’s sugar, and The Estate Dairy. “I feel very confident with the stuff that we’re using and I think it does make for a better product. We could make the same thing with cheaper ingredients but what would be the point? I don’t want to make that food,” she explains. “You’ve got to think about your bottom line, it’s not my forte but I’m getting better at it, but if I was gonna use a cheaper chocolate to save a few pennies, I just don’t think that represents what we’re about. I have a physical aversion to making stuff I don’t wanna eat or cook or buy.” 

Those ingredients are transformed into ice cream, biscuits, cakes and puddings in the Happy Endings production space in Mile End, and everything bar the cutting of the sandwiches is done by hand. In peak summer season the team can be making and wrapping over 10,000 ice creams a week. “Maybe if I had thought about what I was gonna do as a business I might have thought about that!” laughs Terri. “I’m never gonna be that person. You’ve always gotta learn how to make something by hand first, we’re very much hands on.” One thing Terri’s happy to not do by hand anymore? Cutting the sandwiches, which is where Mariah the machine comes in. So named because “it’s ultrasonic so it operates on sound, she’s quite high pitched” and because it  “can sometimes be a bit of a diva”, she’s quite the bit of kit – it’s hypnotic watching her in action, with slabs of cake being cut and spun and cut and spun, and she’s been a real game changer for the business, cutting the same amount in a day that would take the team a week to do before. 

Ice cream sandwiches might be what Happy Endings is known for, but Terri is now exploring the world of ice creams sans biscuit. Soft serve is something they’ve been doing for a while, both selling it on to other brands and swirling it at their own events, like the pop-up soft serve bar at Pavilion in Victoria Park. What started as an experiment using a fro-yo machine in an old kitchen has now become a passion project; she recently did a course over in the States to dive deeper into the science of ice cream. 

“Anything that’s gonna be stored in a freezer you have to think about ice crystal migration and that’s what makes it kinda crunchy sometimes. So you know when your ice cream melts and you re-freeze it you get this crunchiness, it’s the ice crystals getting bigger and bigger, so for ours, the faster we churn and the faster we get it frozen, the less chance we have of this ice crystal migration,” she explains. “The fastest way to make ice cream is with liquid nitrogen because it freezes like that and you get no crystals, but how well your recipe is formulated will determine how well it holds in the freezer. So you could make an ice cream in five seconds but if you haven’t formulated it right it’ll just go funny in the freezer, it’ll be powdery or icy or too hard, so we have to think about that stuff.” And then there’s a balance to strike with the sandwiches too – the biscuit can’t be too thick or too thin or too crumbly, the ice cream can’t be too hard or too soft – to ensure the perfect bite. 

“We’re making food that tastes like your memories.”

The current obsession is her vanilla ice cream, jokingly called The Normal One, made using vanilla from a B Corp company in Tonga. “I ate a whole tub of it the other day, we went and bought those really trashy wafer cones and me and my girlfriend just made ice creams, and I love that because that’s what we used to do as kids,” she confesses. Invoking nostalgia through food and tapping into that fun, childlike experience is something that runs the core of Terri and of Happy Endings, shown by the flavour combos that reference Aussie treats from her childhood, “we’re making food that tastes like your memories rather than if you go back and eat that thing you had then which is maybe a bit shit. So hopefully we’re making the memories.” 

Understandably for someone so passionate about puds (and as a trained pastry chef), she’s not about bad desserts. “I get really annoyed that people don’t put the effort into dessert sections. If you’re going to a restaurant, the dessert section should also be good. I have a bit of beef with it because it’s the last thing you eat,” she says. “Pastry chefs are really skilled people, so if you don’t get good dessert in a restaurant it’s a bit of an oversight. How can you have 75% of it right and then forget about actually an important part for a lot of people? And then if it’s the last thing you eat when you go, you’ll remember if the dessert is bad, like ‘ah yeah this is nice but the dessert is average’. I don’t ever want anyone to talk about our food like that.” Then she laughs, recounting an incident where a customer actually spat The Naughty One out in front of her: “She had a bite and went ‘that’s disgusting, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. Can I have a different flavour? I was like ‘ah well you still wanna buy stuff from me, that’s good!’” 

Whatever other people think, it’s clear that Terri believes in her products and what her business stands for, namely “a good ethical stance, good memories, and everyone’s not gonna work here for ages so hopefully we leave something with them that they can take forward and they leave something with us that we can use. As you have a business longer it does get a bit easier, you definitely get clearer on your purpose and what is really important to you, and those things that are really important to me, even if I’m experimental, have stuck, the core values have stuck. Maybe that was my reason for starting a business more than making ice cream.”

Local Heroes is a series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, you can see more from our series here.

Image credits: Patricia Niven and @katiewilsonfotos