At Gifford’s Ice Cream in Skowhegan, the proof is not in the pudding. It’s in the ice cream.
Judges at last month’s World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., honored Gifford’s with an award for “World’s Best Chocolate Ice Cream.” For a family-owned business with a long-held strategy of putting quality first, the recognition was another cherry on top of a heaping history of ice cream success.
“It just validates that we’re doing the right thing,” said John Gifford, who co-owns the business with his brother Roger Gifford. “It makes me proud of the people who are making it. Everyone’s involved here. It’s a team effort.” Gifford’s employs between 30 and 100 people, depending on the season.
Cari Schroeder of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, which sponsors competitions of several dairy products at the World Dairy Expo, said the Gifford’s chocolate was the only product out of more than 600 entries this year to achieve a perfect score of 100 percent.
“In the chocolate ice cream class alone, there were 25 other entrants,” said Schroeder. “In past years we’ve had one or two companies who have received a score of 100, but it’s not frequent. It’s a big accomplishment.”
Joel Violette of Skowhegan manages the company’s Hathaway Street plant. After 31 years working for the Gifford family, he’s the person who oversees the cream meeting with ice and the ice cream meeting any of more than 80 flavors. Every step of the process has a role in what Violette said is the most important thing about premium ice cream: the texture.
Part of the secret lies in how long the flavors are allowed to mix and the amount of pressure they’re put under, but the most important thing is freezing it as quickly as possible. Finished quarts and 3-gallon ice cream stand tubs go from a roomful of gleaming stainless steel machinery to an adjacent warehouse where the temperature is kept at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The faster you can freeze the ice cream, the smaller the ice crystals will be,” said Violette, his jacket covered with frost after about a minute in the freezing warehouse. “Our ice cream is rock-hard in four hours. Most companies take 12 to 24 hours to do that.”
Preparation is only one side of the equation. The ingredients are the other. Gifford’s buys everything it can from within Maine, ranging from blueberries from G.M. Allen & Son Wild Maine Blueberries in Orland to maple syrup from Maine Maple Products Inc. in Madison. All of the milk comes from Oakhurst Dairy, which bought the Gifford’s milk operation in the early 1980s.
There are some ingredients that can’t be bought in Maine, though, and that has caused problems in the past. Years ago a flood in Madagascar caused the price of the premium vanilla extract Gifford’s uses to jump from $100 a gallon to more than $1,000 a gallon. There was cheaper vanilla on the market, said John Gifford, but it wasn’t as good.
“We sat around and asked ourselves what we should do,” he said. “The answer to that question is always ‘nothing.’ We’ve won national and world awards for having the best vanilla ice cream. How can we change that?”
Since the Gifford brothers took over the business from their parents in the early 1980s and focused on just ice cream, they’ve gone from selling about 5,000 gallons a year to more than 1.6 million gallons. It’s never been easy, said Roger Gifford, and it still isn’t.
“We’re still a small family business and we can’t afford to make big mistakes,” he said. “We still do a lot things the small way.”
The small way is what’s always worked. John Gifford remembers delivering ice cream wrapped in blankets in the trunk of his car. After starting out supplying its inaugural ice cream stand on Madison Avenue in Skowhegan, Gifford’s began selling to stores. Jimmy’s Sure Fine Food Store in Bingham (not to be confused with jimmies on your favorite sundae) was the first retail account.
“I had to delete a product to make room for them,” recalled Jimmy West, who owned the store at the time. “I wanted to get them in there for the simple reason that it was a Maine-made product. Then we tested the product and it was very high quality.”
Today about 40 percent of sales are to stores, with the remaining product going to thousands of restaurants and ice cream stands throughout the northeastern United States. Gifford’s has grown at a rate of about 7 percent for several years, but John Gifford said that rate will increase to 10 percent to 12 percent a year soon. In addition to already serving several supermarket chains, including Shaw’s and Hannaford Bros., the company recently started selling to Colby College in Waterville and the Wal-Mart distribution center in Lewiston.
John Gifford said the future may bring new product lines, such as sorbets, frozen yogurts and frozen desserts, but there are no plans to abandon the Skowhegan plant.
“This plant will be more than sufficient for a long time,” he said. “We could almost double our size without major changes.”