October 24, 2018
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Ice cream makers grapple with increased costs for vanilla

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
Ben Cline (right) scoops ice cream at the Mount Desert Island Ice Cream Co.'s shop in Bar Harbor in this July 3, 2009, file photo. The ice cream shop has stopped making its vanilla flavor after the cost for vanilla went up substantially.

For a Maine ice cream maker, taking one of the most popular flavors off the menu during the busy summer season might sound like a counterintuitive — if not plain crazy — decision.

But for Linda Parker, the owner of Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, eschewing vanilla this year just made sense. It’s her favorite ice cream flavor, but major troubles for Madagascar’s vanilla supply over the past few years has led to a global supply crisis that has hit home. The cost for vanilla beans jumped from $20 per kilogram five years ago to $515 per kilogram in June, which is just as expensive as it sounds — that’s just a few dollars less than the per-kilogram price of silver. Things in the market seemed volatile and out-of-control, and Parker decided this spring that her shops in Bar Harbor, Portland and Washington, D.C., could live without vanilla.

So far, that seems to be working.

Instead of vanilla, her customers can enjoy Maine Sweet Cream, a flavor which does not require any scarce or globally sought after substance to make. She also offers free samples, which she believes helps people find other choices than vanilla.

“I think with the vanilla bean market, the perfect storm happened,” Parker said. “I’ve heard a couple people asking about vanilla, but they kind of get it. And the people who don’t are interested in hearing why we don’t do it. For us, I think it’s kind of positive educational P.R. [public relations].”

‘Perfect storm’

Not many Maine ice cream makers have followed in Parker’s footsteps and taken vanilla off the menu. But all are coping with the price spike and supply issues with vanilla, problems that have been developing for a while now. Vanilla is grown in tropical places that include Tahiti and Mexico, but most of the world’s high-quality vanilla beans come from Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa. It’s not easy to grow vanilla: pods come from orchids that are pollinated by human hands and take about three years to mature. A vanilla surplus began in 2005 and continued until 2014, which caused prices to drop. Many farmers in Madagascar burned their vanilla vines and switched to other crops.

That led to a vanilla shortage, followed by a sharp price increase. Then, last year, a cyclone devastated the remaining vanilla regions on the island, which amplified the vanilla shortage, and led to massive price spikes and even rationing by some distributors. The vanilla crisis has been connected to crime, forest destruction, and other turmoil and unrest on the island.

Some experts believe the crisis is on its way out, which is good news for ice cream lovers and bakers around the world. The Madagascar 2018 vanilla bean harvest has just opened, and a market report released Tuesday by Cook’s Vanilla, a California-based vanilla company, indicated that this year’s crop is large, the quality is better and the prices are trending down.

“For the first time since the crisis began roughly three years ago, we finally can deliver positive news from the world’s largest source of pure vanilla,” the report stated.

Coping with price spike

It sounds hopeful, but Maine ice cream makers are still contending with the current grim reality for the bean market. Nancy Veilleux, who owns The Ice Cream Lady in Brooklin, said recently that the vanilla market fluctuations and uncertainties have caused her to look into changing her practice.

“Right now, I am using pure vanilla extract,” she said. “I am going to have to recompute that. I don’t know what’s going to happen with vanilla beans. It costs me more money to make vanilla ice cream.”

Jeff Shain of Shain’s of Maine Ice Cream, a Sanford-based ice cream manufacturing company that makes about 775,000 gallons per year, said that there’s really not many ways to contend with the price hike.

“What are you going to do? You can change your formulation and try to reduce the cost that way. You can keep it the same and increase your price. Or you can do nothing,” he said. “That’s what I did … you don’t like to raise your prices. You’re afraid the consumer is going to balk.”

Eric Treworgy of Pugnuts Ice Cream Shop in Surry said that he and his husband, Karl Holmes, are now paying “well over” $700 per gallon of high-quality vanilla extract from Madagascar for the ice cream and gelato they make at their shop. It’s a lot of money, but it has not deterred them from paying it.

“The price has not impacted our willingness to make vanilla,” he said. “It’s our best-selling flavor.”

Even taking the price increase of vanilla extract into consideration, vanilla ice cream is not the store’s most costly flavor. That honor falls on pistachio gelato, which is made with real pistachios.

“That’s more expensive,” Treworgy said.

Joe Ascrizzi, who helps at his brother John Ascrizzi’s Liberty shop, John’s Ice Cream, also said that pistachio ice cream costs more to make than vanilla. He took a philosophical approach to the price hike for vanilla beans and vanilla extract.

“Yeah, it went up, and it’s a nuisance that you have to have a big chunk of money to buy it,” Joe Ascrizzi said this week. “But you can’t do away with vanilla. It’s the most popular flavor. Over here, quadruple chocolate outsells regular chocolate. Strawberry rhubarb outsells plain strawberry. But nothing will outsell vanilla.”

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