SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Quarts of Mount Katahdin Crunch and Appalachian Trail ice cream sit on a boardroom table — lids open, scoops out. While dipping spoons into the new outdoor adventure series of ice creams named after Maine wilderness landmarks, the top team members at Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream are as giddy as school children.
“Wow, that’s good,” J.C. Gifford said, polishing off a cup of Muddy Boots, a vanilla ice cream swirled with caramel and studded with brownies.
An impromptu ice cream social is good for company morale, but this team of all family members needs no proof their product rules. They invented it.
Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream has been around for decades. John and Roger Gifford purchased the business from their parents in 1983. Now, as the company expands across the country, the next generation is taking the reins.
John’s children are among the seven family members who work for the company. His daughter, Lindsay Gifford-Skilling, has been the general manager since 2011. John’s son, J.C. Gifford, became vice president of sales two years ago. And the youngest, 24-year-old Samantha Gifford, recently was named marketing coordinator.
What do they have in common, besides a name that is ice cream gold in this state, a strong work ethic and the ability to eat ice cream during 8 a.m. flavor meetings? They are dedicated to a calling that began in coastal Connecticut long before refrigeration existed.
The man who started it all, Nathaniel Main, delivered ice cream by wagon to his neighbors in Connecticut in the late-1800s.
“He used rock salt and ice and was hand cranking it,” Roger Gifford recalled of his great-grandfather. “He would take a canister of ice cream that was semi frozen and deliver by horse and wagon. People would come out, and he would spoon some into their bowls.”
The sepia-toned photographs in the hallway outside the factory doors tell the story of a dairy trail that led to this riverfront town.
In 1971, Gifford-Skilling’s grandparents purchased a dairy in Farmington, Maine. Three years later they purchased a second in Skowhegan, where their ice cream factory today is a source of pride in the still-struggling mill town.
More than a decade later, John and Roger Gifford had a choice: continue their parents’ dairy operation or focus on ice cream. For them, it was an easy, pivotal decision.
“Making great ice cream really chose us,” John Gifford, 59, said. “The ice cream side of the business was what we were really passionate about and excited to grow.”
The family sold the dairy portion of the company to Oakhurst and focused their attention on ice cream. If they had chosen dairy, where would they be now?
“Working for somebody else,” John Gifford said.
The Giffords Difference
Inside their no-frills headquarters in a residential neighborhood, one thing stands out: the awards. They crowd side tables and burst from the corners. They have taken “Worlds Best” and “First Place” honors from dairy expos, festivals and magazines across the country.
With more than 100 flavors and business up 10 percent this year, what makes this family-run dairy confectionary continue to flourish?
“I relate it to making a vehicle. What’s the difference between a Mercedes or BMW or Chevy?” Roger Gifford, company president, said. “They both have tires and good workmanship, but the higher-end vehicles start with better materials — a little heavier steel or better process of coating the steel.”
This family embodies the once-ubiquitous American spirit of honesty and hard work. They would rather discontinue a flavor than make it on the cheap. When the price of pistachios soared a few years back, the company raised the price instead of changing the formula with a less-expensive nut, which several other companies did. Gifford’s increased the cost to $8 a tub, yet sales did not drop.
“We’ve been doing this 40 years. We have extremely loyal customers that have been with us for as long as I can remember. They trust us, we trust them,” John Gifford said. “It’s really built on a strong foundation, this company.”
That foundation is burgeoning as the next generation steps up to leadership roles.
While ice cream might seem like a seasonal business in Maine, Gifford’s has spread out across the country, to New York and Ohio and as far west as Nevada. This summer, they are focused on markets in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“Retail is growing at a rapid clip,” Gifford-Skilling said, though food-service clients, such as colleges and institutions, are still No. 1.
In Maine, the family still runs five ice cream stands. Across the country, there are hundreds of parlors that exclusively scoop Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream.
Meanwhile, the company is getting back to its roots by bringing ice cream to the people this summer. A Gifford’s truck has cruised through the streets of Washington, D.C., to introduce new consumers to creamy, small-batch ice cream made in Maine with love and quality ingredients. This time, the ice cream is scooped out and given away for free.
“People can’t believe that they get that much ice cream for free,” said Gifford-Skilling, who dreamed up the idea that has been a social media success with its own hashtag #freeGiffordsicecream.
The Bryant University graduate also helped Gifford’s modernize its brand. It has a fresh logo, new iconography and eye-catching packaging. Inside, though, it’s the same creamy treat, featuring recipes passed down from generations.
Though it’s a business, there is no mistaking the fact these people are related.
At the afternoon tasting, they go from ribbing each other for ill-conceived flavors — such as lemon chiffon, which was Roger’s idea, and caramel corn, which was simply terrible — to recalling emotionally charged moments, such as when they served free ice cream to New York City firefighters at ground zero and later at the Pentagon months after the 9/11 attacks.
There is a warm glow in the room, as five Giffords, ranging in age from 24 to 62, sit around the boardroom and indulge in their legacy.
“We were always told your heart has to be in it,” said J.C. Gifford, who attended Syracuse University and dreamed of being a professional athlete.
His father made clear that just because his last name is Gifford doesn’t mean he would have a job waiting for him. All of the Giffords — including Roger and John — needed to interview for their jobs. And even after being hired, the family connection didn’t guarantee a job forever. It’s all business.
“We’ve had to let some family members go,” J.C. Gifford said.
But those who made the cut are the future of this growing Maine family business.
“We have a good thing going. We will fight to make sure it stays that way,” J.C. Gifford said. “We eat at the same table and have the same goals in mind: ice cream.”
Despite the success, or perhaps because of it, they stay humble. Laughing off the analogy they are the L.L. Bean of ice cream in the state, John grows serious.
“We are not perfect. We are far from perfect. We’ve made adjustments in our formula to make it better,” he said. “We are growing but still organically. We are still a small family business.”