For Pierre’s Ice Cream, Quality Is
The Name Of The Game
by James Dudlicek
Who says you can’t have your cake — er, ice cream — and eat it, too?
Pierre’s Ice Cream Co. has built its reputation upon the ultra-rich “French” ice cream that it began scooping out in Cleveland back in 1932, with the quality and taste that has kept the brand a regional favorite almost 75 years later.
But Pierre’s is also a pioneer in the better-for-you segment of the frozen dessert industry, offering calorie counters and carb watchers a wide variety of lowfat and reduced-sugar options that aim to deliver the indulgent taste for which the company is known. And the company has done well keeping pace with wellness trends.
“Being the size that we are, we have the ability to come to market a lot faster that than some of our competitors,” says John Pimpo, Pierre’s brand development manager. “Back the mid-’90s, you had your yogurts and your fat-frees, and the industry was pretty much going away from the ‘good-for-you.’ If a consumer wanted ice cream, they wanted the good stuff.”
Then in 2001, Pierre’s released its Slender® line of no-sugar-added (NSA) products. “We were one of the first ice cream companies in the nation to come out with a Splenda-sweetened ice cream,” recalls Laura Hindulak, director of marketing. “We went through a lot of testing. Slender actually got us into 16 states; we were on the cusp of something big with Splenda.”
Success continues to mount for Pierre’s, with at least 235 products that carry its name, sold throughout Ohio and western Pennsylvania, as well as select accounts in Chicago, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and West Virginia. The company also manufactures private label products and distributes national brands. Privately held Pierre’s doesn’t divulge its financial information; Hoover’s Online puts the company’s sales at $37 million.
“We have a very strong sales team and a very strong marketing team, who really seek business opportunities for us and convey the message about our company and products,” says president Shelley Roth. “I think that is a very big plus for wherever we move in the future.”
Staying on Trend
The big movement right now is in better-for-you products, about which Pierre’s maybe didn’t write the book, but is quickly churning out new chapters.
The company’s most recent product launch, Pierre’s Smooth Churned Light Ice Cream, counters the “slow-churned” offerings of the national competition, whose proprietary technology is gradually being decoded across the country. Like the big guys’ offerings, Pierre’s Smooth Churned features half the fat and a third fewer calories of regular ice cream.
Smooth Churned joins an extensive line of products aimed at consumers of all stripes. “The focus was not only to address the growing ‘waist watcher’ community and folks who wanted to eat healthier,” Pimpo says of the Slender NSA products. “There’s 17 million diabetics out there. It’s so refreshing to get letters from consumers who have said, ‘I have never been able to eat an ice cream product in my life, and to be able to enjoy your product in moderation, has been a godsend.’ These are people who haven’t had dessert in so long, to try something new like this has been fantastic.”
Encompassing eight flavors, Pierre’s Slender No Sugar Added Reduced Fat Ice Cream features 30 to 50 percent less fat than the brand’s premium ice cream.
While the low-carb firestorm of two years ago has been extinguished, folks at Pierre’s agree the product development that ensued was good for the long term. “Not only had Slender stood the test of time through that entire low-carb phase, but it still met the needs of consumers looking for a good-for-you product,” Pimpo says. “Additionally, our frozen yogurt has stood the test of time. You look at our numbers for frozen yogurt — it has done very well. Even with the low-carb highs and lows, and no-sugar highs — no sugar’s kind of remained consistent. Our soft frozen yogurt sales have been fantastic. It’s just a great-tasting nutritional product.”
In addition to its Slender and yogurt products, Pierre’s plays the wellness card with its Pure Fruit Sherbet, Naturally Fat Free Sorbet and specialty items like Frosted Smoothies®.
Of course, leading the pack is still the Pierre’s Premium Ice Cream line, which has grown from its original three flavors to more than 35. The line is anchored by French Vanilla, which has consistently remained the company’s most popular flavor. Butter Pecan, Neapolitan, Chocolate, Strawberry and Cherry Vanilla hold true to tradition, while concoctions like Everything but the Kitchen Sink®, Ice Cream Sandwich and Nuts about Buckeyes satisfy consumers’ quests for variety.
“Pierre’s original, classic recipes are daily reminders of the company’s dedication to quality,” Hindulak says. “That dedication influences the company’s focus on the future as it develops new business opportunities and continues to be innovative and sensitive to consumers’ changing needs.”
Leading up to the Fourth of July, Cleveland-area stores were stocked with Pierre’s Spirit of America®, a patriotic tricolor of strawberry, French vanilla and blueberry. Other longtime seasonal traditions include Peaches & Cream, Coconut Pineapple, Pumpkin Pie and Peppermint Stick.  
Rounding out the packaged offerings is Pierre’s Homestyle Ice Cream line, which is designed to offer consumers a more “traditional-tasting” ice cream that’s smooth and creamy. The line features 12 flavors including Wild Mountain Blackberry and Peanut Butter Cup.
Pierre’s also offers a full line of assorted novelty items, though the company now has them co-packed by another regional processor. Recently introduced were Pierre’s Premium round-top Sundae Cones and Moose Tracks® Sundae Cones, joining the extensive line-up of sandwiches, bars and pops — many of which have better-for-you counterparts like Slender cones and bars.
Novelties are available for foodservice and institutional needs in bulk-count cases. Additionally, Pierre’s offers thermal Ice Cream Cups, Sherbet Cups, Chocolate Frosted Malt Cups, stadium Frosted Smoothie Cups and a complete assortment of ice cream, yogurt, sherbet and sorbet in 3-gallon containers. New in 2006 among foodservice offerings are more than a dozen new bulk flavors including Black Raspberry Chip, Espresso Chip, Butter Almond and Pistachio.  
Cleveland Rocks
Perhaps second only to quality is the company’s commitment to its community, shown among other ways by never straying more than three blocks from its original location.
“We did have the opportunity to leave downtown Cleveland and go out to the suburbs,” Hindulak says. “Shelley made the choice to say, ‘We’re a Cleveland company — we’re going to stay in downtown Cleveland.’”
In the mid-1990s, Pierre’s worked with the city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency on redevelopment of a “brown-field site.” Today, the Pierre’s office building and state-of-art distribution center sit on eight acres of lush green lawn and landscaping amid an urban environment. The design of the new headquarters received the Honor Award for Achievement of Excellence from the American Institute of Architects. The company says its decision to remain in the city has acted as a catalyst for others, spurring current and new businesses to recommit to this urban area.
Further proof of Pierre’s status as a Cleveland original: It’s sold at Jacobs Field, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. The Pierre’s logo and products also made appearances on ABC-TV’s “The Drew Carey Show,” the former sitcom starring its namesake comic, a Cleveland native.
Meanwhile, the company is involved in a host of charities, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; American Red Cross; Harvest for Hunger; and GuitarMania, which benefits United Way Services and the educational fund of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“We try and do as much as we possibly can to give back to the people who are our consumers,” Pimpo says. “With the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, it makes sense for us to work with a group like that because of our Slender product. It makes sense not only because we’re community focused, but we can also reach specific consumers through a targeted marketing program with them.”
When Slender was released, Pierre’s ran advertising in diabetic-community publications as well as diet and lifestyle publications. Pierre’s utilizes a variety of advertising mediums to effectively convey our message. In general, the company’s marketing campaigns have ranged from traditional means such as radio, print ads, billboard, FSIs and coupons to innovative options like Web-based programs, Internet advertising and public relations initiatives.
Ice cream’s nearly universal household penetration makes the product’s audience very diverse. The Pierre’s marketing team typically targets both male and female shoppers through broad formats and targeted marketing efforts to gain a foothold in such a competitive category. Pierre’s folks say they’ve successfully carved niches within the category with unique product offerings and a commitment to quality.
Additionally, Pierre’s has a sports sponsorship program with the Cleveland Indians that consists of in-game Indians radio, promotions and in-stadium signage. The company also has similar programs with other major- and minor-league ball clubs; its malt cups are sold at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
Promotional activities include the company mascot, Pierre Bear, at special events; the Pierre’s Freezer Police™, which gives away ice cream around town; and contributions to the World’s Largest Ice Cream Sundae event that takes place in a major Ohio city each year.
Roth says it’s wonderful that her company is revered as a hometown favorite. “We have a real connection to the community, to the consumers in this region. We have a lot of support, and that means a lot to everyone in the company,” she says. “Sometimes I’m not sure people realize that we’re not everywhere. We’re unique and special to this region, and I know it’s appreciated.”
Small Fish, Big Pond
What’s it like being a small, private company in an industry dominated by large national players?
“We think it’s pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to be as creative as we want to be,” Roth says. “We stay very close to the customer, both consumers and retail and foodservice customers. We feel we have a great understanding and can do a good job, and still work in an environment that is very conducive to team work and camaraderie. We want to grow, but we want to continue to understand those are important features for us.”
Pierre’s size also helps it to seize trends and run with them. “On some things, we can get to market faster, and we can just be more flexible,” Roth says. “We don’t have a lot of layers that could create obstacles to decisions.”
Of course, some challenges are unavoidable in this industry, like cost control. “Both with the public and the customers we sell to, there is a certain point where prices just can’t move up,” Roth says. “We have to manage our costs, and it’s very challenging, because this industry has a strong basis with fuel and utilities, which is difficult to control. We have large labor forces, with things like health insurance that’s difficult to control.”
But the challenge of developing new products and outlets for business are things that Roth finds exciting. “No one does a better job at making ice cream than American ice cream companies,” she says. “I think it’s very exciting for companies like ours to do more nationally and internationally.”
And such opportunities abound. “I see a lot of opportunities with new products. There’s some fun things we’ve introduced through the years, and there’s some more that we’re working on,” Roth says. “I also see opportunities with segments, with components of the business, such as foodservice. I see that continuing to grow. We do quite a bit with that segment. Our retail is a little more visible, and I see more opportunities in that aspect as well. Making high-quality ice cream is lots of fun, and we want to bring that into whatever we do with our brand.”
Pierre’s managers say that, as a small regional company, it has the ability to continue to expand geographically. “We continue to be innovative by creating new, inventive products and strive to improve our manufacturing and distribution techniques,” Hindulak says. “With the initiatives we have undertaken, we are optimistic that there is an abundance of opportunities on the horizon.”
Roth is confident that Pierre’s has the right combination of talents to take the company wherever it wants to go. “We have strong sales, production management, operations and distribution,” she says. “We seek the business and they’re able to respond.”
What do the next few years hold for Pierre’s Ice Cream? “We have a lot of ideas to continue to propel our brand. That’s a major focus for us,” Roth says. “When we talk about our brand, it’s in both retail and foodservice. Then we also look at opportunities — more selective opportunities — to produce other brands, specialty products for certain retailers, foodservice operators and product developers. We’ve got some opportunities in the hopper on those.”
While Roth may wonder whether hometown consumers realize Pierre’s is unique, she has her own thoughts about why her family’s company is special.
“I think it’s a pretty amazing story that the company started as an ice cream shop. Now it produces multimillions of gallons of ice cream and distributes millions of gallons and scoops and dozens of novelties,” she says. “We’ve done the right things at the right time. We’ve invested in our people and our facilities, and our technology. And most of all, we have never shied away from our most important feature, which is quality. Throughout our company — quality products, quality people, quality dealings. I think that’s pretty incredible.”  
PIERRE’S HISTORY
The Pierre’s Ice Cream Shop opened its doors in 1932 at East 82nd Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Its gourmet ice creams were prepared fresh each day in the back of the store and sold by the cone or cup, or hand packed to take home.
Company founder Alexander “Pierre” Basset aimed to market a premium ice cream and created the creamy, indulgent recipe that is still used today. Pierre’s “French” ice cream is made with a distinctive formula that uses a touch of pasteurized egg yolks to enhance its rich taste and texture.
The popularity of Pierre’s products grew rapidly, and the little shop quickly began churning out its specialty ice creams for restaurants, country clubs and gourmet markets. It didn’t take long for Pierre’s to outgrow its small space on Euclid Avenue.
A pint package was the first retail product produced. French Vanilla, Swiss Chocolate and Strawberry comprised the entire assortment and were sold through local grocery stores, pharmacies and bakeries. An updated version of the original, eye-catching design is still used today to remind consumers that Pierre’s is dedicated to upholding the high quality recipes developed at the original ice cream shop.
In 1960, the Royal Ice Cream Co., owned by Sol Roth, acquired Pierre’s. Royal’s history was similar to Pierre’s, starting out as a small ice cream shop with a commitment to quality. Royal began showcasing the Pierre’s brand and special recipe, and devoted all of its resources to expanding the line and building the Pierre’s name.
The next direction for Pierre’s was expansion into half-gallon packages, broader distribution beyond Cuyahoga County and the creation of unique and popular flavors for sale in retail stores as well as ice cream parlors.
In 1967, Pierre’s/Royal acquired the Harwill Ice Cream Co. at East 65th Street and Carnegie Avenue. The company consolidated all of its operations to that one plant and expanded the facility several times before outgrowing it. Through the years, Pierre’s made numerous expansions and relocations, each time into larger, more efficient facilities. But over those several moves, Pierre’s remained within three miles of its original location in downtown Cleveland.  
In April 1995, Pierre’s moved into its current state-of-the-art distribution center and office headquarters at East 65th Street and Euclid Avenue, just one mile west of the original Pierre’s shop.
Pierre’s remains family-owned and managed. Company president Shelley Roth — Sol Roth’s daughter — and her management team maintain a tradition of quality and innovation that has kept the brand a regional favorite for nearly three quarters of a century.