Three women

Expect to see some new feature flavors—in both the natural and churned lines—this year from Velvet Ice Cream Co., Utica, Ohio. And while president Luconda Dager is hush-hush about other 2012 plans, she says what won’t change is the company’s continued focus on quality and value.

“We’ve made a commitment to stay real, premium ice cream,” she says. “And to stay with 56 ounces as well.”

The strategy appears to be working for the fourth-generation family business that will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014. Dager notes that Velvet’s market share continues to grow. “We had a nice sales bump in 2011,” she adds.

Last year, the company acquired Cleveland-based Dairymens ice cream business to expand Velvet sales in the Akron, Canton and Cleveland areas. Products can be found in grocery and convenience channels as well as in restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and dipping parlors. Velvet also can process for private-label accounts. It produces more than six million gallons of ice cream annually.

To allow for greater capacity and future expansion, the company rebuilt its entire refrigeration control center and upgraded its compressors last year. The updates provide better management of the production process while energy efficiencies of the new system  reduced utility costs. Also last spring, delivery drivers and merchandisers were given handheld systems to more accurately and effectively place and fulfill orders.

“We now have a better understanding for the ebb and flow of sales,” Dager explains, “and better production planning.”

As much as possible, the company focuses on using local ingredients. Ohio honey is featured in the natural line’s popular Honey Caramel. Created by 13-year-old Alex Grooms, winner of Velvet’s 2010 Create-A-Flavor Contest, the flavor was released last May. Packaging features an Ohio beekeeper and copy stresses the importance of honey bees to agriculture. Velvet partnered with the Ohio Farm Bureau for the contest and entrees (close to 1,000 people participated) included at least one locally grown or raised ingredient.

“It’s been super popular,” Dager says. “Sales have beaten some flavors that we have had out for a decade or more.”

While not every contest-winning flavor sticks around permanently, it’s expected that Honey Caramel will be a long-lasting addition.

A former working gristmill set on 20 acres houses Velvet’s headquarters and production facilities as well as a restaurant, ice cream parlor and the state’s ice cream museum. Ye Olde Mill is open May through October and more than 150,000 people visit the tourist attraction each year. To convert those guests into Facebook fans, marketing coordinator Nathan Arnold says QR codes can be found throughout the ice cream parlor and viewing gallery. Visitors scan a code to instantly “like” Velvet on Facebook.

Since Arnold joined the company three years ago, he’s overseen its social media efforts. To generate excitement about new flavors being considered for 2012, he held a TweetUp at Ye Olde Mill in December. More than a dozen people attended the private tasting and provided “honest and raw feedback,” Arnold says. He says the fans were “very honest that they didn’t like” some of the flavors.

In addition to the consumer input, the TweetUp proved to be great advertising. A core group on Twitter advertised it for two weeks prior to the event. During the tasting and after, guests were tweeting, blogging and posting pictures online. Arnold says they received a lot of positive feedback, grew their Twitter followers, and adds that about 500,000 people were reached nationally.