Gifford's famous ice cream is made in Maine
The Maine ice cream processor focuses on flavors, distribution, customer service and employee relations. Those factors add up to a successful and growing business.
The history of America is full of famous brothers. Comedy has its Marx brothers and baseball its Alou brothers. The Wright brothers reportedly had something to do with manned flight. In the world of ice cream, there are the Gifford brothers of Skowhegan, Maine.
Listening to Roger and John tease each other brings to mind another pair of brothers: Tom and Ray Magliozzi of public radio’s “Car Talk.” During a photo shoot for this article, John said Roger’s image would need to be Photoshop’d to make him look better. I said to John, “You must be the younger brother.” And sure enough, I was right.
The dairy roots of Roger and John Gifford grow deep. Great-grandfather Nathaniel Main had a passion for ice cream. Their grandparents on their mother’s side owned a dairy farm. Their parents operated a dairy processing plant in Connecticut, and later in Skowhegan.
Roger earned a degree in dairy science from the University of Tennessee. The Monday after graduation he started work in his parents’ operation. He acquired the work ethic from his father, who said there are no days off in the dairy business. A snow day might have closed schools, but it didn’t mean a day off. To their father, a snow day meant he had extra hands in the dairy, John recalls.
John and Roger purchased the Skowhegan plant from their parents in 1983 and decided to concentrate on making ice cream. (See related article on page 58.) Roger had the expertise in the plant; John had the sales and marketing savvy.
About the same time the Giffords decided to make super premium ice cream, a couple of hippies in Vermont named Ben and Jerry were developing the market for high-butterfat, low-overrun super-premium ice cream. Their efforts helped all such processors.
Roger and John cite the teachings of the legendary C.E. “Doc” Lawrence as a major influence on how to make ice cream and how to be good at processing. Drawing on old family recipes, the Giffords made ice cream in a batch freezer, loaded it onto a truck and then went knocking on doors. Jimmy’s Market in Bingham, Maine was the first customer. From the start, Gifford’s called its ice cream “famous.” It was a brash move, but prescient. The world championship honors would come.
The early days were tough sledding. They were making 10,000 gallons a year, and struggling to sell that. The Giffords recall the day they told their six employees (referred to reverently as “the Original Six”) that success depended on working long hours but that they could only afford to pay them for a 40-hour week. One of the six, Gene Aubry, said, “You can pay us 40 hours, but we’ll work as long as it takes to finish the job.” Joel Violette, the last of the Original Six, remembers that meeting. He said his wife wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do because the paper mill down the road was paying better wages. But Violette stayed and is now plant manager.
Gifford’s will make 1.6 million gallons of ice cream in 2012, with gallon sales expected to increase 15% this year alone. Management figures it can double sales in the next 5 to 10 years. The Giffords say they have the capacity.