The four brothers who make up the ownership of Cedar Crest Ice Cream — Ken, Robert, Bill and Tim Kohlwey — all agree that their company may not be the biggest, but they’re proud of what it’s accomplished. And it’s accomplished plenty.
The Cedarburg, Wis.-based ice cream company produces over 300 SKUs. It makes ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, no-sugar/no-fat-added ice cream, reduced-fat ice cream, gelato and custard. It also co-packs various products for other companies; copacking is about 50% of the company’s business.
For its retail business, Cedar Crest manufactures and distributes 30 ice cream flavors in 48-ounce squrounds, 20 ice cream flavors in pints, seven flavors of sherbet in pints and seven gelato flavors in pints. Four-quart pails of ice cream are produced in eight flavors. Its retail line can be found throughout Wisconsin, northern Illinois and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the company said.
Ice cream parlors are an important part of Cedar Crest’s business. It services more than 300 ice cream parlors and dipping locations throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. The parlors make up about 15% to 20% of the business. Over 100 flavors are available in 3-gallon containers, Cedar Crest noted.
The company manufactures ice cream, custard, reduced-fat ice cream, no-fat/no-sugar-added ice cream, frozen yogurt and sherbet for the parlors. Feature Flavors are provided on a monthly basis.
Cedar Crest has a fleet of 18 delivery trucks, three tractor-trailer transports and a network of distributors. The corporate office in Cedarburg is its distribution hub. The ice cream is received there from the company’s manufacturing plant in Manitowoc, Wis., and is then stored, picked and loaded onto the trucks for delivery. Read more about the company’s manufacturing plant.
A family-owned business
According to Ken Kohlwey, president, Cedar Crest was originally formed in 1970 by Alfred and June Kohlwey (parents to the four brothers), starting with the manufacture of caramel apples. This operation ran for three years.
The company came to life again when Alfred, through his connections in the dairy industry, asked his sons if they would like to venture into the ice cream business, according to Kohlwey. The brothers had experience in the dairy business, having worked in their parents’ fluid milk plant (Cedarburg Dairy) and delivering milk to customers. After all agreed, Alfred acquired the Oak Brand Ice Cream Co. distribution depot in Milwaukee in October of 1976.
The business started with two trucks, and ice cream was purchased from the Oak Brand Ice Cream plant in Freeport, Ill. Two months after the family purchased the depot, the ice cream plant closed, leaving Cedar Crest without a source of supply, Kohlwey said.
After some ups and downs, the company eventually purchased the Smith Ice Cream Co. in Oshkosh, Wis., in April of 1977. Through this acquisition, Cedar Crest obtained a manufacturing plant and three additional routes in the Fox Valley.
At the time of the acquisition, Cedar Crest had been producing a small amount of ice cream, sherbet and ice cream sandwiches at Cedarburg Dairy. The purchase enabled it to add various-sized containers and flavors to the line, and opened up the retail market.
“There was a lot of hard work at the plant, but with hard work came success,” Kohlwey said.
Cedar Crest experienced double-digit growth for the next several years, which led it to relocate its depot in Milwaukee to its present site in Cedarburg, Wis., in 1980. As the company grew, it acquired its current plant in Manitowoc, Wis. (in 1987), and closed its Oshkosh facility, Kohlwey noted.
Today, the four brothers each maintain hands-on roles within the company. Robert Kohlwey is vice president of sales. Bill Kohlwey is vice president of administration, and Tim Kohlwey is vice president of distribution.
Commitment to quality
The company takes pride in producing its ice cream mix in small 500-gallon batches, using vat pasteurization methods. That is the “old school way of making ice cream mix,” Kohlwey explained. He said it gives the ice cream a better texture and enhances the flavor experience, giving it a slightly cooked/caramelized flavor.
The company’s determination to stick with these methods and maintain its premium quality helps it differentiate itself from its competitors, he added.
“There is a true commitment to quality,” said Ron Strube, vice president of operations and general manager. “The product has not changed since inception, and there’s a commitment from the owners that the product quality can never be compromised [for] the sake of profits, pricing, whatever it may be.”
Kohlwey added that the company has a vast portfolio of flavors that have stood the test of time and is continuously looking for the next new flavor to be featured. Cedar Crest has experienced double-digit growth with its ice cream pints for the last three years, he said.
And overall, its branded products showed double-digit growth versus last year, according to Strube.
Kohlwey said growth can be attributed to “quality of the product, variety of flavors, container graphics, price and a larger distribution area.”
Cedar Crest added a gelato line in late 2016 and has since taken home awards for its excellence. The company took first place for its mint cookie gelato at the 2017 World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest in Madison, Wis., last October. It also won third place honors for both its pistachio gelato and its key lime pie ice cream in the Open Class Flavored Fruit Ice Cream category. To date, Cedar Crest has won 22 awards for its ice cream and gelato at the World Dairy Expo.
Kohlwey discussed the company’s decision to add gelato to its portfolio.
“Before we decided to [make] gelato, we looked at what made it so different than ice cream,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t duplicate the soft texture like in the Italian Scoop shops, but we felt that producing low-overrun, low-fat, intensely flavored [with] appealing colors would mimic just about everything. We were so committed to doing this right that we sent our director of quality to Italy for two weeks to collect information that we needed to make the gelato.”
Cedar Crest currently produces its gelato in a pint package. Other flavors available are sea salt caramel, coffee caramel, hazelnut, peanut butter and vanilla bean.
Impressive assortment of flavors
Cedar Crest’s expansive collection of flavors is one of its unique selling points. Flavors that are extremely popular in the parlors help influence what will be brought to retail.
Some of the most popular flavors from the parlors that ended up in retail are Elephant Tracks (pieces of peanut butter cups and chocolate fudge swirled in chocolate ice cream), Pirate’s Bounty (M&M’S and chocolate sandwich cookies in caramel-flavored ice cream) and Caramel Explosion (caramel ice cream with a caramel swirl and chocolate-coated caramel mini cups). Most of the flavor inspiration comes from within the company by encouraging participation from all members of the Cedar Crest team.
“We start the process with our flavor development team and lay out guidelines and project timeframes. When developing new flavors, we involve the entire company, as well as outside groups such as the Wisconsin 4H Clubs,” Strube said. “Many of our unique flavors and names have come from within our company. We have contests within to encourage participation from all members of the Cedar Crest team.”
But not all inspiration comes from within.
“The last few years we have been doing a contest with the 4-H organizations in the state here, Kohlwey said. “And they’ve come up with some good flavors for us.”
A flavor called Superior Shores, developed by the Whittlesey Creek 4-H Club of Bayfield County in Wisconsin, was recently chosen as the winner of this year’s Cedar Crest’s 4-H Flavor Contest. The winning flavor features vanilla ice cream with chocolate “rocks” and a “wave” of blueberry and raspberry fruit swirl. The flavor will be sold throughout the summer at parlors that scoop Cedar Crest’s ice cream. Cedar Crest is a long-time 4-H supporter, Kohlwey noted.
Engaged with its customers
Cedar Crest has an ice cream parlor connected to its manufacturing plant in Manitowoc, which is just one way the company interacts with its customers. The company also operates an ice cream stand, managed by Robert Kohlwey, at most of the major summer events at Henry Maier Festival Park along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee, including the world’s largest music festival, Summerfest.
In addition, the company operates a stand at the Wisconsin State Fair and at Bastille Days at Cathedral Square in Milwaukee. And the Milwaukee County Zoo features Cedar Crest Ice cream at its store. The company also said it uses newspaper ads, magazine ads, radio advertising and Facebook to reach its customers.
“Sponsorships play a big part in our marketing, which includes radio advertising with the Milwaukee Brewers radio network, the Milwaukee Zoo and numerous local semi-pro teams,” Kohlwey said. “Our name is well known throughout the state, and sponsorships help reinforce that image.”
Most recently, the company committed $250,000 to the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center to help further educate people about agriculture in Wisconsin. The center will include hands-on learning opportunities, a birthing barn and a farm tour, according to Kohlwey.
With Cedar Crest’s donation, the company was able to name the center’s ice cream parlor, Ice Cream Acres, also allowing for its ice cream to be available for purchase at the parlor. The center is expected to open this spring in Manitowoc County.
The company also exhibits at the Wisconsin Grocers Show, the Wisconsin Petroleum Show, the National Restaurant Show and the Midwest Foodservice Expo, as well as many customer-specific food shows, to help grow its brand.
Growing the business
Kohlwey said the growth the company has seen through the years has elevated its status in Wisconsin from a small obscure ice cream company to a prominent player in the marketplace. It started with 300 accounts and now serves more than 3,000. Cedar Crest now employs just over 100 people.
Strube, who joined the company 10 years ago, noted one thing about the Kohlwey brothers — how well they have held the company together.
“[They’ve] been in business 41 years; you have four brothers and they work in four distinct areas, but you look around and there’s not a lot of companies that have that story,” he said. “That literally they started the company with nothing; 41 years later they’re all still active; no one has separated from the company. I think that’s a heck of an accomplishment.”
What’s in store for the future?
“Our plan is to continue to drive profitable, sustainable growth through high-quality products, new product innovations and geographic expansion,” Strube said.