In the town of Marianna, Fla. — population approximately 6,000 — located close to the states of Alabama and Georgia, and within a couple of hours drive from Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, and the beautiful cities of Panama City Beach, Fla., and Pensacola, Fla., sits Southern Craft Creamery, which has grown considerably in just 10 years of business.
Although the Florida panhandle business — located in the Central Time Zone only minutes from the Eastern Time Zone — is still small compared to some dairy processors, owners Dale and Cindy Eade prefer a slow and steady growth pace.
The Eades are first-generation farmers, who opened Cindale Farms (the name combines their first names), located five miles north of the creamery, in 1994. In 2012, Dale and Cindy, along with their daughters Lauren O’Bryan and Meghan Austin and sons-in-law Zach O’Bryan and Brad Austin, decided to add ice cream processing to help sustain the business financially. Lauren and Zach have since followed a career path that takes them away from the farm and creamery, but continue to be a valuable resource to the family.
When visiting its Marianna location, 18 ice cream flavors are often available, including both year-round and seasonal flavors. These flavors are not just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. At Southern Craft, consumers’ taste buds are in for a treat with signature year-round flavors including Roasted Banana with Salted Peanuts, Tupelo Honey, Bay Laurel, and Wildflower Honey, as well as seasonal flavors including Bourbon Butter Pecan, Blackberry Buttermilk, Horchata, Dried Plum, and Rum, Espresso Almond Chocolate Chip, Kumquat, Earl Grey and Vanilla Porter.
“You can’t be an ice cream maker if you can’t make vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry,” Dale Eade told Dairy Foods. “Something that separates us from competitors is any flavor that is added to the ice cream, other than vanilla, we make.”
Overall, Southern Craft has more than 80 total flavors, including seasonal favorites. “We have Sweet Corn with Blackberry Compote that is in season right now. Sweet potato is in right now. We do a lot of savory flavors,” Eade reveals. “We have a Zucchini ice cream. So, we do a lot of traditional stuff, but then do things only crazy people do.
“We are working on a flavor called Spicy Pineapple, which is a pineapple ghost pepper ice cream,” he adds.
What inspires Southern Craft to come up with these unique ice cream flavors? “New flavors are not coming out. There are just combinations of things,” Eade answers. “So, we look at the really good chefs at nice restaurants where we like to eat. We will sit down and pick apart their menus and determine what we can use.”
This inspiration led to flavors such as Strawberry Balsamic ice cream, featuring balsamic vinegar like what’s found in salad dressing.
Obtaining the ingredients for some of these ice creams is also a story unto itself. Anything Southern Craft adds to its ice creams or twists into a flavor, it buys locally, with a couple of exceptions where an ingredient is simply not available nearby. However, in these cases, the dairy processor tries to find the closest provider of ingredients. Sometimes, though, it does need to search a bit farther to find what it needs.
“[For example], we do not have a local chocolatier. The closest one of quality we could find was in Asheville, N.C., called French Broad Chocolate,” Eade states.
Unlike many other processors, Southern Craft expanded its business in April 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, to offer milk.
“We wanted to diversify, so we first started to offer ice cream,” Meghan Austin says. “Ice cream is great because we can make it today and sell it tomorrow or we can sit on it for a month or two. The logistics made a lot of sense. That is much different than the shelf life of milk or aging cheese.”
But milk did make sense as an addition, even during the pandemic, she continues. “Ice cream grew in demand and people started asking how they could get our milk. They also asked about meat, butter, and cheese. So, we decided to start processing milk in a very small space in our creamery that is intended for ice cream production.”
Despite having only a small processing area, there were some positives attached. Namely, Meghan Austin could explore if processing milk would be worthwhile. “I wanted to see if it would be worth investing money in a larger-scale production. Pretty quickly, I realized it would be worth it,” she states.
In the end, adding milk was not a difficult decision, Merghan Austin adds, as it is the central component of everything the Marianna processor does. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to add bottled milk. We held off, but the demand was great, not only from customers, but the chefs we work with always asked what we could get them besides ice cream.”
Yet, there were logistical questions to consider. In 2019, Southern Craft began strongly considering processing milk. But first it had to figure what packaging would be best and if it was feasible in its current location. Once the processor decided to go ahead with offering milk, it still needed approval from the Dairy Division of the Florida Department of Agriculture. That came in April 2020 and that’s why Southern Craft starting processing milk in the middle of the pandemic.
“We waited for the approvals and were not going to stop then [because there was a pandemic],” Meghan Austin says.
Southern Craft Creamery has been in its current Jefferson Street building for three years. Although it considered adding some processing facilities to its farm, the Eade and Austin families believe in supporting Marianna in any way it can, especially following Hurricane Michael, a rare Category 5 storm that devastated the entire region on October 10, 2018, responsible for 59 deaths and an estimated $25.5 billion in damage.
With the help of Marianna’s city manager, whose office is literally a stone’s throw away from Southern Craft Creamery, the processor was able to lease its current building at a nominal rate and assist in the rebirth of Marianna, which is currently taking place.
Grants helped pay for the remodeling of the building. The 4,000-square-foot building is currently undergoing renovations to allow for much more milk bottling and processing. The expansion is expected to be completed this year.
In addition to milk and ice cream, Southern Craft sells Amavida Coffee Roasters coffee, as well as beef from steers at Cindale Farms and cheese from Thomasville, Ga.-based Sweet Grass Dairy, whom the Eade and Austin families have had a friendship with dating back decades.
Another way to help the local community is via a commissary kitchen Southern Craft will soon open, which will enable people to cook their products in an inspected kitchen and sell them to consumers.
Southern Craft also supports other businesses outside of its area. It self-delivers milk and ice cream products spanning 200 miles from Pensacola to Tallahassee, and also brings some of the products sold by its customers back to Marianna.
Southern Craft Creamery ice cream products are especially a big hit on the affluent 35-mile stretch along US Route 30A, an area that straddles the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico and includes Panama City.
Fortunately, Southern Craft found Amavida Coffee Roasters as a source of coffee for their ice cream. They provided Southern Craft with several different varieties of coffee and tea that they in turn made into ice cream.
“[Amavida] was so impressed with us that they gave us their PR person and told him to give us every contact they had along 30A” Dale Eade recalled. “We just started going down the beach. Early on, our business was focused right on the beach. But our business grew to the point where we didn’t have to be susceptible to one area. In Florida, 30 miles is only one small swath for a hurricane [which can take a lot of our business away]. So, we decided to diversify.”
As impressive as a 200-mile coverage area seems for a smaller processor, Southern Craft used to cover even more ground. “Before $4 to $5 gas and COVID, we went to Orlando. There was a family who had a group of restaurants there who really wanted our ice cream and it made the trip worthwhile. And we had a customer in Cocoa Beach, [Fla.], who piggybacked on that,” Dale Eade stated. “But COVID was not kind to that restaurant group in a tourist area. One of them was actually right outside of Disney’s gates.”
The next phase of expansion for Southern Craft beyond milk and ice cream is offering butter, which Meghan Austin says should happen in the near future.
Butter may not be the only future expansion for Southern Craft Creamery. Cheese is also being considered in the long-term. Potentially available sooner will be ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee. “I cannot name names, but a company has approached us about making a ready-to-drink coffee product,” says Meghan Austin. “It would be a co-branded, co-packed product. We have been in contact about this for more than a year and are looking to move forward with it.”
Overall, the goal is for Southern Craft to diversify in an effort to remain competitive in the marketplace for many years to come. “I would say a dairy under 2,000 cows is in real danger of no longer being competitive,” Dale Eade cautions. “The cost of production would not let us compete with those economies of scale. We had to think of things that would add value to our farm to make it sustainable over time. We want to keep the farm running, and we had to do things beyond just milking cows.”
Cindy Eade adds that when she and her husband opened Cindale Farms, they knew they didn’t want it to be a large business, however.
Continues Dale Eade: “The ultimate goal is to milk as few cows as we need to do whatever sales we need.”
While Southern Craft expands to support the future of the business, it also does so with an eye always on sustainability.
“Dairy farms do an amazing job as environmentalists and recycling products, whether that is what is fed to the cow, recycling water, or using manure as fertilizer. So, from a farm aspect, we have a great story to tell,” Meghan Austin suggests. “Transitioning that over to processing within a limited budget has been challenging for us. There are a lot of things I wanted to do in our facility that our finances did not allow for initially. But we have a lot of plans, including putting solar panels on the roof of our building.”
Meghan Austin adds though that despite the costs, Southern Craft has the utmost respect for its community. “Being sustainable and being able to provide for our community is really high on our list of goals.”
Southern Craft owes a lot to its community. “We could not have had the success we have had without community support,” Cindy Eade concludes. “Whether it is the [Marianna] city manager or our customers, everyone has been really wonderful to us.”