Moments after Dairy Foods arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., in July, the rental car clerk asked what the car was needed for.
“To visit Hudsonville Ice Cream.”
“That is my favorite ice cream. I will not eat anything else,” the clerk responded. “Tell them I said that.”
Ice cream manufacturer Hudsonville Ice Cream, the Dairy Foods 2023 Plant of the Year, is both well-known and clearly beloved by those residing in western Michigan. Hudsonville, located in Holland, Mich., just 20 minutes from picturesque Lake Michigan, and a few miles from its namesake town, technically could have received expanded honors beyond Plant of the Year. “Facility of the Year” is perhaps more accurate.
This is because the plant is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Upon arriving at its headquarters, visitors enter a pristine waiting room with a waterfall and winding staircases as a backdrop. Once past this initial entrance, much more is waiting. Individual offices and a large conference room await, as does a lunchroom featuring a fireplace, tables, and restaurant-style booths, as well as a video display wall that shares key topics for the week, celebrates birthdays, employee anniversaries, and other items of interest.
“We have seen the novelty category grow substantially in the past five years. It really spiked during COVID. It has settled down since, but it continues to do well, and we see an opportunity in the market.”
— CJ Ellens, head of sales and marketing, Hudsonville Ice Cream
Although Hudsonville Ice Cream moved into its current building shortly after the Ellens family bought the business from the Hoezee family in 2003, many of its features are new. CJ Ellens, head of sales and marketing, stresses the impressive lunchroom is incredibly important as it allows for team members to converse and perhaps come up with new ideas. “The lunch room is the heartbeat of the organization. It’s where we all come together, build relationships, create new ideas, and of course enjoy our Hudsonville Ice cream.”
CJ Ellens adds employee longevity has been excellent, with some team members now serving Hudsonville for more than 35 years, a positive sign for any company. “We had 17 employees when we purchased the company,” he notes. “Five of those 17 are still here 20 years later. For them to be able to adapt and grow with us is awesome. We are blessed to have such loyal employees.
“One of those [five] employees moved from an individual freezer forklift operator to now running the whole freezer for us,” CJ Ellens adds.
Hudsonville Ice Cream has championed technology at its western Michigan plant, including the use of robotics.
The Michigan manufacturer believes people deserve great tasting ice cream. They want to delight the consumer and create excitement in the category. This is evidenced by many of its more than 30 ice cream flavors, including Bananas Foster, Blue Moon, Caramel Popcorn Movie Mix, and Chocolate Raspberry Indulgence.
With its scrounds (square-round, 48-ounce packages), Ellens states Hudsonville was the first to put a foil seal with tamper-evident capability.
Hudsonville Ice Cream is also proud of its co-branding relationship with Little Debbie, producing Birthday Cake, Cosmic Brownie, Fudge Round, Honey Bun, Nutty Bar, Oatmeal Creme Pies, Star Crunch, Strawberry Shortcake Roll, Swiss Roll, Unicorn Cakes and Zebra Cakes ice cream flavors, as well as Nutty Bars Ice Cream Bars.
“Our talented R&D team formulated all the recipes for Little Debbie ice cream. This has been a fun, collaborate effort between Hudsonville Ice Cream and the McKee Family.” CJ Ellens said.
Hudsonville took on a new journey in 2022, adding frozen novelties to its lineup with its Hudsonville Salted Caramel, Strawberry Shortcake and Vanilla Milk Chocolate varieties.
“We have three Hudsonville Ice Cream brand SKUs of novelties — all made with real ice cream — and we launched the Little Debbie Nutty Bar,” CJ Ellens said. “We have seen the novelty category grow substantially in the past five years. It really spiked during COVID. It has settled down since, but it continues to do well, and we see an opportunity in the market.”
Inside the plant, Hudsonville has championed automation, with robotics at the forefront of palletizing. “Our investment in robotics has allowed us to meet the demands of the market while staying true to our focus of people.” CJ Ellens says. “Investing in automation has allowed us to continue to build our efficiencies while creating opportunities for our employees to develop new skill sets and capabilities, and consistently deliver an exceptional product to the marketplace.”
Another newer addition to Hudsonville’s facilities is a large freezer to help the company deliver an exceptional experience to its customers with continued growth. “We service customers throughout the country out of this facility,” CJ Ellens says after showing the freezer. “We saw an opportunity to service our customers in a better way through this investment.”
Each morning, the company gets to see and taste the fruits of its prior day’s labor at the plant, as Hudsonville does something both important and fun. It has a daily taste test to determine many things, including if the right inclusion mix is in place. Fruits, candy, nuts, and cookie dough are among the inclusions Hudsonville offers in its ice cream.
Regarding inclusions, food safety is of utmost importance at Hudsonville Ice Cream, adds Maria White, supplier quality manager. “We have to make sure the suppliers we onboard have robust material food controls in place. They need to have metal detectors to detect foreign materials. So, when we receive inclusions, we know they are free from foreign materials,” she said. “It is a multifaceted approach. We also have foreign material controls, we have filters, and we have X-rays and metal detectors.”
Machines that are involved in this process at the western Michigan plant are tested on an hourly basis to make sure they are functioning properly.
Employee training is another important aspect of food safety, White continues. “When they see something, they say something. Everything has to work in unison to get safe, high quality, great tasting product to our consumers,” she says.
Although Hudsonville Ice Cream warmly embraces technology via automation and plenty of new equipment, it does not forget its past. Not to be missed inside the plant, the processor has painted silos in bright and fun colors, reminding everyone that ice cream is a fun thing to make. In fact, an original silo from the 1970s has been restored and made its way to the current location.
Back then, the silo was outside in a field and the original founder hired someone to put a stencil on the front of their Chevrolet. “They shined the light from a hill across the road,” Ellens said. “They hand-stenciled everything on the silo.”
Hudsonville Ice Cream was originally founded in 1895 by a co-op of dairy farmers. In 1926 the co-op began making ice cream. The company incorporates the same base ice cream recipe today, and still sells five of the six original flavors.
The Hoezee family purchased the business in the early 1930s and grew the business to tremendous heights until ultimately selling to the Ellens family.
After selling Hudsonville Ice Cream to the Ellens, Dell Hoezee, the eldest of the four Hoezee brothers, continued on and leveraged his seventy years of ice cream experience to help the Ellens family build the current plant it operates in today.
“We bought the company in 2003, which came with the old facility. It had a lot of challenges with wastewater, transportation and the ability to grow,” CJ Ellens recalls. “Luckily, we were able to team up with Dell’s knowledge and combine it with my dad’s automotive experience to build a great facility, something that both families could be proud of. In fact, Del still comes to our facility and visits us occasionally.”
“It has been a lot of fun to take what the Hoezee’s started and build the business to what it is today,” CJ Ellens adds.
CJ Ellens reflected on the company’s history by harking back to 2003, when he was in high school. Just after his family purchased the company, he worked on the lines and in palletizing, prior to automation. After graduating from college in western Michigan, he served a northern California processor for two years before deciding to return to Hudsonville, where he has been for the past 11 years.
As Hudsonville approaches its 100th anniversary, CJ Ellens discussed the Hudsonville corporate philosophy.
“We make a great product that is real ice cream,” he relays. “What makes it even richer is who we make ice cream with. It is all about our employees, customers, vendors and equipment manufacturers.”
These relationships include co-packing for both startups and large national brands, while sourcing from local farms, all located within 40 to 60 miles from its location, from where Hudsonville Ice Cream sources its milk.
Building strong relationships goes one step further, as Hudsonville teams with the local police department. “We process ice cream for them, and they even have an ice cream truck they use to develop relationships within the community,” CJ Ellens reveals. “It is tough to build relationships during tough moments [in the community], so the thought process is to find a creative approach.”
On the sustainability front, Hudsonville has invested in a wastewater treatment plant. “It was a great thing to do,” he says. “As we grow in size, we want to take care of the community we are in. Success is not only about making great ice cream but also working to improve our community through the lives of our employees, their families, and partners in the community.”
Sustainability is very important for Hudsonville Ice Cream as it soon looks to the next 100 years, CJ Ellens stresses. Although he does not expect industrywide ice cream sales to show gangbuster growth in the near term, Hudsonville continues to grow.
“For the industry as a whole, unit volumes are down, and prices are up. We continue to see consumers move to novelties,” CJ Ellens reveals. “What we have also seen as an underlying trend is really strong growth of premium ice cream and frozen desserts. We are seeing some softness in pints. However, family size, such as 48-ounce scrounds are doing well because the value is there. People are more cost conscious than they were during COVID, when they had more disposable income.”
Long term, CJ Ellens expects overall ice cream sales to be flat or decline by 1% or 2% annually. “How consumers engage with ice cream and the format they use to consume it will change over time,” he says.
Ice cream is an indulgence and some consumers do not view it as a must-purchase item. “But in terms of Hudsonville, we are bucking that trend,” CJ Ellens mentions. “We are really positioned well in the ice cream category.”
An exciting honor
Tina Floyd, a three-decade J.M. Smucker Co. veteran, is certain to be a huge part of Hudsonville Ice Cream’s future. Floyd joined Hudsonville as its CEO on Feb. 13.
“I am thrilled to be joining the Hudsonville team as it enters another year of tremendous growth,” Floyd wrote in a news release when the CEO announcement was made in January. “This is a family-owned organization that values its people, the community it calls home, and the proprietary process they have developed that produces some of the best-tasting ice cream on the market. I look forward to working collaboratively with this exceptional team to build toward an even brighter future.”
Floyd thanked Dairy Foods for the Plant of the Year honor, emphasizing its importance to Hudsonville Ice Cream. “We are honored to receive this award from Dairy Foods,” she said. “Our continued growth wouldn’t be possible without great advancement in our processes, large-scale application of new technologies, and above all, amazing people willing to take on the challenges that those goals present. This award is a testament to our team’s commitment to quality and innovation.”