Raising the bar inbody
Besides making ice cream, Tom and Kathy Truhlar restore cars and trucks. From left: a 1961 International Harvester, a 1972 Chevrolet three-door Suburban and a 1953 Grumman Olsen step van. The Truhlars live in the apartment above the ice cream plant, just like the previous owners.

Our love affair with Kent’s Ice Cream of Fort Atkinson, Wis., started in the early 1990s just after we had purchased a classic car that needed work. To find the necessary parts, we needed to drive five hours south from our home in Iron Mountain, Mich., to a large car swap meet in Jefferson, Wis.

At the meet, we saw many spectators holding the largest ice cream bars we had ever seen. We learned that these handmade treats, called Kent’s Big Bar, were a huge tradition at the Jefferson Swap Meets, held twice a year in April and September. We ended up eating three each that day before we left to drive home. The ice cream bars became our tradition for the next eight years.

Fast-forward to 1999. Kent’s had put up the business for sale, but in the entire year they had not received a serious inquiry to keep the old dairy plant running. Back home, the possibility of not getting our “Big Bar” at the next swap meet was weighing heavy on our minds. We finally called the meet promoter, got the information about the owners and made an appointment to meet them.

After one meeting we understood why it was hard to get any interest in purchasing the processing facility. It was housed in an old A&W restaurant and the owners lived in an upstairs apartment. Although they attended other events throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, this was a very small operation requiring immense work hours with limited income potential. The decision to purchase the business had to be based on the love of the product and to keep an old tradition alive.

A traveler’s destination

Kent’s Ice Cream started in 1941 as an ice cream shop on Highway 12, which is a main corridor connecting Minneapolis to Madison to Chicago. Kent’s quickly became a tradition for not only the locals, but also for travelers stopping in to have a cone, shake, malt or sundae. All the ice cream was made with a prototype batch freezer at Creamery Package just two blocks away.

The business changed hands three times before being purchased by Jim and Donna Fiedler who moved it into their old ex-A&W building eight blocks away around 1980. It continued as Kent’s Ice Cream, producing the same wonderful ice cream using the same recipes.

About a year later, the Fiedlers were approached by a local promoter who was starting a car swap meet and show. They took their hand-dipped ice cream to this event but the time-consuming scooping resulted in low sales and sore arms. Jim decided he would have to develop a different product that could be produced at his dairy plant and taken to the show all ready to be handed out to customers.

He developed what is now known as the famous “Kent’s Big Bar.” It is 4.5 ounces of ice cream (made from the 1940s’ recipes), then dipped in a wonderful milk chocolate coating and rolled in nuts. Once the Fiedlers developed the frozen novelty and fine-tuned the process, they decided to vend the product at other events, too. It wasn’t long before their show schedule and production time forced them to make the decision to close the retail portion down.

Our leap of faith

We purchased Kent’s Ice Cream in January 2000. It was a total leap of faith as we did not know how to manufacture this incredible product. I grew up on a dairy farm which my family still operates and my husband worked on his father’s Morning Glory Dairy route as a teenager and young adult. But both of us had been out of the dairy industry for more than 15 years.

After owning Kent’s Ice Cream for over 13 years, the most-asked question we receive is if we still eat our own product. We can proudly say that yes we do and the tradition continues for us and many others at many of the same events.

We use the finest cream (no UHT or shelf stable product for us) and manufacture each Big Bar by hand. We control all aspects of the manufacture, storage and sale of our product so we know that every Big Bar is outstanding.

Besides three ice cream flavors dipped in chocolate and nuts, we also manufacture two ice cream flavors dipped in chocolate only, one nonfat yogurt flavor dipped in chocolate and nuts, a sorbet for the nondairy customer and a no-sugar-added custard bar. We do not add a product to our menu unless we think it is something that would make you drive many hours just to eat one or more.

You could say we are the current owners of Kent’s Ice Cream but we actually consider ourselves the current caretakers as we hope that someday someone else will have the same passion we have for this incredible product and carry on the tradition of the Kent’s Big Bar well into the future. 

Dairy Foods seeks essays from dairy processors. Contact carperj@dairyfoods.com.