Dishing it out, for 90 years
Here's a scoop: Wilcox Ice Cream is Vermont's oldest ice cream maker
EAST ARLINGTON — The recipe for making ice cream is simple compared to the recipe for making a successful ice cream company. It takes not only perseverance and long hours, but also dedication to the needs of retailers and customers, a willingness to spend days behind the wheel of a delivery truck and the moxie to try new things.
Oh, and one more ingredient: the ability to stand in a two-foot square for hours on end, day after day, at a 300-gallon-an-hour continuous ice cream freezer, filling a stream of containers that range from four-ounce cups to the three-gallon containers you can find in your favorite scoop shop.
"All of the retail containers are filled by me," said Christina Wilcox. "The only break I get is if we go into enough three-gallon tubs, so I can get five minutes or so to walk away."
Customers are often surprised, she said, to learn that all of the company's retail products are filled not by machine, but by hand.
It's a demanding job, but Wilcox isn't going to complain to the boss. She is the boss. Technically speaking, she's the vice president; her brother, Craig, is president; and their father, Howard, bears the title "master of all." The three share responsibilities for running the company. She and Craig are the fifth generation of Wilcoxes making ice cream, and there's a sixth generation at work now, too — her nephews Austin, Owen and Cole.
The Wilcox family has been making ice cream in southern Vermont for 90 years, which makes Wilcox Ice Cream the state's oldest continuous producer of the frozen treat. Howard "Dutch" Wilcox and his brother Roger began making ice cream in Manchester Village in 1929 — right around the same time that Howard Johnson was introducing ice cream in his small corner pharmacy in Quincy, Massachusetts, a decade and a half before Burt Baskin met Irv Robbins in California, and two generations before Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield set up shop in Burlington.
The ice cream was once made at the family farm on Route 7A just south of Manchester, and might still be there today but for a disastrous fire that struck on May 7, 2001. The milking barn and the ice cream manufacturing plant were destroyed, and there was not enough insurance to cover the loss.
The family decided to keep going. They found a succession of off-site locations where they could make their ice cream, eventually landing at Kingdom Creamery in East Hardwick, up in the Northeast Kingdom. It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive to get to the plant, but they were still carrying on the ice cream business. Wilcox Ice Cream had taken a licking, and kept on ticking.
The company did more than survive — it grew. Wilcox increased its revenues fivefold, and bought their current, 12,500-square-foot industrial facility in East Arlington in October 2015. From this scrupulously clean, brightly-lit plant, some 150,000 containers of Wilcox Ice Cream emerge each year, destined for locations across Vermont and as far east as Keene, New Hampshire; as far south as Great Barrington, Massachusetts; and as far west as Lake George, New York. The ice cream mix is made from Vermont milk specified to the Wilcox family recipe by St. Albans Creamery.
Since 2012, the trucks have also been carrying 1,200 other frozen products — breads, pizzas, cakes, and a variety of specialty foods among them. "We pride ourselves on working well with a network of people in the state of Vermont, because as long as their product can be frozen, we can distribute it," Wilcox said. This distribution system piggybacks onto the existing ice cream routes, bringing in revenue and making the operation more efficient.
That is, as efficient as it can be in a state where the population is so widely scattered. "Our customer base is anything from a small mom-and-pop convenience store to all the large chains, Hannaford, Shaw's and Price Chopper," Wilcox said. "We distribute to restaurants, to schools, because we have wholesale and retail sizes,
pretty much anyone as part of our target market.
"We have to accept the smaller purchase all along the way to make the whole thing work," she added. "If you're in a larger demographic area, your minimum order might be $300, where we're going to stop with a $32 tub. If we're driving by, then we need to take on that customer." There is no minimum order size, and deliveries are made either weekly or twice a month.
As Wilcox settles into its new plant, the product line continues to grow. In August 2017, production began of a special line of University of Vermont-branded ice cream, made from milk from the school's own student-run dairy herd and sold on campus. At the turn of the year, Wilcox began producing gelato and sorbet for Leonardo's, which had previously made its own products in Barre. "That's what we would call co-packing for another person, and it carries their own private label. It's jobs for people, it's the production plant in use," Wilcox said.
During the summer, the plant employs up to 16 people. The newest frozen treat is the 802 Bar, a sorbet or chocolate-coated ice cream bar on a wooden stick; production of these uses molds that date from the 1950s.
Vanilla holds the top spot among Wilcox's ice cream flavors, with sea salt caramel running a surprising second, but there's continual tinkering on that front, too. "We are known for what we call our specials, or our limited batches, which we greatly enjoy making," Christina Wilcox said. "We're big enough yet small enough to still make some small batches of fun flavors. In a couple of weeks we're going to be making graham cracker crunch. We're going to be doing a peanut butter ripple."
Austin will often experiment at the end of the day with various combinations, and the employees will serve as the tasting panel. Sometimes — as with red raspberry cheesecake, for instance — a limited batch flavor really catches on with customers, earning a permanent spot on the roster.
At the moment, there are about two dozen flavors in regular production, though not every one is available in every size. "In a production run, in one day, we could easily make 12 flavors, and most other companies don't do that," Wilcox said. "We have lots of transitions in the day, because our batch sizes are smaller."
Wilcox eats ice cream only while she's making it; it's part of her job to oversee product consistency. "I really love the ice cream at about 26 degrees — it's like soft-serve, there's nothing better," she said. She'll admit to having a favorite: "I'm partial to sea salt caramel, I would say, and probably mint chocolate chip." But rest assured, she said — they're all good.
David LaChance is news editor
of the Bennington Banner.
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