In 1924, The Mooresville Enterprise led off its February 21st issue with a scoop on a new business coming to town. Its headline read, “Mooresville is to have an Ice Cream Factory.”
Ever since, generations of ice cream lovers have been able to buy locally made Deluxe Ice Cream, including the famous Deluxe Nutty Cone and the Mooresville Bar, at convenience stores, restaurants and grocery stores throughout the area.
This year Mooresville Ice Cream Company is introducing a second brand, called Front Porch Carolina Churned Ice Cream, featuring Southern-inspired flavors. It premiered the new 15-flavor line in January at the Best of Our State Festival at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, where over 800 people sampled the different offerings, including Sassy Strawberry, Peachy Kean and Sweetie Tea.
“People enjoyed both the flavors and the names,” says Robert Acree, general manager of Mooresville Ice Cream. “We had a lot of positive feedback.”
Acree says the Front Porch line features uniquely crafted flavors with Southern-inspired recipes, designed to evoke memories of summer nights spent gathering with family and friends on the front porch. Flavors like Scarlett Red Velvet and Nana’s Banana Pudding will be available at local Food Lions in March, Bi-Los and Lowe’s in April and other grocery store retailers throughout the Carolinas this spring. It will also be available for tasting at local events and festivals during the upcoming months.
“We are looking for as many opportunities as possible to introduce folks to Front Porch Ice Cream,” says Acree. “We hope to scoop and serve 3 million people at events this year.”
The Cream of the Crop
The history of ice cream in Mooresville actually goes back to the establishment of the Mooresville Cooperative Creamery in 1914. Much of the butter fat sold in Hickory was coming from Mooresville and Iredell country, so local dairy farmers joined forces to organize their own creamery. Stock was sold for $25 a share and $6,000 was raised in two days. Stockholders were limited to four shares each in order to insure that the operation was truly a “cooperative.”
The Mooresville Cooperative Creamery produced large quantities of butter fat at the plant on the corner of Moore Avenue and Broad Street and sold it in regional markets. Autumn Leaf butter was also available in local grocery stores.
In 1937, the Creamery installed pasteurizing equipment to make Grade A milk. Whole milk was purchased from farmers in the cooperative and processed in the local plant. Daily delivery from the Creamery resulted in additional income for the farmers and freedom from the delivery and collection process.
Once the Creamery was established, it made sense to use the surplus cream to make ice cream.
The Mooresville Ice Cream Company was incorporated in 1924 with an authorized capital of $50,000. The original investors included many of Mooresville’s most prominent businessmen of the period—B.A. Troutman, Charles Mack, Side Mack, H. C. Newsome, Joe Ikall, Ben Salem, and Thomas Morrow. B.A. Troutman was elected president, a position he held until 1940.
The company organizers all had something to contribute to the new business. Robert S. Edmiston produced, bottled and sold milk. Morrow also had a diary. Charlie Mack had access to wholesale sugar, while Ikall could sell ice cream at his candy kitchen on North Main Street. B. A. Troutman owned the land beside the co-operative Creamery and was a contractor. He built the ice cream plant at 172 Broad Street, which is still the home of Mooresville Ice Cream today.
In 1924, the W.N. Johnston and Son business, located nearby on Broad Street, had just expanded its ice-producing capacity from 25 tons to 45 tons a day and would soon be supplying the ice cream company with up to 45 300-pound blocks of ice daily.
R.C. Millsaps, who had experience making ice cream, was recruited from Statesville to run the new company. Millsaps joined the operation in March 1924 and production began the next month. Millsaps was a purist who believed that premium ice cream must be handcrafted in small batches and made with the freshest cream and highest-quality ingredients, a core belief that made Deluxe Ice Cream a favorite with Carolina ice cream lovers for decades.
The business grew and by 1929 the company was using the first refrigerated truck in the county to deliver its products. Millsaps managed the company until he became president in 1943. By 1947, he had bought out all the original investors and Mooresville Ice Cream became a true family business with R.C.’s five sons and three daughters all working at the plant at one time another. Sons Ralph Jr. Harvey and Clyde all made careers there.
By 1972, the company employed 18 people full-time and another five part-time. At that time, the company was producing 380 gallons of ice cream or 500 dozen Popsicles an hour. Under the direction of Gene Millsaps, Ralph Sr.’s grandson, the Mooresville Ice Cream Company eventually produced 3,000 gallons of ice cream a week in 35 flavors.
Local historian and newspaper columnist O.C. Stonestreet tells several stories about Deluxe Ice cream. One is that the old Lawrence Hospital in Mooresville was recruiting a physician, who was having trouble committing, until the hospital staff had the Mooresville Ice Cream Company send him several gallons of their product packed in dry ice. The sweet treat sealed the deal.
Another story is that when the federal government came out with new regulations several decades ago, one of the Millsaps brothers contacted a government agent for clarification. He was told that if the product was under 10 percent butter fat, it had to be labeled “ice milk,” but if it was more than 10 percent, the product could be labeled “ice cream.”
“Well,” said Millsaps, “I guess we can cut the butter fat content in Deluxe in half and still have ice cream.”
Continuing the Tradition
In 2009 Mooresville Ice Cream Company changed ownership when it was purchased by a partnership between Stamey Farms of Statesville and the Alarcon family of Ecuador. The Stamey family have been farming in Iredell County since 1951 and have been exporting cattle to the global cattle market since 1975. The Alarcon family controls Tonicorp SA, Ecuador’s leading yogurt producer and maker of the Topsy ice cream brand.
“The Stameys are an old Iredell family who have been in business for more than 50 years,” says Acree, “and Toni is a major Ecuadorian corporation with strong ties to the United States. The Alarcons have been friends with the Stameys for 20 years and they were looking for an opportunity to do more business in the United States.”
The partnership hired Acree to run the Mooresville Ice Cream Company as general manager. Acree, a graduate of the University of Michigan, began his career in the dry cleaning business, before spending 10 years with ice cream icon Ben & Jerry’s. When the Vermont company was sold to the British-Dutch multinational food giant Unilever, he moved to California to work for Foster Farms Dairies.
Acree’s 22 years of experience in the ice cream industry should help him fulfill the company’s vision of introducing new brands and expanding beyond the local area served by the Deluxe brand.
“It makes good business sense to move beyond the borders established by Deluxe,” asserts Acree. “All the major ice cream manufactures, Dreyers, Blue Bell, Unilever, have multiple brands. Deluxe is very stable, but a new brand will open the avenue for new people who want to come in. With Front Porch, we can take shelf space in stores outside our current area.”
Acree understands what goes into the business of creating an ice cream brand from the initial marketing and formalization to the production and packaging.
“The number one rule is to be consistent,” he explains. “You have to do it the right way every time.”
Mooresville Ice Cream Company is making its move to expand at a good time. For the most part, the recession’s been good for ice cream makers and sellers. Market research firm Packaged Goods estimates ice cream sales in supermarkets and scoop shops rose 1.1 percent in 2009 to $14.5 billion. Time magazine reports that Lynda Utterbvack of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association pegged sales in 2010 up 25 percent from the year before.
“When times are hard, ice cream is a relatively inexpensive way to feel good,” says Harold Waxman, owner of the industry newsletter Ice Cream Reporter.
Acree reports that a lot of team work went into developing the Front Porch brand.
“It’s business 101 to want to develop a good quality product,” he asserts “We wanted to accomplish a feeling for a time in people’s lives when they spent time sitting on the front porch with family and friends.”
To that end, Front Porch Ice Cream comes in 15 flavors. Their names alone evoke a Southern culture, from Sweetie Tea to Scarlett Red Velvet. Each one is made from fresh cream and ripe fruit, and most contain a bit of a surprise in their taste.
Sassy Strawberry, for instance, has a touch of Dutch chocolate added to its rich strawberry flavor. Lemony Sunshine combines lemon ice cream with lemon custard. Nana’s Banana Pudding adds crispy vanilla wafers to banana ice cream. Blackberry Crumble mixes rich vanilla ice cream, blackberries and sweet crumbles. Dandy Peppermint Candy adds crunchy flecks of real peppermint candy to peppermint ice cream.
Other flavors are Peachy Keen, Chocolate Rocker, Mountain Mint Chip, Dreamy Vanilla Cream, Praline Coastal Crunch, Homestyle Butter Pecan, Sublime Key Lime, and Black Cherry Twilight.
To showcase the new brand, Mooresville Ice Cream is revamping its own ice cream retail operation in Mooresville. It is transforming the small, cramped store at the entrance to its production facility on Broad Street to a true ice cream parlor, open seven days a week with longer hours and an extended menu.
In addition to scoops of ice cream, customers will be able to order shakes, sundaes and other ice cream products and enjoy them in a “retro” shop reminiscent of a bygone era. The new parlor, adjacent to the current facility, will seat 20 people inside and more on the sidewalk outside in good weather.
“We should double the business we do now,” says Acree. “We’ll also provide a unique experience that should add to the foot traffic in downtown Mooresville.”
At a time when businesses in general are struggling to survive, it’s especially rare that such a local family-owned businesses has survived so many years—and definitely something worth celebrating with a few scoops!