When you think of the business of ice cream, you cannot help but think of happiness. It is no wonder then that three generations of Thomsens have spent over ninety years making Schoep’s Ice Cream Company Inc. not only one of the largest independent ice cream manufacturers in Wisconsin but the United States as well.
“My grandfather was trained as a butter maker,” said Schoep’s Ice Cream Chief Executive Officer Alan Thomsen, of German immigrant Peter Thomsen who came to the United States in 1911 to follow a dream. “He landed in Wisconsin in the twenties and got to know E.J. Schoephoester, a grocery store owner who was part of a group of local business owners. Back in those days, little grocery stores were the only place that you could get ice cream because they were the only place that had refrigeration. He began operating the ice cream business for Schoephoester in 1928 until 1937 when he bought the recipes and the brand from him and branched out on his own.”
Ninety years later, this remains a family-owned-and-operated business with three generations and revenues of $60 million. The company operates from two locations – one for production and one for storage – and employs 130 people. Its suppliers are local, national, and international. Through distribution deals, the frozen products are available in all fifty states, as well as Puerto Rico.
The company’s major brands are Schoep’s Ice Cream and Gilles Custard. Between the two brands, the products include ice cream, light ice cream, frozen yogurt, frozen custard, sherbet, and novelty bars. The Gilles brand is unique and, as Alan says, “pretty gosh dang good.” In fact, their custard was fifteen years ahead of the curve in supplying the now-in-demand product.
Currently, there are five family members working in the business in addition to Alan, including his uncle Paul, brother Richard, and cousins Eric and John. The fourth generation has also now begun with Alan’s twenty-one-year-old son Brendan joining the firm, and each of them has worked from the ground up in the business, doing every job in the factory so that they have a true understanding of how to best serve their customers.
Alan reflected on a comment his son had made about starting at the bottom and wondering how working in the warehouse equated to the sales and marketing he had studied in school. “I told him you learn a lot more about sales and marketing lifting fifty-pound bags to start than you ever will starting in marketing and trying to figure out how you got to a finished product,” he mused.
He believes that “to survive as a family organization, it’s very important that you do know all those pieces so you can make good decisions and hear the opportunities.”
Part of the reason the family has been able to keep the business running for almost a century is their willingness to embrace the changing market and try to evolve with consumer demands by using technology and new formats to improve operations.
“I think the biggest changes have been in the in the last five to seven years, and that is really the introduction of real-time information and people adapting and adopting that information into their daily lives,” he said. “So if you look at buying habits that used to be that ‘I’m going to go buy a half gallon,’ now it’s more ‘I’m going to buy a pint, and I’m going to buy chocolate-covered banana today, and then tomorrow I’m going to buy caramel macchiato,’ so the commitment level to larger format has changed dramatically.”
Another reason the company continues to thrive is its old-school approach to employee retention. Several employees have spent their entire careers with Schoep’s – well over thirty-five years. “I think our longest-standing member retired four years ago, and he had been with us over forty years,” said Alan. “He actually started six months before I was born and worked every day in the freezer.”
The company refers to its employees as members and those in a supervisor or manager role as coaches. It began doing this a few years ago because management started thinking about how they interact with their staff. No one wants to be a number or just an employee; they would rather identify as being part of something, being a member, being a part of Schoep’s. That feeling of belonging is more important to Alan than actual revenues.
Many members have been with the business for fifteen to twenty years, but there are also many new members who have been with the company only three to four months, and Alan is most proud of continually evolving as a company and welcoming people who want to be part of something that is “pretty dang good.”
“I’m most proud of the members that come to work every day and deliver fantastic products,” he explained. “It takes a lot of know-how, a lot of hard work, to do those things, and so I’m really proud of them, I’m proud of their efforts and their desire to be part of the organization, and I think, from their perspective, that they view themselves as part of the family business as well,” he said.
“We spend a lot of time trying to find the appropriate touch points to know and understand what they’re experiencing on a daily basis, and once we find a good member or a good coach, we want to make sure that they’re here for a long time,” said Alan. “We want to be able to reach back to them and see what’s working and what’s not. What are we missing? How can we make it better? And somewhere in there, we may find a short-term solution and get those touch points.”
Schoep’s is also committed to the communities it serves, giving back to local churches and any of the local engine houses. And it is involved with a local charity called the Keep Wisconsin Warm and Cool Foundation. “We charge our coaches with being asked to do a minimum eight hours of community service a year,” said Alan.
The biggest challenge is always competing with national companies that have ten times the marketing budget. Schoep’s competes against national brands like Unilever and Nestle but is staying true to itself and finding its own path to compete against these brands. Its brands have made a name for themselves regionally, but it requires a bigger effort to compete on a national stage.
The other challenge is finding good quality members who want to grow with the business. In the city of Madison, much like the city of Tampa Florida, unemployment basically zero, so it is difficult to find people who want to work in the more traditional way that the Thomsen family have always worked, as opposed to using more automation and technology.
In terms of new flavors, Schoep’s is always looking at what the trends are. “You know what I’m looking for is whether it is fresh and new or is it to something old that needs to be revitalized,” said Alan. “We try to innovate in a way that makes sense for both old and new. So if you’re a customer that has been buying Gilles custard all their life, you’re going to get that great vanilla, but if you’re someone who is a jet-setter and wants something unique and different and you want a caramel macchiato or chocolate peanut butter, we have those unique and different flavors.”
Over the years, the company has made every flavor that one can imagine. The most popular flavors in the Schoep’s ice cream line are vanilla, moose tracks, and malted milk – one of Alan’s grandfather’s original recipes, and in the Gilles line, vanilla is a perennial favorite but so are some of their newer, more indulgent lines like chocolate peanut butter and chocolate hazelnut.
When asked what the craziest flavor they ever produced, Alan knew right away. “I know my uncle would tell you it would be Tiger Tiger, which was an orange sherbet and black licorice, and it was made back in the sixties. It was a nice idea, but it was an epic fail.”
As for the future of Schoep’s Ice Cream, there are plans to develop non-dairy products that meet company standards. Whatever it produces, Alan is confident that there will be another ninety years of putting smiles on the faces of customers.
“I think we will be around in the next generations because the reality of it is that someday, someone else’s family could be running this business, so long as it is a tight-knit family and we’re teaching and training the next generation,” he said. “It matters not what their last name is, what matters is that they’re keeping the Schoep’s name held high and continue to be stable and be a quality organization.”
What else can you expect from a company in the business of making people happy?