July is National Ice Cream Month, and if that’s not enough good news for you, July 16 is National Ice Cream Day.
From family-owned businesses like Plainwell Ice Cream to dairies such as Sherman’s Ice Cream in South Haven, which has been in existence since 1916, there is no shortage of places in Southwest Michigan where you can go to observe these occasions with a scoop or two.
So what flavor do Southwest Michiganders prefer to eat to cool off in the summer heat? According to Dave Gaylord, who, along with his parents Art and Judy Gaylord, makes and sells Plainwell Ice Cream, area ice cream lovers order a whole lot of vanilla. If that makes us sound like a boring lot, rest assured that vanilla is the base for myriad ice cream concoctions, from milkshakes to banana splits to hot fudge sundaes.
But after the perennial favorites and old standbys of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, our preferences get a lot more interesting.
“There’s about four flavors that are all pretty close to each other in popularity” at Plainwell Ice Cream’s retail spot at 621 E. Bridge St. in Plainwell, says Gaylord: Salted Caramel, Island City Fudge, French Silk and butter pecan.
Island City Fudge is vanilla ice cream with a thick fudge swirl and fudge pieces. French Silk has a rich chocolate base with chocolate flakes added to it.
That’s more like it.
Love the fudge
Island City Fudge’s popularity reaches beyond the “Island City” of Plainwell. Rita Sertic, co-owner of Apple Knockers Ice Cream Parlor, at 115 W. Prairie St. in Vicksburg, confirms that her customers love Island City Fudge and butter pecan, both of which Apple Knockers gets from Plainwell Ice Cream. Apple Knockers sells more than 60 flavors of ice cream, some from Plainwell and others from Ashby’s Sterling Ice Cream, in Oceana County’s Shelby Township.
Apple Knockers is one of 35 local distributors of Plainwell Ice Cream, which makes about 65 flavors and 50,000 gallons of ice cream a year in 100-gallon batches. Plainwell Ice Cream is made in the same building where its ice cream shop is located.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Key Lime Pie are other favorites of Apple Knockers patrons, says Sertic, who co-owns the shop with her mom, Paula Hochstetler, and sister Angie Palomaki. She says kids particularly can’t get enough of those electric-colored flavors Superman, Blue Moon and Cotton Candy Confetti.
What does a flavor like Superman taste like? “I always tell people, ‘It tastes like blue,’” Sertic says with a laugh. “I honestly don’t know how to describe it.”
As far as blue ice creams go, Apple Knockers also carries Blueberry Marble, one of Plainwell Ice Cream’s many seasonal offerings. Appearing every June and July during blueberry season, Blueberry Marble is a huge hit, along with pumpkin, a fall favorite that the Gaylords have been making for 20 years.
Bob Eisenman, who has owned Sherman’s Ice Cream and Dairy Bar, at 1601 Phoenix Road in South Haven, since 1988, has a word for the expansion of flavors an ice cream business offers over the months of the year. “I call it the ‘accordion effect,’” he says.
When Sherman’s opens in March, it carries 32 flavors. A month later it adds eight more, and then in May another 18. By Memorial Day weekend, the shop scoops 58 flavors. Come fall, Sherman’s dials it back again so that when it closes at the end of October, it’s back to offering 32 flavors.
In addition to ice cream cones, the parlor serves gargantuan scoops of ice cream in glass dishes with long spoons and free coffee in classic diner mugs. “Our ice cream shop has been around for 60 years, so we’re really known as a traditional shop,” says Eisenman.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough is a preferred flavor for Sherman’s customers ordering cones and dishes, Eisenman says.
The new scoop
Still, Eisenman and his employees enjoy tinkering and inventing new flavors during the dairy’s winter months. “When our wholesale customers start ordering in the spring,” he says, “one of their first questions is, ‘What’s new?’” The dairy sells ice cream to about 100 wholesale customers.
This year Sherman’s introduced Oreo Cheesecake, a cheesecake-flavored ice cream with Oreo cookie pieces in it, and Brownie Delight, which features brownie pieces in milk chocolate ice cream swirled with fudge.
“When we create new flavors, most of them turn out to be one- or two-year deals,” says Eisenman. “You make it one year, and everybody’s excited. You bring it back the second year, and it does OK. If you bring it back the third year, it’s going to sit.”
But every once in a while, as with Salted Caramel, they bring out a flavor that becomes a standard.
Plainwell Ice Cream’s Gaylord agrees that Salted Caramel is a flavor trend that isn’t going anywhere. He started making it four years ago when a friend who lived out West suggested it. Immediately, it became his shop’s third most popular flavor.
“It’s still strong,” says Gaylord. “It’s basically become a staple.”
Both Eisenman and Gaylord get new ideas from the flavor companies they buy ingredients from, but usually they or somebody working for them throws out an idea to see if it’s anything they want to try making.
Dean’s Ice Cream owner Gery Bentley, who’s been in the ice cream business for 30 years, agrees that choosing new flavors is intuitive. His business, another popular Plainwell destination, is located at 307 N. Sherwood Ave., scenically situated next to a playground overlooking the Kalamazoo River.
Vanilla, butter pecan and mint chocolate chip, he says, are the popular flavors at Dean’s, which produces about 32 to 35 flavors a year. But Bentley, who has owned Dean’s since 1987, is sometimes surprised by how popular some flavors become. Orange mixed with vanilla, “like an old Dreamsicle,” is one of these for him.
At Apple Knockers, there’s a flavor certain customers order that Sertic doesn’t quite understand. “Rum raisin,” she says. “It’s always a shock for me when people ask for it.”
If you’re craving a brave new world of ice cream, you might put the newly minted Lafayette Creamery on your to-try list. The shop, located at 7933 S. Eighth St., in Texas Corners, creates flavors on site such as Apricot Sumac, Tarrazu Coffee, Cherry English Walnut, cinnamon, and Olive Oil & Salt, in addition to serving its more traditional Sweet Milk Chocolate and Madagascar Vanilla.
Speaking of novelty flavors, Ashby’s Sterling Ice Cream introduced a popular flavor called Michigan Pot Hole two seasons ago that’s sold at Apple Knockers. It’s a chocolate-based ice cream with “tar and asphalt” — chocolate chunks and a fudge swirl. Portions of Michigan Pot Hole’s sales are being donated to fund road repairs in Michigan.
And The Spirit of Kalamazoo, an ice cream and merchandise shop at 154 S. Kalamazoo Mall, began making a coffee milkshake with Plainwell’s Salted Caramel ice cream and cold Water Street coffee a few years ago. It’s topped with whipped cream and a cherry and has been a hit with customers, says Kathleen Widner, co-owner of the shop, which carries all Plainwell Ice Cream.
“The people at Plainwell Ice Cream are truly the experts, in my opinion,” says Widner. She says she is always interested in what Plainwell Ice Cream recommends, like a flavor it started making last year called Oatmeal Chip. Similar in taste to an oatmeal cookie with small chocolate and butterscotch chips, Oatmeal Chip is a flavor Widner believes will grow in popularity this year.
When asked how long he’s been making ice cream, Plainwell’s Gaylord sighs and says, “Forever.”
“I had a lot of ‘doctor and dentist appointments’ during school when I was a kid — I would get picked up early from school to make ice cream,” he says, laughing. “I probably had a pretty thick school folder, you know?”