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The Flavor of Plainwell

Three generations of the Gaylord family run Plainwell Ice Cream Co., from left: Jake Girolami (grandson); Art and Judy Gaylord (parents), Connor Gaylord (grandson) and David Gaylord (son). Not picture is Laura Girolami (daughter).
‘Good people’ making good ice cream for 47 years

About 30 minutes north of Kalamazoo, in the quiet town of Plainwell, is an ice cream shop that is anything but quiet. From March to November, it’s not uncommon to see eager eaters waiting in a long line snaking out the door and around the corner of the small shop on Bridge Street.

But the scoop behind the Plainwell Ice Cream shop is that it has survived and thrived thanks to three generations of the Gaylord family.

“This is the 47th season now. We’re in the third generation, not just of our family, but three generations that have grown up eating Plainwell Ice Cream,” says David Gaylord, 53, the son of Art and Judy Gaylord, who bought the former Newman’s Ice Cream shop 46 years ago and renamed it Plainwell Ice Cream Co.

“It’s interesting when some original employees come in and bring their grandkids. It’s literally three generations across the board now. Not just our family, but the community.”

When the Gaylords took on making ice cream, they didn’t realize that not only would their frozen treats become popular beyond the borders of this town of 3,700, but that having Plainwell Ice Cream would become an iconic and memorable experience for many people.

“It’s kind of turned into a destination business,” says Gaylord. “We have a lot of customers from a wide area and a lot of out-of-state people that come every summer when it’s part of their vacation plans. You know, ‘Hey, we’re coming to Michigan. We’re coming in.’

“You don’t realize how many people it impacts until you get an email sometime that says somebody’s mom died and they had Plainwell Ice Cream at the funeral because ‘We went there every Sunday’ for however many years. It’s really an important piece of a lot of people’s lives and growing up.”

When Encore first wrote about Plainwell Ice Cream in January 2003, Art and Judy Gaylord were running the business and their kids Laura and David worked there. Now David Gaylord and Laura Girolami run the shop, and their kids work there as well. Things were a lot easier in the ice cream business back then, notes David.

“Everything was a lot easier across the board, from employees to supplies to everything,” he says. “It’s a lot more difficult now with suppliers to buy quantities that we need to purchase. We’re small potatoes here, and that makes purchasing difficult, because everyone wants to sell you a semi-load of everything, and that doesn’t work for small businesses.”

Change happens

Some changes came about organically as markets and economics evolved over the decades, but others were brought about by the upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the pandemic affected every single aspect of the business, Gaylord says, its most dramatic effect was on the shop’s service.

“It changed processes up front quite a bit,” he says. “It was a number system before, and there would be 100 people jammed in. Nobody could move, and you don’t know who you’re waiting on. But the system that we went with (during Covid) is what we’ve continued with, which has worked out way better as far as the service side goes. It’s much more organized, more clear-cut — who’s waiting on you, who’s helping you. You are ordering in one spot as opposed to previously it was kind of a free-for-all in here.”

Other changes to the business have come about as the younger generations have become more involved. Grandson Jake Girolami, 27, not only brings his technical savvy to running the business’s social media but also prompted the shop to offer non-dairy options.

“I brought them the idea of doing non-dairy ice cream because I’ve been vegan for a while,” says Girolami. “If I’m going out with my girlfriend’s family, they’re going to go to a restaurant where I can also eat. So if one person in a family can get something really good here, that’s going to bring their whole family here over and over.”

As the shop’s popularity has grown, it has expanded its flavor offerings and the availability of the ice cream. The company makes 40,000 gallons each year, has 53 flavors, and sells its ice cream in 30 locations in the region, from Holland to Battle Creek to Paw Paw. But rather than following national flavor trends, like the current rage for Southwest-inspired tastes, Plainwell’s ice cream innovations tend to develop more spontaneously, Gaylord says.

“Following the flavor trends is not so much in our area,” he says. “We just look around the cooler, see what we have, see what different combinations of stuff might sound really good or might be unique or different. It’s not scientific. We say, ‘OK, it might be about this much flavor, and then you taste it and go, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’

“I think we definitely stick to what we think we can do and what our customers would want.”

Employees ‘make the business’

That said, the Gaylords are content to keep the business mostly as it is — a part of the community that fostered it and a business that continues to provide the same service and quality. Most of the employees are local high school students who work there during the summer and are often the face of Plainwell Ice Cream.

“I want to stress that the biggest thing that has made the business what it is is our employees, even more so than our ice cream,” Gaylord says. “We’ve consistently had really good kids (as employees).

When we get comments, it’s, ‘Yeah, ice cream’s great, but, oh, so-and-so’s such a good server.’ That’s as important as having good ice cream. If we just had good ice cream and crappy employees, it wouldn’t matter.”

And lest you think that making ice cream is a seasonal gig because the shop is only open eight months of the year, the Gaylords are busy all year long making ice cream that is sold elsewhere year-round.

Which brings up one change that grandson Girolami says he has suggested the company make: “A 50-year-old retirement age,” he says to laughter from Gaylord, who is sitting nearby. Even today, Art and Judy Gaylord, now in their 80s, still work at the business.

“People know my grandparents. People know our family,” Girolami says. “It’s not like being a celebrity, but people just know that you do good work and that you’re good people.”

Jarret Whitenack

An intern at Encore, Jarret hails from Oregon, where he recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in history.

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