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They’re Scoopin’ Out a Livin’ with Ice Cream

January 2003

Legend has it that Charles I of England once ended a lavish banquet by serving a sweet and creamy concoction created for the first time anywhere by his French chef, who called it simply ice cream.

Or maybe it was Marco Polo, who brought the first sherbet back to Italy from China, who started the ice cream craze. Then again. it could have been the Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar, who is said to have sent slaves into the mountains to transport snow and ice back to Rome to freeze his favorite juices with honey and flower nectar.

When and how ice cream was actually created remains a mystery, but there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Plainwell Ice Cream, owned and operated by Art and Judy Gaylord, is one of the most popular homemade ice-cream establishments in Southwest Michigan.

Their children, Laura and Dave, remember the moment their parents announced they were buying an ice- cream store. lt was 1978. Laura was 10; her brother was 8. “I thought they were crazy,” Dave says, shaking his head. “I thought it was like we had done it here at the house.” He demonstrates turning the handle of an old-fashioned, hand-cranked ice-cream freezer. “That’s what I envisioned, sitting in front of a crank doing this all day.”

Laura had the opposite reaction. “I remember jumping around thinking I’d get all the ice cream I wanted, which is still true. And it’s one of the best benefits. Oh gosh, I eat so much. I shouldn’t say that, but I do.”

Art began making ice cream at The Carousel when he was a West Main Hill neighborhood youngster of 14, inheriting the position from his older brother in 1957. He stayed until enrolling at Western Michigan University four years later.

In college and after, Art knew he wanted a business of his own. He had raced hydroplanes and considered boat building or selling car parts for a while. He worked in insurance and for a small electronics firm. But no matter what he did, he says, the “ice-cream thing” kept reappearing. Conversations with his brother always seemed to come around to someday opening an ice cream store.

In 1974, Art learned that Newman’s Ice Cream was on the market in Plainwell. But the timing was wrong. He and schoolmate Judy Jacobson had married and had two young children. “I was too young, and the family was too young, so we just kind of let it go,” he recalls. Four years later, Newman’s reappeared in the business opportunities section of the Kalamazoo Gazette. The timing was finally right for the Gaylord family to strike out on its own, and Art says they knew they’d never have the opportunity again. So with financial, business and personal support from her parents, Harold and Reva Jacobson, the Gaylords dove into the ice cream business.

Getting the building presentable was the family’s first task. A little paint and some shutters and the place would look great, they thought, but they soon discovered it wasn’t that simple. Each time they finished one project, another appeared, and they were doing it all themselves. Their April 1 opening got pushed back to the 1st of May. And then pushed back again.

Long days melted into late nights as they cleaned and painted and made signs. Awnings outside and curtains inside dressed up the little place, along with a few ice cream-related pictures hung on the wall. They nailed together grillwork for the windows. Judy reaches up and touches a section of it beside her. “Who knew how to do all this stuff?” she asks.

“Literally, the night before (we opened) I was making the sign with all the prices . . . I even spelled the word banana wrong, which nobody caught for a year,” she says with a laugh, then spells her error: b-a-n-n-a-n-a. “But you know, we did all this stuff, saying this is just temporary.” Her voice drops, as if she is divulging a secret. “Most of it is still there now.”

Although they had no experience running a business, it never occurred to Judy and Art that they might not succeed. She says, “I can remember feeling we had no doubt we were going to make it. It was just, if you work, it’ll just come to fruition. You just work. I don’t think either of us went into it with the fear, based on lack of knowledge, of course, that we’d fail. And we just kept working, working, working. Not because you expect it to be right at the first, but you just keep working until you come out of that hole.”

Shortly before their last and actual opening date arrived, the Gaylords realized they had been so focused on getting the place and the equipment ready for business that they had postponed one small step: making ice cream.

Judy says, “We actually never got down to it until just before we opened.” She turns to her husband and says, “I remember you saying, ‘Now we gotta make the product. Gosh, I hope this turns out!”‘

Soon eight flavors of ice cream— vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, black raspberry, lemon chiffon, French mint, chocolate chip and butter pecan — packed in three-gallon boxes sat in the store’s front coolers, waiting for customers. On May 23, 1978, the Plainwell Ice Cream doors opened for business, just in time for the summer rush.

The couple’s days ran together in a blur of scooping ice cream and making ice cream and mopping floors and washing dishes, with help from Laura and Dave and the half-dozen teenagers hired part time. The children sprawled on makeshift beds in the back and dreamed while their parents closed up shop at 11 p.m. every night and began the physically demanding task of making ice cream, arriving home well past midnight.

By October that first year, it was clear that although the business was making money, not much cash was going into the family’s personal bank account. Judy resumed the teaching career she left to be home when the children were small. Art says that saved them. Recently she retired from her position as a fifth-grade teacher at Kalamazoo’s King-Westwood Elementary School.

Alone in the shop, Art occasionally resorted to pulling David out of school for a few hours when he was in third or fourth grade to fold boxes or perform other simple tasks, freeing his dad for the more difficult jobs. Sometimes he even helped make ice cream, filling cartons and maybe filling a little of the room, too, Art recalls.

Dave claims not to remember that, but he does remember washing malt cups out at the sink and bringing up boxes of ice cream from the freezers on weekends. “But mostly, I really just remember riding my bike a lot,” he adds.

From the beginning, the smooth running of the store has depended on the high school and college kids who have come to work there, the Gaylords say. They have been lucky to get such good workers, she adds.

Perhaps luck has played a role in this part of the shop’s success story, but it also says something about the way Judy and Art run their business. “We do get good kids,” he insists, “and when you’re working with good kids, you’ve gotta be awful flexible … they are involved in things – in sports, or in plays or band or whatever, all the school activities. And the key to getting good kids is to realize that, and to work around their schedules. That’s what we try and do.”

He calls this a self-perpetuating system, helping them attract excellent workers. “It becomes kind of a social hub for them. Even when they have different jobs, you’ll still see them back in there just to touch base with the kids that are working.” In some ways, the strong friendships forged over long hours of scooping and serving are similar to those formed in clubs or organizations. For example, when a new teen worker comes to Plainwell Ice Cream, there is almost always an initiation, and it almost always involves water.

Judy recalls one such incident, when several kids hauled pails of water onto the roof just above the back door. The idea, of course, was to soak the new girl when she came out, but somehow their timing was off, and they caught Dave instead! He grabbed the outside hose and retaliated.

Sometimes more than camaraderie develops among the young people who work in the store. Judy mentions Ted Lowis, who began working there when he was 14, continuing until he completed his engineering degree. Later, after his divorce, he came back to Michigan and worked one summer, where he met fellow scooper Ayron Cook. When Ayron needed a date to her senior prom, Ted volunteered to escort her. Four years later, after she graduated from college, the couple married.

Theirs is not the only romance kindled in the shop. Judy shuffles through a box of pictures on a table, occasionally pulling out this photograph or another saying, “They’re married now. So are they. And these two.” She has dozens of employee pictures, many in a collage on a huge bulletin board that hangs on the wall just around the corner from the scooping area. Some reveal young people in gowns and tuxedos on prom night promenades through the store for their coworkers’ and bosses’ benefit.

It is clear that Judy and Art consider these young people not just employees but members of an enormous extended family. She indicates photos of sisters and brothers who have made working at the shop a family tradition, just as Art followed his older brother at The Carousel.

“She came in here with her mother one day when she was about 7 years old, and she said to me, ‘One day I’m going to work here.’ And she did. That’s her picture right there,” Judy says, pointing to a teen-age girl in the collage. Another underwent chemotherapy and radiation for ovarian cancer; her large eyes smile out from beneath her smooth, hairless head. She’s at college now, Judy says, and doing well.

Besides scooping, the kids sometimes serve another important function: suggesting and testing new flavors. Although customers may never find the yam anchovy prune pastrami or butter brickle pepper pickle flavors lurking in the freezers of the fictional Ebenezer Bleezer’s ice cream store, they may discover some unique offerings from time to time at Plainwell Ice Cream.

“Like our chocolate Irish cream we came up with a year or so ago,” Dave begins. One of the scoopers came up with that one, Judy interjects. “So we made some, and basically passed around some cups and had the employees try it,” Dave continues. “And I think we actually had a couple of customers in at the time and had them try it and see what they thought, too.” The consensus was that it was good.

An idea for a new flavor may come from a family member or a flavor company, or occasionally customers will describe something they’ve had elsewhere or suggest that two flavors might be good mixed, like chocolate and orange sherbet. If it sounds interesting, Dave and Art experiment with a recipe and make a small batch to try it out.

Sometimes the result is unexpected. Asked if there is one flavor they all hated, Art replies, “That’s a matter of opinion.”

But Laura, Dave and Judy proclaim, in unison, attempting to drown him out, “Rum raisin!” Even Laura’s four-year-old son Nicholas screws up his face and says, “Noooo. I didn’t like that one.” Art, however, lists it as one of his two favorite flavors (along with chocolate hazelnut), so it regularly appears on the menu.

According to Dave, most customers — 75 percent, he estimates — order the same thing each time they come in. There are some exceptions; and Laura mentions a notable one: “There’s one man who comes in every year, and he starts with the top flavor (on the posted list) and starts going down. (He’ll say), ‘Well, I had chocolate last time, so this time the next one down is French mint. (Then) ‘I had French mint the last time, and the next one down is black cherry.’ So that’s what he has. And then there’s the other customers that you could have their pineapple malt made for them before they get in the door, because you know that’s what they want.”

Although Plainwell Ice Cream has retained its charm and smalltown friendliness, as well as most of the original equipment, some changes have accompanied its growth. Those eight original ice cream flavors have swelled to 60 annually, and the number of freezers needed to hold them has leaped from one to four. Ice cream still is produced using only the highest quality ingredients, such as real vanilla extract instead of artificial flavoring, and the amount of butterfat has increased from 12 to 14 percent.

And on any given day, customers will still find Art or Judy or Dave or Laura, or some combination of them, behind the counter, scooping ice cream for cones or preparing shakes, malts and sundaes, just as they always have. This family presence, Art believes, has been a significant component in the store’s success.

There are other factors, as well. The Gaylords learned early to follow their own business instincts, in spite of expert advice. Art says, “I’m not a great believer in all the truisms I read in all these business books. Like you have to have a (five-year or 10-year) plan. And I don’t think each year has to be a record year. This is nonsense for a small business.”

He continues: “I’d get upset, I suppose, if I saw it continually going down year after year, but there’s too many variables out there. Weather, in our business, can be a big thing. The 9-11 thing affected us, affected everybody. It all balances out someplace. Maybe the fall weather stays warm longer, so you get it back. You could drive yourself crazy, and I’m not. So, that’s part of the fun of it – most of the time.”

Each October, Plainwell Ice Cream closes and reopens in March, a schedule begun after the first year, when Art says they finally figured out they could not work 16 hours straight, day after day. During this off season, Dave and Art tear down and rebuild equipment, do routine maintenance on the building and make ice cream for the wholesale side of the business, which has expanded from two accounts when the store opened to 30 accounts today.

The wholesale business makes up about half the shop’s sales by volume. Plainwell Ice Cream is served at two area country clubs, upscale restaurants, little ice cream scooping parlors and cafes, pharmacies, and pizza places like Sajo’s in Delton, one of their first wholesale clients.

Even when the shop is closed, someone in the family, or occasionally an employee like Bob Burger, a retired City of Kalamazoo firefighter who helps make ice cream, still goes in every day to check out freezers and other equipment. Only once in all these years did that not happen. Judy and Art were vacationing in Nevis, an island in the Caribbean, and Dave was out of town for just one day. What could happen in a day?

Imagine ice-cream cartons, each holding three gallons, stacked row upon row in a pyramid formation like cheerleaders standing on each others’ shoulders, every row seven feet tall, collapsing, their contents oozing out of the crumpled boxes, flavors and colors mingling into a smelly sludge thick on the freezer floor. That’s the scene that greeted Laura when she answered her brother’s SOS call after he discovered a compressor motor had burned out and a freezer had warmed to 50 degrees the day he was away.

Because Dave was on crutches and incapacitated from knee surgery, the cleanup fell to Laura and Bob and Kristen, Dave’s wife. That day, Laura says, they used shovels to scoop nearly a thousand gallons of ice cream off the shop’s floors.

Yet with all the grueling 16-hour days, the messes to clean up, the stress of being responsible for everything from the quality of the ice cream to balancing the books to mopping the floors, Judy and Art agree that starting and running a small business while raising their children has provided their family a unique and valuable way of life. “I mean, it’s very few families that have the opportunity to work together and enjoy the growth of the business together. And it gave us flexibility to squeeze other activities in together we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Art says.

Activities like travel and supporting Dave during the eight years he spent chasing the pro motocross circuit around the country. Art describes the motorcycles as dirt bikes: “Like you see on television where they jump around,” he prompts.

His parents and sister snicker when Dave mentions “a couple” of broken bones and surgeries in his career. He starts counting them, (”S, 6, 7 … “) but quickly changes the subject, explaining that they often crammed ice cream making in around his racing schedule. On Fridays, he and his dad would dash off on weekend jaunts to Ohio, New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, race for a couple of days, and drive straight back to the shop to make ice cream early Monday morning.

“And everybody could cover for everybody else as the kids got older. We would leave Laura … in charge of the shop for long weekends while we were off on trips,” Art adds.

Dave admits to being “pretty good” at his sport, generally finishing in the top 15-20 in the national races. For a couple of years he quit racing, heeding the advice of University of Michigan doctors who warned that after four knee surgeries he was out of spare parts. But his passion for the sport triumphed over caution, and he’s back on the circuit — as an amateur this time — restricting travel to within the state and competing just for fun.

Neither Laura nor Dave intended to stay in the ice cream business as adults. She earned a degree in English. But as the mother of two young children, the flexibility that allows Dave to pursue racing enables her to schedule work around the demands of a growing family. That’s especially important, she notes, because her husband, Craig Girolami, works long hours in his role as chef and general manager of Kalamazoo’s Park Club.

When one of her children is sick, or other unforeseen circumstances arise, Judy will either work for her daughter at the shop or keep the kids while Laura works. This cooperative approach serves both their personal needs and the best interests of the shop.

Although the Gaylords won’t say for sure what the future holds for the family and the store, a third generation of scoopers is waiting in the wings for their chance to participate in what Judy describes as a “happy business.”

At 11, Dave and Kristen’s daughter, Whitney, already loves to help out in the ice cream arena. “She’d work tomorrow if we’d let her,” Judy declares. Laura’s older son, Jacob, 6, has been a shop fixture since Uncle Dave slipped him his first taste of ice cream when he was just 5-months-old. “From there on, it was all down hill,” Laura says, shrugging. Judy adds that Jacob and Whitney often call to see if they’re “on the schedule” to work on the weekend. Like their parents before them, they don Plainwell Ice Cream shirts and help stock up, bring up cups and set them out for sundaes and malts, and haul ice cream into the front freezers.

“Sometimes Jacob will say, ‘Mom, I’m too weary to work this week,’ and I’ll say OK,” Laura says. “I tried to give him an allowance this year, and he said, ‘No, I work at the ice-cream store. I don’t need an allowance; I get paid.”‘ His salary, Judy notes, is one dollar.

Nicholas, just four and a half, is too young to start working, his mother explains. “Because you have to be five. So he’s waiting until he’s five, and he’ll decide whether he wants to do that.”

Although Judy and Art are devoted to the business that has allowed them to determine and achieve their own goals and set their own schedules, and which has helped keep this Kalamazoo family close across generations, the time will come when they leave their grown-up baby in the hands of others. Perhaps a Gaylord family presence will remain at Plainwell Ice Cream, but that will be Dave and Laura’s decision; Laura says her parents have been clear about that from the beginning. What happens next will evolve naturally, according to Art, just as other changes have evolved over the years, without a precise plan. But for the foreseeable future, the whole family still will respond on those hot summer days when people from all over Southwest Michigan and other states and countries crowd around the shop’s counter and line up outside the windows, all screaming for ice cream.

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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