In 1995, shortly after returning from a family trip to the southwestern United States, I read that Breyers Ice Cream, founded right after the Civil War in the Richmond section of Philadelphia, was leaving the city for a more modern facility in Framingham, MA.
I grew up near the Breyers plant in Southwest Philly. For me, Breyers was the epitome of what ice cream manufacturers refer to as a “Philadelphia style” ice cream — made without eggs. But for those who had spent decades in the city, Breyers was more than that.
If a tourist purchased a vanilla ice cream cone from a shop that sold either Bassetts or Breyers ice cream, they might look in disgust at the tiny specks in the product they received, thinking that dirt had somehow infiltrated the container. But Philly cognoscenti knew that those were vanilla bean seeds. Over the last 20 years people from all over the country came to see those specks as a symbol of the ice cream’s authenticity, not realizing that they were once a “Philadelphia thing” exclusively.
Ice cream in Philadelphia also provided opportunities for certain disenfranchised groups to excel. Nancy Johnson of West Philly received a patent for the first modern, hand-cranked, “artificial (ice cream) freezer” in 1846. African Americans sold excellent ice cream from street carts. The confectioner Augustus Jackson, also African American, became wealthy from ice cream he sold from two stores in South Philadelphia.
But Breyers’ closing extended beyond its cultural effect on the city. Two hundred people lost their jobs at a time when Philadelphia was bleeding 10,000 jobs annually.
After trying unsuccessfully to get various unions, non-profits, and others to fill this void, in the late 1990s, we reluctantly began Chilly Philly with the launch of a single flavor: Philly Vanilly. Within three weeks, we were given our first lesson in the rapidly changing world of food economics. Many of the markets that we had approached would only accept deliveries from one distributor — Jack & Jill, a company that had no desire to take us on as a client. In fact, no distributor wanted us as a client. At the same time, Chilly Willy, based in the Midwest, was suing us for trademark infringement.
All of a sudden, everything turned right side up. Jack & Jill decided to get out of the market distribution business, we entered into an agreement with Chilly Willy, and we began our relationship with Bassetts Ice Cream, which has lasted for 20 years.
Somehow, we managed to keep our company alive for two decades. During that time, we saw the local foods movement grow and flourish. Among the beneficiaries of this movement was the ice cream industry. In addition to Bassetts, a number of new companies were born — Capogiro Gelato, Little Baby’s, Zsa’s, Franklin Fountain — offering Philadelphians a wide selection of excellent products.
It saddens me to announce that we will be exiting the ice cream renaissance we helped to create. Although our business was profitable, our manufacturer, Nelson’s Ice Cream in Royersford, has ceased production. Other attempts to find a new manufacturer have been unsuccessful.
Although you will not see our product in the frozen food section, it does not mean that we have left this world behind us. There have been great strides to keep the money that we spend within the city and its surrounding communities, but we recognize there is a lot that still needs to be done. A quarter of the city’s population lives in poverty, without the purchasing power to buy any of these great local brands. Recently, we have become involved in the Co-op’s New Economy committee in the hope of building a just, sustainable, industrial base in Philadelphia. Stay tuned.
Coleman Poses is cofounder of Chily Philly Ice Cream. He and his wife, Ilene, are longtime Co-op members and live in Mt. Airy.