Above: The Gifford’s Ice Cream dynasty, from left: Roger Gifford, JC Gifford, Lindsay Skilling, Ryan Porter, Samantha Gifford, and John Gifford.
Bolstered by a solid foundation and a newly expanded plant, a fifth generation of Giffords is leading Maine’s iconic ice-cream brand to new heights.
By Elizabeth Peavey
Photographed by Pat Piasecki
[dropcap letter=”I”]t’s 11:55 on a Monday morning in May, and several people are waiting in cars parked outside Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream stand on the outskirts of Skowhegan. At 11:57, two middle-aged women, an elderly couple, and a man dressed in sports gear form a line at the ordering window. At 11:59, the neon lights rimming the underside of the stand’s roof flicker on. A minute later, the window opens, and five people get their weeks off to a very sweet start.
Across town, in a rambling, yellow clapboard warehouse, the magic that draws such a devoted following is taking place. Mixers whirr. Nozzles feed soft, thick ice cream into quart cartons that then rattle, two by two, down a conveyor belt. On the floor above, a warren of cramped offices buzzes with workers making sales calls and discussing marketing strategies — all part of the matrix of business savvy behind every scoop.
It’s an exciting time for the company. A fifth generation of Giffords is at the helm: general manager Lindsay (Gifford) Skilling, 33; VP of sales JC Gifford, 35; marketing manager Samantha Gifford, 26; and the three siblings’ cousin, plant manager Ryan Porter, are keeping their family’s legacy afloat. A new $1.6 million plant expansion allows Gifford’s, with 100 flavors already available from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Nevada, to double its quart-filling capacity from 1 million to 2 million quarts per year. Suddenly, the sky seems to be the limit.
That wasn’t always the case. According to owners Roger and John Gifford — affable, silver-haired men in their early 60s — the company’s humble beginnings date back to the late 19th century and their great-grandfather’s horse-drawn milk and ice-cream delivery business in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. Their parents, Randall and Audrey Gifford, moved to Maine in 1971 to be dairy farmers but continued to make small batches of ice cream as a sideline. Then in 1983, the family sold their liquid milk business to Oakhurst Dairy, allowing Roger and John, then in their late 20s and early 30s, to focus soley on ice cream.
“It was a big gamble,” says John, who is father to the three Giffords on the company’s management team. He and Roger were supporting their young families on the proceeds from the Oakhurst sale and not much more. “There were a lot of sleepless nights and long winters,” John remembers. One-hundred-hour workweeks and holiday deliveries were not uncommon.
The brothers knew they had a quality product, but they needed to increase their output — then 10,000 gallons per year — and also their territory. John hit the road and told anyone who would listen why Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream stands out from the competition: For starters, it rates as a premium ice cream because it has a higher fat content (14 percent butterfat) and less air than regular ice cream. The milk and cream are locally sourced from independent family farms, arriving fresh several times per week. They make 90 percent of their flavorings — the swirls and ripples — from scratch. The ice cream is slow-churned in a 1940s Cherry Burrell ice-cream freezer and later subjected to 60-below-zero temperatures in a hardening tunnel for maximum creaminess. As people heard his story and tasted the ice cream, John won them over. Last year, Gifford’s churned out 2 million gallons of ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sherbet, breaking all previous company records.
Now it’s up to the new management team to accelerate the company’s growth, but they’re not daunted in the least. Like their dad and uncle, working for the company seems a part of their DNA — they’ve been doing it since they were kids. The two sisters attended college in Rhode Island but couldn’t wait to become part of the family business. For them, Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream is Maine, and Maine is home.
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Lindsay, JC, and I don hairnets and take a tour through the factory’s production line and freezers. Lindsay oversees operations of the factory and Gifford’s five seasonal stands, as well as staff, which includes 43 year-round employees. She is at the plant at 6 a.m., despite the fact that she has two small children at home and lives 80 miles away in Gray. She shrugs off the long hours, smiling. “I like to get up early,” she says. But then, she says, there has always been little separation between business and family life for the Gifford clan.
JC presses a button in one of the hardening chambers and an insulated curtain snaps up. A cold rush of wind assaults us. Sales is a different game than when his father was on the road. “These days,” he says, “it’s all about numbers. It’s difficult to get people to listen to your story.” But he has an abiding faith in what he can accomplish when he gets people to listen, and the company has learned to be flexible. Ice-cream preferences, it turns out, are not just personal — they’re also geographic. Take Wild Maine Blueberry, one of Gifford’s signature flavors: it doesn’t fly in the South. “The berries are too subtle for the Southern palate,” JC says, “so we focus on peaches there instead.” In Maine, Grapenut is especially popular in the Rumford-Farmington-Jay triangle. Why? The Giffords aren’t sure. It just is.
Samantha uses social media to expand the company’s profile and encourage consumer involvement, such as flavor selection. Recently, two flavors — Bubblegum and I Scream for Cake — were brought back though a Facebook voting competition — a personal coup, since Bubblegum’s Samantha’s favorite.
So, one has to wonder: Do any of the Giffords ever get sick of eating ice cream? JC offers a resounding “No” and breaks into a contented grin: “Besides, no one is going to buy ice cream off a skinny kid.”