STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LILY MELLOR
Colorful vintage signs line the walls of the front office of the Wilcox Ice Cream factory in Sunderland. The signs paint a vivid portrait of the history of an iconic family-owned business. A framed receipt of a transaction between the Wilcox family farm and the Equinox Hotel from 1889 rests in a prominent alcove, paying homage to the early origins of their dairy business in the 19th century.
The Wilcox family first settled in Vermont in the early 1800s in Sandgate. In 1928, just a little more than a century later, third-generation Wilcox family members Dutch and Roger Wilcox began making ice cream. Refrigeration technology was still in its early development back then, so their ice cream was made in small, on-demand batches with ice that was harvested during the winter from nearby Equinox Pond. Many things have changed since those early days, but after all these years, not only is Wilcox Ice Cream still faithfully serving Vermont and neighboring states with their delicious products, but they have also prevailed over enormous adversity and come back stronger than ever. They have taken their business in new and exciting directions—all while remaining an honest, family-owned company founded on hardworking Vermont values.
In 2001, a tragic fire destroyed the milking plant and ice cream–production facility at the old Wilcox Ice Cream factory. Much was lost on that day, but the Wilcox family never lost hope. After vowing to find a way to continue carrying on their legacy of ice cream excellence, they moved to four different locations in Vermont, to upstate New York, and to Massachusetts during the 14 years following the calamitous fire in order to continue making their ice cream true to their recipe. In this time of transition, fourth- and fifth-generation family members Howard and Christina Wilcox worked 20-hour days every production period to ensure that their ice cream still made it to local shelves. Their years of hard work paid off. They moved into their new facility in Sunderland in 2015, which has given them the opportunity to increase their output, to streamline their logistics, and to make a permanent home for their ice cream–making operation.
Specialized knowledge passed down from generation to generation has resulted in a finely tuned, hands-on system. It starts out with an ice cream mix base made to Wilcox family recipe specifications with Vermont milk sourced from St. Albans Creamery. The base is shipped to Wilcox Ice Cream’s factory in 300-gallon containers in both sweet cream and chocolate flavors. First, the ice cream base is poured into a 100-gallon flavoring vat in which other ingredients are mixed. Initially, the flavors and colors start out simple, such as sweet cream or vanilla, with few additional ingredients other than the mix bases themselves. As the process continues, colors become darker and flavors become more complex as more ingredients are added, allowing maximum efficiency so that different types of ice cream can be concocted without having to clean out the flavoring vats and to start over every time a new variety is made.
After the flavoring process, the cream base is fed into their Cherry-Burrell ice cream machine, where the mix is frozen while rotating blades churn the ice cream. An external tube pumps air into the machine, aerating the ice cream and making it creamy and luxurious. At the end of the process, the ice cream comes out on the other end, ready to be packaged for sale.
Each container of Wilcox ice cream is packaged by hand, from the four-ounce cups to the three-gallon tubs. Usually, Wilcox’s resident fourth-generation craftsman extraordinaire and “flavor master” Howard is manning the front end of the machine, while his daughter, Christina, is on the other end filling the various-size containers at breakneck speed. It’s a beautiful sight to see generations of a family business working seamlessly together at such a fast pace, but for the Wilcox family, it’s just another day on the job. In the words of Christina herself, “As long as my dad is feeding mix into the machine, I’m on the other end filling it.”
In addition to ice cream, the Wilcox operation has expanded to include numerous delicious treats and business ventures. One of the things that kept them going through the trials and tribulations after the fire was their ability to adapt and employ new operational strategies. To that end, they have become a distribution hub for hundreds of different kinds of tasty goods for several other companies. More than 1,200 products—ranging from cookies and snacks to gluten-free foods, baked goods, and ice cream bars—are stocked in their enormous walk-in freezer. They take pride in their ability to coordinate efficient delivery logistics and to help both small, local businesses and national corporations with distribution to local shops and markets.
In line with forward-thinking sustainable practices, the Wilcox family takes great care to thoughtfully maximize the energy efficiency of their routes, as Christina explains, “We call it ‘driving green.’ While en route to distribute products, our driver might also be picking up cookies that we’re going to sell as part of our products. There’s no reason to have them shipped any other way. Throughout the day, we’re dropping off and we’re also picking up.”
The new factory has also allowed them to grow into new markets with inventive and fun new ice cream products. New to the menu of appetizing offerings are their Bombes—chocolate-coated and candy-dipped, single-serving circular ice cream mounds. The Bombes are currently available in peppermint stick, salted caramel, and bourbon-infused triple-chocolate flavors. Also new are the hand-dipped 802 Bars, which come in espresso, black raspberry, vanilla, chocolate, and nondairy citrus, raspberry, and mango sorbet flavors.
Cooperative efforts with Buzz Bar, a California-based alcohol-infused ice cream company, have resulted in a spectacularly unique line of desserts. Wilcox Ice Cream handles production for all 10 of Buzz Bar’s sweet spirit-infused snack selections. Available in both dairy and nondairy varieties, flavor highlights include the decadently delicious bourbon-infused Bourbon St. Chocolate bar and the tantalizingly tasty tequila-infused Majestic Mango sorbet bar.
In the production process for the Bourbon St. Chocolate bar, modern technology is seamlessly integrated with traditional ice cream making methods. First, Wilcox makes a bourbon-infused ice cream mix and fills individual serving–size molds with it. The molds are then placed in a special Italian Technogel Polo Stick machine that uses glycol to flashfreeze the ice cream through the molds. Last, once frozen, the ice cream is dipped in a chocolate mix, after which it is packaged for sale. It’s a beautiful and satisfying sight to see layers of rich chocolate mesmerizingly gleam on the bars as they are being dipped. Wilcox takes pride in their hands-on approach to ice cream making, and each one of these temptingly tipsy treats are made with attention, love, and care.
Holding themselves to a high standard of honesty and transparency, Wilcox Ice Cream has launched a special new line of all-natural ice cream, sold at co-op markets in the regional area. With no artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, or sweeteners, and no genetically modified organisms, the line is called “Eve,” which is short for Everything You Want and Nothing You Don’t. With its delicious flavor and natural ingredients, the Eve line proves that sometimes the best way to move forward is to take things back to the basics.
When the Wilcox family first entered the ice cream business nearly a century ago, there were no artificial ingredients used in any aspect of their ice cream making process. All of the ice cream was made to order, which was a labor of love that brought the family and community together. Today, even through all of the changes that technology and distribution methods have brought to the ice cream business, Wilcox
Ice Cream has managed to adapt to the modern marketplace while still holding fast to the same philosophy that made their ice cream great from the beginning—clean flavors made with care.
If you go to a local supermarket on the right day, you might even be fortunate enough to see Howard himself still loading pints of ice cream onto the freezer shelves. Despite the growth and new ventures, he still understands the worth of accountability and human connection. When asked the secret to their longevity and continued success, Christina offered, “Perseverance. In our family we like to say we have that word tattooed on our foreheads. I always felt a great deal of pride in being able to continue with what someone before me started, and that carries a lot of weight for me, because I know how hard the previous generation worked.”
With a traditional, hands-on approach to ice cream making, a fiercely persistent work ethic, and forward-thinking business strategies, Wilcox Ice Cream shows that the secret ingredients in the recipe for success might just be adaptability and dedication. When the Wilcox family comes together to do what they love, the results are every bit as sweet as each bite of the rich and velvety ice cream that bears their family name.
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